Cops is usually cited as Buster Keaton's most famous and popular short film, which it certainly is. Although I still maintain The Boat is a more cynical picture, the inescapable, damning indictment of a laughable justice system and Buster's brutal mistreatment from an uncaring Fate has earned Cops a laudable reputation among fans of all things Kaftaesque. The popularity of the film stems from the simplicity of the plot and the absurdity with which the dangers escalate. Buster is a regular Joe who, through a battering of unheard-of rotten luck, becomes public enemy number one, with the entire city's police force on his tail. Cops is a prime example of things going from bad to worse in ludicrous and unbelievable ways. This is usually something I admire in a Keaton film, however, a few too many of the complications in Cops are a little too unbelievable, veering into the "cartoon gag" territory Keaton decried after what he considered the shortcomings of The High Sign. Despite some instances of impossible spatial continuity, Cops is a remarkably well-constructed picture. It's a rare treat for Keaton to stage such a coup de maitre in an entirely urban milieu (Buster being the master of faithfully recreated rural epics), but the vertiginous faces of Los Angeles buildings and the eerie, empty boulevards more than suffice for the lack of cliffs, rivers and trees from which to stage daring stunts.
But, let's back up and start at the beginning. Buster is talking with his girl (Virginia Fox) from behind bars. It appears to be a poignant jail scene of lovers cruelly parted by the law, but no! Cut to a wide shot and we see is talking to her through the girl's large front gate. It turns out the lovers aren't separated by legality, but by finance. She's the wealthy daughter of the mayor and gives Buster an ultimatum: become a big businessman or forget about me. Gulp. This is the kind of set-up Buster loved, getting into the mind of the audience and then subverting their expectations. The threefold, sudden-surprise-shock laugh is a hallmark of Keaton comedy.
And here is where the bum luck sets in. See, Buster is a good man who does good, moral things. He believes in hard work, in self-betterment--the American dream. Buster spots a rich man (Joe Roberts) drop his wallet. Buster races to return it to him. Roberts doesn't want anything to do with shabby-looking Buster and shoves him aside roughly. Okay, Buster thinks, if that's how you want it, then that's how you'll get it. Buster fakes a fall and the two men collide in a bit of vaudeville tumbling. The rich man gets back in his car only to discover his wallet is missing. Buster's come up with it, a reluctant, but not unwilling pickpocket. Crime number one.
Again Buster tries to do right, and again the universe screws him (if ever there was a moral to the Buster Keaton oeuvre, that'd be as good a candidate as any.) A ne'er-do-well spies Buster with the money roll and concocts a plot; behind him a family has just finished putting all their possessions on the curb for a moving man to collect. The ne'er-do-well cons Buster into believing he's been thrown out of his apartment and if Buster doesn't buy the possessions, his family will starve. Okay, Buster thinks, a good business deal and a kind deed. I'll do it! The owner comes out of the apartment and seeing Keaton loading the stuff into a horse cart, thinks he's the moving man, each blissfully unaware of the others' true identity.
The overloaded horse cart makes for a good comic prop shop. After being bitten by a dog while signaling for a turn, Buster fashions a turn signal from an accordion rack and a boxing glove. Allowing easy manipulation of the unwieldy vehicle, it's a stroke of inventive genius...until it decks a traffic cop. Twice. Buster skedaddles out of one scrape and into the hornet's nest--a police parade. Buster is baffled but enjoying the crowd's applause when suddenly--death from above! An anarchist's bomb is thrown and lands neatly next to Buster who, looking for a match to lit his cigarette, finds one pre-lit. How delightful! I couldn't find a match and here's this gift from the sky. Maybe my luck is turning... He tosses the bomb aside carelessly. It explodes in a crowd of uniformed policemen. Chaos reigns. Spectators (including his gal and her father, the mayor) scatter, a water main bursts, the cart collapses and Buster speeds away on foot, an accidental terrorist.
The chase, as the say, is on. Keaton milks it for all it's worth, orchestrating some of the most ingenious set-ups, gags and escapes every collected in a single picture. Hoards of cops fill the frame, descending like locusts on the scene of Buster's last suspected appearance. Buster, for his part, engages in a series of near-impossible gags, emerging from under umbrellas, the insides of trashcans, even from under the necktie he's using as a disguise. The sequence is a recast of Where's Waldo?, red and white striped beanie supplanted by humble porkpie.
In one brilliantly framed shot, Buster runs from off camera, straight toward the center of the frame, the apex of a triangular building. On either side of the building, policemen swarm to apprehend him. Buster feints left, feints right, and then nonchalantly walks through the door of the building. He lingers there only long enough for the cops to pass each other, then opens the door, looks right, looks left, and bolts back the way he came, out of frame. An immobile camera, a single shot. The symmetry of the image is deceptively simple but expertly executed. Like all of Cops, it's the shot selection, mostly in medium-long or long shots, that dwarfs Keaton, visually imprisoning him between buildings, telephone polls, under bridges and always in the thick of the police.
In another show-stopping gag, Buster runs up a ladder balanced over a fence. Just then, another cop tugs on the ladder and Buster shimmies to the other side. Watch out! Now cops are pouring in from either side, leaving Buster scrambling from either end of this makeshift seesaw. More and more cops are coming in from one side now, and Buster, sensing this, positions himself near the end of the ladder and hunches down. The force of the police on one side launches Buster into the air, whipping him across the street...straight into the rich man, Joe Roberts! Obliging even in the face of catastrophe, Buster begins to help the man to his feet, before he realizes it's the last guy on earth he wants to meet. Buster runs.
Meanwhile, we cut back to the poor moving family, still waiting for their possessions. The father, fed up with the wait, grabs his hat and jacket and turns towards the camera. It's a policeman's uniform. He's a cop. Of course.
Now we're hurtling towards an ending--the chase can't contain itself. In a medium shot, Buster runs into the shelter of a nondescript building. Finally, a sanctuary! The cops--dozens, hundreds--pour in after him. We cut to a wide shot and see the building is actually the precinct police station. Oh, poor Buster! Even more cops crowd inside. The gag is turned on its head. No longer is Keaton merely being hunted; the policemen are merely returning to work! But what's this? As the last policeman enters through the double doors, a small figure slips out and, locking the doors behind him, flips the key in a nearby trash can. Could it be? It is! Buster triumphant, complete with spiffy uniform. It's a brilliant touch not showing what calamities occurred inside the station, how Buster managed to obtain the uniform of the key. Just another example of Keaton's use of space, and static camera, to slowly sustain tension. No cutting, the scene merely plays out in front of you, the comic beats occurring naturally. The laughs come from not knowing.
Suddenly, Buster's girl appears, takes one look at his uniform, sniffs, and stalks away in a huff. A cop?! Not good enough for the mayor's daughter. Buster can't believe it (neither can we.) Resignedly, he retrieves the key from the trash, opens the doors and is yanked inside by the cops. The film fades out and we're treated to one of the blackest toppers to any comedy--
--a grave stone marked 'The End.' On top of the stone, Buster's trademark porkpie hat. No name, just a symbol. The anonymous man, a nobody, rejected by his gal and with no where to turn--a delicious dark comic prospect.
As Rudi Blesh wrote in Keaton: "It is a man completely alone and fleeing before his fellow men. It is fate operating through accident and misunderstanding, nullifying good intentions, canceling hope, bringing ruin. In the police en masse against the lone individual, Keaton found the perfect embodiment of his hostile machine-man concept, of fateful accident without saving miracle" (Blesh, 199). Yeah, sounds about right.