Joseph Wambaugh (The Onion Field) was a California cop for 14 years before he began at the age of 30 to write about the policeman's way of life. He has said his ideal is neither a Galahad nor a roughneck but simply an ordinary human being who suffers and endures. That is exactly the kind of individual who is at the center of this engaging and funnysad movie.

Andrei Valnikov is a Los Angeles based cop who has served over 20 years on the force, most of them in homicide. Ever since his partner committed suicide in despair over the barbarities seen on the job, Valnikov has had a hard time coping with his feelings. He's been transferred to the Hollywood detective division and assigned less demanding cases.

Valnikov's new partner turns out to be a woman — Natalie Zimmerman. She's a no-nonsense cop who is not happy about working with a man who drinks too much and is troubled by nightmares. Their first big case together is a dognapping. A lonely matron's prizewinning schnauzer is stolen by Philo Skinner, a dog trainer who needs quick money to pay off some gambling debts. He asks $85,000 for the show dog's return.

Wambaugh's screenplay opens with Valnikov drunk during an evening service at a Russian Orthodox Church and ends with a bloody encounter between the detective and the desperate dognapper. Unlike most police sagas, this film contains a bevy of interesting and surprising characters. Robert Foxworth is just right as Valnikov, a gentle and sensitive man who's been emotionally damaged by his job. As one character puts it, he is the type of person who would "run into a burning house to save a bowl of goldfish." Paula Prentiss is fine as Natalie, a hard-nosed woman swept off her feet by the Russian detective's romanticism — especially his vision of "nightingales singing in raspberry bushes."

Director Harold Becker draws out good performances from Harry Dean Stanton as the dognapper, a blundering man whose paranoia about the mob turns him into a killer of the only living thing on earth that ever loved him; from Barbara Babcock as the matron who appreciates Valnikov's chivalry; from John Hancock as the detective's highly supportive friend; and from Richard Dix as Valnikov's concerned brother. These individuals are all "black marbles" — persons plagued by bad luck — and yet their vulnerability is what makes them all so endearing. The Black Marble is the most rounded police saga you'll see for many year. And the bittersweet romance at its core is thoroughly enchanting.