In this precinct of Los Angeles, the cops like to work hard and play hard, but they'd prefer to play hard if given the choice. They assemble for roll call this morning, a bunch of policemen terminally unimpressed with their superiors who let off steam by playing pranks on each other, as today when Tanaguchi (Clyde Kusatsu) had been at a Bela Lugosi marathon the previous night and shows up not answering to any name but Count Dracula and with a pair of plastic fangs in his mouth. But not everyone is there to fool around: "Spermwhale" Whalen (Charles Durning) knows he has six months to go before he can give up the patrol and retire with a full pension, and doesn't wish to jeopardise that.
Joseph Wambaugh knew of what he wrote when he penned The Choirboys as he had been on the force as one of Los Angeles' finest for some years before he became an author of novels on that theme, both fictional (though still inspired by his experiences) and non-fictional, like The Onion Field which arrived in a cinema version a short time after this, a project he had overseen personally. Why was he so hands on with that and The Black Marble, another one of his adaptations from the same time? It was all down to the quality of what director Robert Aldrich had conjured up, which was widely judged to be a travesty and utter misreading of the source. Wambaugh was stung, and didn't wish to feel that way again.
At a time when it seems it's mostly Young Adult novels that studios are lining up to adapt, it was educational to remember an era when it was popular crime novels which were the preferred material to make into star vehicles and thrillers. By the nineteen-seventies, what was allowable on the page was seeing the movies catching up, hence some bright spark thought the notoriously extreme (in language and situations) Wambaugh bestseller was ideal for a movie, and with this director, a man who was as much known for his tough themes as he was his way with suspense and thrills, it might have seemed it was going to turn out fine. However, for a start films on crude subject matter do not do well with the critical community, and for a finish the audience was in agreement.
Of course, come the eighties and this sort of hijinks-packed comedy was filling out the cinemas and The Choirboys might have been ahead of its time, but in truth if you'd read the novel you'd see why the film had so few fans. By emphasising the lewd and leery behaviour of the cops without showing what they were reacting against as happened on the page, it was simply one poorly staged sketch after another, with the odd "serious" bit which stuck out like a sore thumb since they might as well have been parachuted in from a different movie. In Wambaugh's text there was a sense of trying to understand what looked impossible to understand from an outsider's point of view, yet achieving that through sympathy and making it clear just how unendurable the lives depicted could easily have been.
Indeed, in the novel you're well aware the stories are all leading up to an ultimate tragedy as the author keeps reminding you of it, not something that occurred here as it was more gleefully caught up in bits where one cop lies under a glass coffee table while his female colleague unwittingly sits on it without underwear on, or the bit where another is handcuffed bottomless to a tree in the park the cops hang out, and a swishy homosexual stereotype (walking a pink poodle) happens upon him and can't believe his luck. What was missing were the accounts of the disturbing scenes from Wambaugh that haunt the men in the line of duty, so for this you had one long party of pranks and japes until it abruptly goes horribly wrong in the last fifteen minutes, a crunching gear change that they don't have the courage to even stick with, inventing a happy ending with Durning giving Louis Gossett Jr five in a freeze frame. To be fair, it's difficult to see how even these days Wambaugh's tricky material could have been successfully translated, so all you had was an impressive cast adrift. Inappropriate music by Frank De Vol.