Cop a Feel: Probable Cause (1994)

Dave nods approvingly at a telepic soaking in substance.

Six months after PROBABLE CAUSE premiered on Showtime in November ’94, screenwriter Hal Salwen was on a plane to Cannes where his directorial debut, Denise Calls Up (1995), was the only American film to be honoured at the festival that year. Two years after that, Variety named him as one of ‘The Top Ten Filmmakers To Watch’ alongside Wes Anderson, Mary Harron, and Alfonso Cuarón. This seemingly meteoric rise, though, can be traced back to the early ’80s where, on the strength of a student short, Salwen was admitted into the AFI’s internship program. Soon, he was on the set of Staying Alive (1983) and watching Sylvester Stallone in the director’s chair. Alas, work wasn’t forthcoming and the budding creative spent the rest of the decade as a PA on various low budget movies and television commercials.

However, when Touchstone Pictures optioned his script ‘Girls Talk’, Salwen found his status momentarily elevated. A partnership with the perennially busy Paul Ziller resulted in the cable smash Deadly Surveillance (1991). Originally touted as a theatrical outing, its eventual telepic status suited it more, highlighting to a broader audience the way Salwen’s dexterous penmanship dovetailed with Ziller’s lean directing style.

On the face of it, Probable Cause feels like a follow-up. Same writer, same director, and same lead actor (Michael Ironside) — but it comes with a better rep and a slightly more brooding tone. Ironside plays Gary Yanuck, a decorated detective under investigation for sexual harassment based on an allegation from his former partner (Brooke Adams). Lynn Reilly (Kate Vernon) is assigned to be his new sidekick, with Yanuck’s boss, Lt. Whitmore (Craig. T. Nelson), reasoning that a good professional relationship with another female should add a little credibility to his defence should he need it. In addition to this, a series of cop killings are plaguing the city, spreading anxiety among the force, and causing Yanuck to cast a suspicious glance at those closest to him — even Reilly, whose somnambulism is becoming increasingly concerning…

The iciness of Edmonton adds intrigue and complexity to Salwen’s already intricate script. There’s a real mood to it all, amplified by the solemnity that Ironside carries for the duration. Him, Nelson, Vernon, and Kirk Baltz layer Probable Cause with an impressive amount of texture that enhances the gender politics at the centre of its narrative. “Women shouldn’t be cops, Yanuck. You oughta know that more than anyone,” is a key line in the final reel, underlining the sexism that permeates Whitmore’s precinct; from Yanuck’s accuser instantly being given the cold shoulder, to the quiet bigotry that greets Reilly. Moreover, it enables Salwen to deliver a gut-punch of a resolution, and, in turn, nail a captivating thriller that’s as topical as it is enthralling.

Canada ● 1994 ● Thriller, TVM ● 90mins

Michael Ironside, Kate Vernon, Craig T. Nelson, Kirk Baltz, M. Emmet Walsh ● Dir. Paul Ziller ● Wri. Hal Salwen, story by Paul Ziller

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