(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
If Chaplin needed an “excuse” for his Essanay period, Police is surely it. Here is where he gets all of his themes, ideas, and characters into one unified mass.
The movie begins with Charlie being released from prison. A nearby parson hones in on him, begging him, “Let me help you go straight.” The parson soon has Charlie reduced to tears, to the point that he keeps himself from nabbing a nearby drunk’s pocketwatch. Later, Charlie comes back to discover that the same parson has nabbed the pocketwatch for himself. When another parson wants to help Charlie “go straight,” Charlie’s high-kicking suddenly has a point to it – and it hastens the plot of the movie.
Charlie chases away the well-meaning parson and is soon enough mugged himself – except that the mugger recognizes Charlie from prison and hoists him into another heist, that of a well-off dowager (Edna Purviance). Edna soon enough notices the burglars and tries to phone the cops about them – but, far, from being Keystone Kops, they’re quite leisurely in their pursuit, sipping tea and talking over the day’s events before settling upon their latest call.
Edna is far from a cowering female, though. When Charlie’s partner wants to go upstairs, Edna asks him not to, as her ailing mother is up there and the shock would kill her. When he refuses to acquiesce, Charlie keeps him from getting upstairs, and soon enough, he turns tail and runs. When the police finally arrive and try to grab Charlie, Edna says he’s her husband, whereupon Charlie assumes all the bonhomie you could ask for, politely talking to the cops and inching them out the door. Edna, too, wants to “help him go straight,” but he’s heard that one too many times. So he saunters out to freedom, only to have one more cop on his tail.
Police is a wonderful ending to Chaplin’s Essanay period, and a sign of greater things to come. It was obvious by this point that Keystone-type two-reelers wouldn’t contain what he had to say, about his character and that character’s reflection on the society that made him.