Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Choirboys (1977)

          The weirdness of this comedy-drama adapted from a Joseph Wambaugh novel about debauched L.A. police officers is epitomized by one particular scene. Hot-tempered redneck cop Roscoe Rules (Tim McIntire) wakes up by a pond in L.A.’s MacArthur Park after passing out from heavy drinking (the characters call their drunken revels “choir practice”). Roscoe looks down and discovers that a duck is, well, enjoying Roscoe’s private parts with its beak. All around Roscoe, his fellow officers bust out laughing. Turns out that practical-joke-loving cop Francis Tanaguchi (Clyde Kusatsu) found Roscoe drunk, opened Roscoe’s zipper, and laid a trail of breadcrumbs from the pond to Roscoe, thereby luring the frisky foul. Unspooling across 119 deranged minutes, The Choirboys zigzags wildly between sub-Animal House humor like the duck scene and horrific moments like the opening sequence, in which Roscoe taunts a potential suicide by shouting, “Go ahead and jump, bitch!” until she does exactly that.
          The theme of this wildly overstuffed ensemble picture seems to be that anything goes if you’re wearing a badge, so one storyline involves a sensitive cop (Perry King) who gets his kicks through S&M, while another follows a Vietnam vet (Don Stroud) perpetually on the edge of a complete meltdown. And then there’s the nerdy beat cop (James Woods) enlisted to entrap hookers because he looks like an accountant, and the fat slob named “Spermwhale” (Charles Durning), whose grudge match with his overbearing superior officer gets serious when the lieutenant threatens Spermwhale’s pension. Most of the storylines include some sort of raunchiness, like the cringe-inducing scene of a slow-witted cop sliding under a glass table to “kiss” the nether regions of a female officer sitting on the table, and the picture also has more than its share of physical and psychological violence. At one point, a mischievous vice cop (Vic Tayback) taunts Roscoe with put-on homosexual advances, triggering a gay-panic freakout in which Roscoe mercilessly pummels the vice cop until other officers intervene.
          What makes all of this so odd is that venerable director Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen) exerts absolutely zero control over the movie’s tone. Pathetically sad moments are played for laughs, idiotically silly scenes are played straight, and the film’s sympathies seem to lie with its most depraved characters. The indescribably inappropriate music by Frank DeVol only accentuates the strangeness; DeVol’s sunny tunes punctuate sequences the way rimshots accompany a nightclub comic’s routine, though often with no apparent connection to the actual content of the sequences. Eventually, a plot of sorts emerges from the chaos, but even that is so distasteful as to seem utterly perplexing: The “heroes” scheme to cover up the accidental killing of the most sympathetic character in the movie. The Choirboys is loaded with colorful events and interesting actors, but it’s a sure sign of trouble when the never-subtle Burt Young, playing a disgusting vice cop named “Scuzzi,” gives the most disciplined performance in the movie.

The Choirboys: FREAKY


Peter L. Winkler said...

"The 'heroes' scheme to cover up the accidental murder . . ."

Accidental killing, yes. Accidental murder, no. Murder is a crime requiring the intent to kill.

By Peter Hanson said...

Objection sustained! Thanks for catching that.

ShadowBNCB said...


fakebaconimprov said...

Caught this at Harvard Film Archive and while I am always glad to have the opportunity to see controversial films, this was particularly vile and you could sense the discomfort in the audience.