“The Choirboys” (1977)

UPDATE, April 18, 2012: “The Choirboys” is now available on Netflix Instant.

“The Choirboys” is an appallingly offensive film, not least because it squanders the talents of some of the greatest character actors around, including Charles Durning, James Woods, Randy Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr. However, from today’s timid, politically correct perspective, it is fascinating to behold; the movie is so unapologetic about its race-baiting, gay-bashing, ass-grabbing antiheroes that it could only have been conceived during a period of true American malaise and self-disgust. With its outright scorn for civic-minded legal systems–judges are called “black-robed pussies”–it certainly helped set the stage for all those law-defying Sly Stallone capers that poisoned the 1980s.

Adapted from author/ex-cop Joseph Wambaugh’s novel, it’s a movie made by brutes for brutes; director Robert Aldrich (no stranger to macho posturing, as demonstrated in his “The Dirty Dozen”) apparently delighted just as much as the characters in the mean-spirited, hostile antics they resort to. After Wambaugh openly castigated the film adaptation, particularly the ending, and demanded that his name be taken off the project, Aldrich–as cited in Alain Silver and James Ursini’s 1995 Aldrich biography, What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?: His Life and His Films–argued that he only “changed [Wambaugh’s] script a maximum of 1-3 percent…he wrote a dirty, tasteless, vulgar book, which I think I’ve managed to capture.” And that’s what the film is: an ode to vulgarity.

“The Choirboys” opened just before Christmas 1977 and quickly sank like a stone. Vincent Canby’s New York Times review described the film as “designed for people who don’t read much, [though] it can be followed only by someone who has some familiarity with the book. However, anyone who liked the book will probably be appalled by the movie. Which is about as close as “The Choirboys” ever gets to “Catch 22.” It has never been released on DVD (I rented my VHS copy at Video Room) though it was available, briefly, on Netflix Instant, before mysteriously disappearing. (I intend to find out why; given that vast streams of Netflix movies are ignored, low demand could not have been the only reason).

The film is virtually plot-free, just an assortment of vignettes in which L.A. cops alternately swill booze, cavort with whores, play vicious and often deadly pranks on each other (a live duck is placed down a rookie’s pants, nearly castrating him) and collectively bitch about their bureaucratic superiors. Because these cops are middle-class grinds, we’re supposed to side with them, but that’s like being asked to side with racist, Confederate flag-toting rednecks raging against their mild-mannered, slightly richer, black boss. Today, “The Choirboys” comes off like a strange hybrid of “Porky’s” and–despite Canby’s punny joke–“Catch-22.” Like the former movie, the relentlessly adolescent oafs on display laugh more at their pranks than we do, and, as in the latter story, they are given cartoonish names like Spermwhale and Roscoe Rules, and presented as essentially harmless, goofball grunts slowly going crazy under a corrupt system.

Only their exploits aren’t so harmless, which means that “The Choirboys” totally lacks the heart of those movies. In one awe-inspiring scene, Roscoe Rules (a snarling Tim McIntire), easily the most rancid cop of the bunch, tries reverse psychology on a woman threatening to jump off her roof. His more innocent underling (Randy Quaid) wants to talk her down, but McIntire instead beckons her to “Jump, you ding-a-ling! Why don’t you jump, bitch?!” And jump she does. The scene ends with Quaid dumbfounded and McIntire basically shrugging off the mistake, lying to his superiors that they “got there too late.” They are not punished, nor is the incident ever referred to again. It’s not darkly funny, it’s not profound; it’s as meaningless as the crude screen wipes that Aldrich uses to capriciously end scenes.

Because most of the other cops are almost as brutish as Roscoe, there’s very little tension among them; there’s no resonance to the ugliness on display. Hence, the viewer responds with the same befuddlement to the next two or so hours of indecencies. A cop, in an assignation with a black prostitute, barks at her, “You don’t feel like a Negro, you feel like a Samoan.” McIntire, in a nonsensical prank, is stripped naked from the waist down and handcuffed to a tree in a nearby park; a flaming, makeup-wearing, lisping gay dogwalker begins hitting on him and he is menacingly called a “faggot” as the other officers cackle. The officers fight with Hispanic gangs during a drug bust, to the tune of “Mexican Hat Dance.” An Asian cop wears phony vampire teeth and bites his co-workers; he is reprimanded with “Shove those Gooky teeth up your ass!” And so forth.

All of this could be funny or biting, or both, if Aldrich had a point of view. But “The Choirboys” suffers from staggering inconsistencies of tone. For two thirds of the film, as if it were a raunchy update of “Car 54, Where Are You,” Aldrich presents a barrage of broad,  farcical escapades, laced with racial and sexual epithets for supposed shock value. (The only intentionally funny one involves James Woods, in an uncharacteristically nebbishy role, as an inept cop posing as a CPA and busting two whores, who literally cry “Rape!” and escape the scene.) Then, he throws in two back-to-back, supposedly serious episodes in which the cops are suddenly shown to care about each other and their impulsive actions actually have consequences. But Aldrich eviscerates any potency with a maddening upbeat ending. As if we hadn’t witnessed the brutal killing of an innocent (and ridiculed) bystander, not to mention the cops literally getting away with murder,  he shows the cast members all laughing uproariously over the end credits, with vaudeville music playing.

All in all, “The Choirboys” is a rage-filled dark comedy in which the rage is aimless and the comedy is at once too angry and too ineptly handled to produce genuine laughs. Most offensive of all is its utter disdain for homosexuals and any sign of heterosexual male weakness. The gay man who is accidentally killed is repeatedly referred to as a “park faggot,” and when a naive young Jesuit cop (Perry King) is caught by Durning in a sadomasochistic endeavor, Durning’s palpable disgust speaks louder than any of the coarse words he has to say.

However, I would applaud wider distribution of the film so that everyone can gasp at the insanely offensive dialogue; no studio would approve that today, so the film is something of a Time Capsule treasure.

Aldrich directed two other films–1979’s “The Frisco Kid,” a jokey, ethnic western, and 1981’s female wrestling romp “…All the Marbles” (which will also be discussed on this site)–before his death at age 65 from kidney failure, in 1983.

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