Joe Wambaugh's first two novels were instant bestsellers, penetrating looks into the world of the lowly beat cop, and their influence on me (as writer and reader) cannot be overstated. Novel number three (the first to be published after his reluctant retirement from the Los Angeles Police Department) moved millions of copies on its way to changing the face of American crime fiction. The Mystery Crime Writers of America placed it #93 on its list of the Top 100 Crime Novels, which is impressive, but listen--this book changed my life. I don't have a shirt to show ya, though, so lemme continue.
While not high literature, the former Detective Sergeant's scatological sociology piece has been celebrated by better wordsmiths than I. Stephen King once called Wambaugh "one of those necessary voices…sometimes angry, sometimes illuminating, often wise, always funny and fascinating." Tom Wolfe and James Ellroy both heaped praise on The Choirboys, the latter citing it as the world-shaker that sent the stories tumbling out of his head and onto the page.
The reader is told right off--bad shit's gone down with the so-called "good guys." How bad, and how much, is to be revealed. First, we're immersed in the worlds of ten "choirboys," LAPD uniform officers who travel in pairs--where, paradoxically or not, they reveal their individual selves.
--Herbert Whalen, nicknamed "Spermwhale," is approaching retirement. He has the veteran's disdain for people, yet strives to treat them fairly. His partner, Baxter Slate, is good-looking and well-spoken, a Classical Lit major unable to shake a poor experience in the Juvenile Division.
--Nam buddies Sam Niles and Harold Bloomguard could not be more dissimilar, personality-wise. The latter needs their friendship as much as the former longs to end it.
--Henry "Roscoe" Rules and Dean Pratt comprise perhaps most entertaining set of partners. One's a racist goon who gets off on abusing suspects; the other's a passive stringbean who gets drunk with alarming ease.
--Spencer Van Moot, the only other choirboy out of his thirties, is a gratuity hound who can "bear any pain but his own." Willie Wright is called "Father" thanks to his tendency to lambaste his comrades for their dastardly sinfulness (as he himself gets shit-faced while waiting to bang one of the cocktail waitresses that visit the 'Boys during their "practices").
--The two non-white Choirboys ride together: Calvin Potts (so broke he has to pedal to work) and Francis Tanaguchi, a third-generation Japanese-American who identifies more closely with the culture of the barrios in which he was raised.
Ensuing chapters place us alongside them on the beat, and what a goddamn ride. The scenarios they inhabit sent my heart plummeting--or rocketing. (The center cannot hold? How 'bout when the center fails to exist?)
When the demands of maintaining law and order get too tense, too electric, when eruption felt imminent…someone would call a "choir practice," their colloquial for after-hours decompression sessions held at a local park. Food/booze/sex aplenty, but nothing so abundant as complaining. The job, the supervisors, their families--these protectors and servers bitch about anything.
Two extended choir practices are featured. What keeps these sequences from reading as text versions of Police Academy is the character development. Whether you find them obnoxious, fragile, despicable or sympathetic, you will think of these men as more than a uniform. Quippy, if not exactly witty, the choirboys are entrusted with a power that seems absolute to the people they interact with, but which is impotent compared to the men in the big buildings making big decisions.
Which is the book's only kinda-weakness: Wambaugh's "Up yours Krabappel!" glee in painting "the bosses"--every cop above the rank of Sergeant--with the roller he's careful to hide behind his back when writing about the street soldiers. The men in charge are bumbling at best, corrupt at worst. They are vindictive, obsequious prevaricators whose advancement depends on their willingness to obfuscate and overlook. The choirboys, conversely, are just normal guys trying to cope with an abnormal amount of responsibility, and if they want to get kill-screen with some booze and bennies, or run a train on some trashy cop groupies, they've earned that goddamn right, goddamnit!
And then Sam Niles, drunk and in the throes of a claustrophobia-induced panic attack, kills a teenage boy. The others concoct a cockamamie story that collapses quicker than a house of cards, with devastating career consequences.
Sam is not the tragic character, though. That dubious honor belongs to Baxter Slate, still clinging to the idealism of youth as he wonders at the "worthlessness" of humanity. All around him the evidence mounts, until he decides at last "(t)here's not enough dignity in mankind for evil." Slate illustrates the author's larger point: the mental and emotional hazards of police work are more frequent, and more severe, then the physical hazards. His end struck me from out of nowhere on initial reading; my second go-round, the clues were sadly unmissable.
But, Roscoe Rules--more abrasive and less thoughtful than Baxter---illustrates that same point. Police work probably did not make him a crass bigot, but it destroyed any chance he may have had for revelation and redemption.
No cop book prior could boast the exhilarating dimensions of The Choirboys, but it was not without precedent. Wambaugh's debt to Catch-22 is evident throughout.
--Both novels feature men who die after involvement with prostitutes.
--Both are rife with nasty, clueless supervising officers.
--Catch-22 has an insensitive military doctor who refuses to help the men, while The Choirboys has a thoughtful department doc who wants to help but feels bound by bureaucracy.
--A trooper who sees everything twice, an officer who (when inebriated) says everything twice.
--Catch-22 is named after an illogical set of requirements re: airmen and their duties. Early in The Choirboys, a supervisor is singled out for praise for typing up departmental regulations that Wambaugh tells us "were perfect. No one could understand them."
Likewise, the humor in The Choirboys is as bleak as a penguins prospects in Hell, but there's enough of it to make this of the most genuinely hilarious novels I've ever read. Very little in the way of plot, but the stories are unforgettable. It is a validation of the three-dimensional portrayal of police, if not the profession. Certainly dated, nonetheless indelible.
Respect the ducks, y'all.
Writer-Christopher Knopf (Wambaugh successfully sued to get his name removed from the credits)
"Anyone who liked the book will probably be appalled by the movie"--Vincent Canby, The New York Times
Inevitably, a novel scarfed up by millions will cause hypersalivation in unsavory types. With a well-respected director at the helm, and the author's direct input, the film adaptation of The Choirboys should not have turned out to be such a futzburger, but boy howdy. Impure visual junk food, and I mean the junkiest junk food, like this is the Carl's Jr./Hardees of '70s "comedies."
Released two days before Christmas 1977, despite the lack of anything holiday-related in the actual movie (not even calling a woman a "ho") Aldrich borrows the novel's movement--one vignette to the next--but can't make it three steps without tripping over something, be that something his own feet, his own arrogance, or his own ignorance. Thereby turning a long prelude to a tragedy into a long tragedy.
Where to begin with this shit show? Proudly non-PC, in a time before PC was a thing to be or not to be. Meaning? Race-baiting and gay jokes ahoy. And the women? We don't exist, except as meat puppets. Imagine Hill Street Blues adapted for the big screen by the creative team behind Porky's. But much, much worse.
The movie's pre-credits sequence is the beginning of the book, which makes complete sense story-wise, and raises hopes for a faithful adaptation. The opening credits then destroy that hope. "In the Hall of the Mountain King" blares on an organ as the camera settles on a church facade. Hey, the saint depicted on that stained glass window is wearing a cop hat. Heh. Then…fist smash straight into a boisterous choir comprised of manly men. Welcome to Mood Whiplash 101…class will be in session for the next two hours.
But, but, the cast! Oh yeah, stellar. Charles Durning as Whalen is closest to the picture in my mind when I read the book. Louis Gossett, Jr., James Woods, Charles Haid, Randy Quaid, Burt Young don't really match as well (Haid especially) but hey, good actors every one. Several character names are changed for…the hell of it? Pratt to Proust, is that supposed to be literary humor?
The director's agenda is apparent to anyone familiar with the source material. Tanaguchi's prankster side is featured, but no reference to his cultural confusion, not even a quick line about him craving a taco or a shot of him wearing a sombrero at choir practice. A montage of Van Moot driving store to store, accepting free items from grateful proprietors just might have worked. You know, something to indicate these guys are more than gun-wielding cookie cutters. Slate's philosophical bent is integrated into the action unnaturally, and Perry King's stilted recitations don't help.
Rules and Pratt are more successful, the lout and the pout. Quaid's look reminds me of Scott Wilson from In Cold Blood, and Tim McIntire as Rules makes such a wonderful rampaging asshole I'm kinda sad he never had more notable work.
Roscoe is also the centerpiece of the film's best scene, coming a half hour in, --"Roscoe and the Duck." It concludes with Rules cuffed to a tree, naked from the waist down. All good humor melts away when a gay man and his dog stroll by. Thank God the dog is a poodle dyed pink so I realized beyond the silhouette of a suspension that her owner is as gay as a greylag. The guy is instantly besotted--"A naked man!" he proclaims, in his best Paul Lynde gone verklemmt, despite the fact that Rules is wearing a biker jacket. (People in the '70s thought homosexuality caused partial blindness, I suppose.)
Unsurprisingly, the film's other genuinely funny moment also concerns Rules, and is a mash-up at that: an outdoors ceremony marked with random zingers from his peers about how much of a scrote he is.
The moment ribald farce takes a dramatic turn is handled somewhat surely, but then, it takes another dramatic turn! Motts sends the retired Whalen a letter, absolving the old guy for turning informant on the other choirboys to save his pension. He also includes a newspaper article quoting Police Chief Briggs--the man who scared the confession from Whalen--about the deadly events in the park. Livid Whalen returns to California and threatens to expose Briggs for lying, withholding evidence, putting ketchup on hot dogs, you name it. Briggs, for some reason, does not tell the roly-poly retiree to go take a flying fuck at a rolling donut. Instead he capitulates, and the other choirboys have their suspensions lifted. Yay! Happy ending! Good guys win!
How galling. If Wambaugh had smashed a red bow on his novel, it would have felt utterly false and made the preceding pages a heart-goring sham.
The "park fairy" Niles (excuse me, Lyles) blasted had a name, and even his own chapter, wherein we learned that the hooting and hollering of the choirboys provided a sliver of comfort for a young man wrestling with lust and shame. Which is why I find the end credits absolutely reprehensible-- vaudeville music over clips of the characters laughing. A kid was killed by one of y'all. Parents lost a son.
Oh wait, I forgot...emotions are faggoty, and strictly for faggots.
As puerile as the finished product turned out, the omissions of "Filthy Herman" and the puke blanket are almost stunning. Less so, the absence of scenes showing these men as street savvy yet vulnerable. Aldrich simply didn't think enough of the characters to surround the flesh with blood.
One could claim Aldrich was aiming for the Rabelaisan, but I doubt he gave the required damn. Simply put, the director didn't get the book. Of Wambaugh's various complaints Aldrich remarked, "He wrote a dirty, tasteless, vulgar book, which I think I've managed to capture." The author's insistence on the turmoil experienced by men who make a living seeing each other at their worst meant nothing to Aldrich. I mean, he used screen wipes.
"I don't know how to feel sorry for a cop," Aldrich told an interviewer. "It's a volunteer force." No one asked Aldrich to feel sympathy. Wambaugh's cops are not glistening heroes, nor are they incompetent miscreants. Simply, he sniffed out a gravitas for military service that he couldn't detect for mere police work, and that is why The Dirty Dozen is a classic and The Choirboys is a crap sack. The potency in the drama is diluted by over-reliance on farcical shenanigans. Aldrich doesn't tell a story, he mutters it, frequently shrugging and making agitated hand gestures.
In the novel, Whalen becomes enraged when he notices that a picture of his former partner has been removed from the wall honoring deceased officers. He berates the nearest desk-bound officer, explaining how his old friend stressed the three things a cop needed to be successful at the job: common sense, a sense of humor and compassion. "He lost his sense of humor," Whalen concluded.
In the context of the film, the scene feels less like an acknowledgement of the police work's true nature and more an attempt to justify the profusion of slapstick in the script.
Sloppy, sophomoric and entirely regrettable, The Choirboys even manages to mess up a Joe Kapp cameo.
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Are you fucking kidding me? A fucking seven-hour shadow puppet adaptation of the book (without intermissions!) would be more enjoyable! Multiple exclamation points throughout a single sentence!
MIND THE GAP
Huge. The widest gap in the history of gaps. Call your mom, there's a new sheriff in town!
Seriously…I beg of you…instead of watching the movie, read the book at least twice.