Monday, December 28, 2015


Very underrated – almost to the point of complete obscurity, in fact – Ivan Passer’s LAW AND DISORDER (1974) is yet another New York City-based film, this one starring Carroll O’Connor and Ernest Borgnine as Willie and Cy, a couple of childhood friends who are fed-up with all the crime plaguing their city.  At the insistence of Cy, they and a group of buddies join the Auxiliary Police Force to help try and keep their neighbourhood safe.  Unlike other, more infamous examples of the vigilante subgenere, such as Michael Winner’s prototypical DEATH WISH (1974) or Martin Scorsese’s brilliantly stylized TAXI DRIVER (1976), Passer’s film is a lighthearted comedy, and more akin to a ‘buddy picture’, but in this respect, it succeeds quite admirably.

Despite the POLICE ACADEMY-type set-up and some rather flat TV-style attempts at comedy, LAW AND DISORDER is still an effective look at citizens pushed to the brink during those rather tumultuous times in NYC’s history. Even though the Auxiliary Police Force isn’t allowed to carry firearms, they are virtually indistinguishable from any ‘real’ police officer. During a recruitment meeting, Cy voices his opinion, and rather vehemently proclaims, “This area has degenerated into a cesspool for perverts, thieves, junkies, sexual deviants and all unwashed freaks of the city of New York!” Despite the angered response (“Let’s get rid of the cops! What good are they anyway?!”), even the “Auxiliary Police Coordinating Officer” is more interested in plugging his business than actually trying to do something to stem the escalating crime wave.  In the end, neither Willie nor Cy do much to curtail the crime in their neighbourhood, but – in a nice surprise – the rather bumbling opening act eventually reveals a far more interesting picture of two men, who, even in their fifties, are still chasing the American Dream.

Ernest Borgnine (left) & Carroll O'Connor.
Shot during his tenure on Norman Lear’s sitcom ALL IN THE FAMILY (1971-1979), Carroll O’Connor’s Willie is simply an extension of his Archie Bunker character, and although his racist comments are kept relatively in check this time, his rather grouchy, “weathered” persona is a definite character trait, at least at this typecast point in his career, and this is the kind of part which Mr. O’Connor could have played in his sleep, that’s how used he was to playing such characters by then.  Nonetheless, he’s still an absolute joy to watch, especially during some of the film’s more introspective moments, where many of his regrets and vulnerabilities are exposed. At one point, during a heartfelt discussion with his wife Sally (frequent TV actor Ann Wedgeworth), Willie expresses his dream of opening up a bar (Is it just a coincidence that Norman Lear’s ALL IN THE FAMILY spin-off ARCHIE BUNKER’S PLACE [1979-1983] also involved him opening a bar?), which well conveys what could and SHOULD have been if he took more calculated risks in his life.  It’s a nicely-nuanced character study, which pays off handsomely in the film’s final few moments.

Borgnine astonished to find his car stripped in "just a couple of minutes."

On the other hand, Borgnine's character is certainly an anomaly; he’s a Right Wing-leaning gun nut and avid hunter, who even proudly displays a full-sized stuffed deer in his cramped New York apartment.  However, in a complete contradiction, he is also a hairdresser and proprietor of his very own women’s salon!  Everything in his life is related to power and the “survival of the fittest”, which even he demonstrates when he feeds a goldfish to his pet Tiger Oscar, a rather voracious freshwater fish.  Although at times difficult to take seriously, Cy’s somewhat buffoonish character is marvelously portrayed by Borgnine, and even though he’s quite the control freak, he firmly believes things should run a certain way and will do what he can to try and see that through; even he himself has to break the law to try and achieve this, which also allows Borgnine to showcase his comic timing. The year before, Borgnine also starred in Robert Aldrich’s EMPEROR OF THE NORTH (1973), where he really got to showcase his talents in one of his more vehemently evil character studies as a ruthless railroad engineer, and some of those traits are, however slight, still evident here.

In a somewhat bizarre bit of casting, Karen Black stars alongside Borgnine as his out-of-control co-worker Gloria, who seems to make his life a living hell at the salon.  With almost no dialogue afforded her role, it’s never made very clear if he ever had an affair with her, which might possibly account for her strange behaviour, which is hilariously over-the-top!  Other New Yorker actors include Jack Kehoe, a busy character actor who appeared in Sidney Lumet’s SERPICO (1972) a couple of years earlier and who would go on to appear in tons of stuff throughout the ’70s and ’80s, including Stuart Rosenberg's The POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE (1983). Edward Grover was yet another busy NY actor who also appeared in SERPICO, and the same year he made this, he also appeared alongside Charles Bronson in DEATH WISH (1974).  During the rambunctious recruitment meeting in the present film, keen viewers should look out for a very brief cameo from Shirley Stoler, who gained critical accolades for her role in Leonard Kastle’s THE HONEYMOON KILLERS (1969).

Karen Black as Gloria in one of her many over-the-top moments from the film.
Released during the format’s infancy, the first and thus far only DVD of LAW AND DISORDER came from Anchor Bay in 2000, and has since become quite difficult to locate. Although not remastered up to today’s standards, the rather drab colour scheme and somewhat grainy picture perfectly reflect a decaying New York, and in this respect the dated transfer actually benefits the film very well.  Presented in 1.85:1 with 16x9 enhancement, the only extras include the entertaining trailer and a couple of TV spots, with the usual talent bios for O’Connor, Borgnine and director Passer. Earlier this year, Twilight Time has confirmed they will release Passer’s CUTTER’S WAY (1981) on Blu-ray for April 12th, 2016, so here’s hoping that that they, or some other enterprising Blu-ray label, will tackle this film as well.

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