Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Films of Robert Aldrich: The Choirboys

Skipping ahead to the end of Aldrich's career this time, to The Choirboys from 1977 (which also saw the release of Twilight's Last Gleaming). Aldrich only made two more movies after this one. There's no getting around the fact that The Choirboys is a pretty unpleasant movie. Based on Joseph Wambaugh's novel, this lets Aldrich's anti-authoritarianism loose without any restraint. Wambaugh famously disowned the movie, and speaks ill of it to this very day. I get the feeling that Aldrich approached the book the same way he approached Spillane's Kiss Me Deadly, which he is known to have hated. I think he saw in it a hagiography for authoritarianism, which is totally against his nature. The resulting movie tears down the veils that hid the fault lines in American culture in the post-Vietnam/post-Watergate era. To some extent, those fault lines are still there. This is a racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic morass, in which all of these impulses are given complete license. This is the cop movie crossed with Salo. It's all id.

The story here follows a precinct full of rowdy LA cops. The members of this precinct hold "choir practice" after hours, in which they drink, womanize, and play vicious pranks on each other. There's not much plot at first, just a rambling series of episodes. It's a picaresque. It acquires a plot in the second half, in which Vietnam vet Don Stroud freaks out and kills a gay teen in the park. His fellow cops then feel obliged to cover the crime. This is only the most extreme of the private failings on display here, but it's all of a piece with the cop who's into kink, the cop who thinks he's Dracula, the lieutenant who dabbles in hookers, the drunks, the lechers, et cetera. Aldrich doesn't paint a pleasant picture of cops. The main trouble with the movie is that he doesn't provide a means of entry into this world. There is no characteristic anti-hero railing against authority here, no individual railing against the system. I get the feeling that Charles Durning's retiring cop is intended as the sympathetic protagonist, but he's not on screen enough to work in this capacity. Like many of Aldrich's anti-heroes, Durning is compromised by his own moral outrage, then unconvincingly redeemed in the end. It doesn't really work. At only one point does the misanthropic mask slip, when Burt Young's grungy sergeant books a scared gay teen. This one moment informs the nastiness of the film's last act, given that the gay teen is Stroud's victim. This is played against a troubling taste for gay baiting elsewhere in the movie, with a stereotyped flaming gay, complete with pink poodle.

From my own theoretical point of view, this has a lot in common with the Gothic elements of The Dirty Dozen. It's an all male film--all of the female characters are bit parts--and one gets the feeling that the crucible of masculinity has driven these characters insane. This is certainly suggested in the homophobia manifested on screen. It's an even more extreme version than The Dirty Dozen, though, because it spreads the psychosexual manias among multiple characters rather than confining it to one sex maniac. It should be noted that there are some interesting actresses in the background of this movie, including Blair Brown and exploitation goddess Cheryl 'Rainbeaux' Smith.

In any event, it would be a horrifying movie to watch if it weren't so willfully goofy. On the one hand, the antics of the cops in the first half of the movie are juvenile and unfunny. On the other, the actions of the cops in the back half of the movie are reprehensible. It's an irreconcilable tension that the movie simply cannot resolve. It's also one of Aldrich's grottiest movies (he made a lot of grotty movies during the 1970s), one that still manages to look a bit like it was made for television, though the content of the movie would never play in prime time (this was a staple in the early days of HBO). It would be easy to count this film as evidence of the director in decline. Certainly, his days of masterpieces were over by this time, but this is still not without interest. It's just not very good.

Post script: The Choirboys has been out of print for years and has never been on DVD, so far as I know. It is, however, available for streaming on Netflix. This may be the wave of the future for deep catalogue movies where the rights-holders don't see a financial upside of pressing a disc.


Ivan said...

Dr. Morbius,
Good write-up of a flawed flick! Like the 1972 cop movie The New Centurions, which was also based on a Joseph Wambaugh novel, The Choirboys feels like about one hour's worth of material was cut out. Before this, Aldrich showed that he could balance hijinks and brutality very well, and I don't think The Choirboys is a bad film per se, but a severely, shockingly uneven one. With three film editors listed, I think that studio interference in post-production is to blame, but it certainly was Aldrich's choice to have the movie photographed in such a dull, flat way. Now the question is: who's to blame for the flick's atrocious music score? I'm not surprised this movie isn't available on DVD, but as a fan of director Aldrich, I'm glad it was available as an instant-viewing movie.
Meanwhile, I had a dream where actor John McIntire (father of Tim, who played Roscoe in The Choirboys) told me that I looked like his son.

Thanks for letting me ramble,

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Ivan. Thanks for rambling. Aldrich can be frustrating when it comes to the look of his movies. Sometimes, he's a striking stylist. At other times, it seems like he doesn't know his way around a camera. I'd like to blame cinematographer Joseph Biroc--who did a LOT of TV work--but he did exemplary work on some of Aldrich's other movies. Go figure. You can never tell with cinematographers anyway.

Dr. AC, Fool for Blood said...

Just watched this tonight, after throwing it in the queue on your rec. As you say, it's a tough film to hook into, and it's hard to tell if this is meant to be an expose of the amorality of the cops or if they are supposed to be the victims in this insane world just trying to get along as best they can. Every character is flawed, there are no nice people to be found, and yet it never really feels *real*. Too much cute, convenient, stereotypical and melodramatic to yield any genuine sense of You Are There. Great watching all the flashy performances from the young stars on the rise, as well as vets like Durning, Tayback and Young. Worth seeing for them alone, but it's still an unpleasant two-hour wallow, isn't it?

That said, the moment with Burt Young dealing with the young gay kid is surprising and registers in a big way as a result.

By the way, this is the only Aldrich film that you've reviewed thus far that I've seen, which is why I haven't commented before. But I've become a fan over the past couple years and am also working my way through his filmography. Next up: HUSTLE, reteaming him with his LONGEST YARD star, Burt Reynolds.