VIDEO ARCHIVES NOTES: This movie was discussed on the February 28, 2023 episode of the Video Archives podcast and can be found on their site here.
Robert Aldrich had a long and varied career, well beyond being the king of psychobiddy movies thanks to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. He also made Westerns like Vera Cruz, Ulzana’s Raid and 4 for Texas; the epic Sodom and Gomorrah; war movies like Attack, The Dirty Dozen and Too Late the Hero; even films as diverse as The Longest Yard, The Killing of Sister George and …All the Marbles.
This was the second movie that he’d make for Lorimar Productions, a TV company making features, and it was written by Joseph Wambaugh and Christopher Knopf. Wambaugh had written the book this was based on and did the first draft. He said, “When I turned in my first script they said they loved it. Then there was total silence. I called but they didn’t return my calls.”
Aldrich said to Film Comment, “I think Mr. Wambaugh is going to be very unhappy with this film of his work. I haven’t figured out yet how to correct some of the things that are in the book and still make people who read the book want to see the movie – but I do intend to figure it out.”
The problem that he had with the book was that he couldn’t relate to cops: “I don’t know how to feel sorry for a cop. It’s a volunteer force. You’re not drafted to become a cop. So you’ve got to take some of the heat if you don’t like what people think about you. After all, that’s an extraordinary pension you get in twenty years; nobody else gets it. In fact, I disagree with Wambaugh to such an extent that I don’t think people really like cops.”
He went on to say that the book didn’t go far enough in showing how cops are racists and how they act in Los Angeles, even saying that Wambaugh couldn’t face the issue — the author was the son of a Pittsburgh cop and was on the LAPD from 196o to 1974, rising to the rank of detective sergeant — so it was never in the book.
Wambaugh said, “They’d mutilated my work,” and took out a full-page ad protesting the movie, finally demanding that his name be taken off the movie.
He hadn’t even seen the movie yet.
When he did, he exclaimed that it was a “dreadful, slimy, vile film… a sleazy, insidious film. There was no serious intent to it. It was an insult to me but also to every self-respecting cop in America.” He got a million dollars in a lawsuit with Lorimar and bought back the rights to his books The Onion Field and Black Marble — which both ended up being directed by Harold Becker — from the studio.
Aldrich said — I got this quote from the magnificent site Hidden Films — that he “changed the script a maximum of 1-3 percent…he wrote a dirty, tasteless, vulgar book, which I think I’ve managed to capture.”
What Aldrich did get right was his cast.
There’s Charles Durning as aging cop Spermwhale Whalen; Perry King as mild mannered S&M enthusiast Baxter Slate; Clyde Kusatsu as prank-loving Francis Tanaguchi; Tim McIntire as odious Southern redneck Roscoe Rules; Randy Quaid as his partner Dean Proust; Don Stroud as the Vietnam vet on the verge of violence Sam Lyles; James Woods as the nerd cop used to entrap sex workers, Harold Bloomguard; James Woods as Harold Bloomguard; the always dependably scummy Burt Young as Sgt. Scuzzi; Robert Webber as Deputy Chief Riggs; former cowboy actor and future Dallas actor Jim Davis as Capt. Drobeck; George DiCenzo as Lt. Grimsle; Charles Haid as Sgt. Nick Yanov and Vic Tayback as Zoony, a vice cop who literally goes to war with Roscoe.
Louis Gossett Jr. also shows up, as does a collection of actresses that is the dream of exploitation film lovers, including Phyllis Davis (Sweet Sugar, Terminal Island, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), Barbara Rhoades (Scream Blacula Scream), Jean Bell (TNT Jackson, The Muthers and the first African-American woman to be on the cover of Playboy) and, most essentially, Cheryl Rainbeaux” Smith (Lemora, The Swinging Cheerleaders, Massacre at Central High and so many more movies worth watching).
The story revolves around what the cops call choir practice, which is them getting trashed and abusing one another at MacArthur Park. What sums up the way the cops act is when Rules and Proust are called to rescue a suicide jumper. Rules can barely be bothered, bellowing “Go ahead and jump, bitch!”
There are no heroes in this, the tone goes from horrific racism played for laughs to the cops covering up the death of one of their own and the music seems to be taken from another movie, not punctuating the action as much as it stands in sheer contrast to it.
You know how people say that movies trigger them today? Well, they should probably not watch this.