Highly underrated almost to the point of complete obscurity—Ivan Passer’s footloose-and-fancy-free New York City-based crime comedy Law and Disorder (1974) stars Carroll O’Connor and Ernest Borgnine as Willie and Cy, a couple of lifelong friends who decide to take a stand against the ever-escalating crime wave that is plaguing their NYC neighborhood. At the insistence of Cy, they recruit some local friends to join a special Auxiliary Police Force in an effort to make their streets a safer place, and even though, appearance-wise, they are “indistinguishable” from regular policemen, they’re not permitted to carry firearms. Even so, they attempt to do real police work, a job which the real police force seems to be avoiding altogether.
Needless to say, the NYC of the seventies was markedly different from what it is today. While a lot of people, many of whom weren’t even born yet, now look back and revere this bygone era with nostalgic glee, the simple fact of the matter is that New York was economically destitute and well-known for its rampant crime and widespread police corruption. A state of affairs, which, at that time, seemed almost impossible to rectify. It’s no surprise then that many films from the era were quick to cast a light on these troublesome times; Michael Winner’s massively-influential vigilante revenge thriller Death Wish (1974), Sidney’s Lumet’s Serpico (1973) and Martin Scorsese’s beautifully-stylized Taxi Driver (1976) remain some of the most noteworthy examples. In what turned out to be Ivan Passer’s first Hollywood film, the little-seen Law and Disorder takes a decidedly different, much-more-comical approach to addressing the serious problems the city was facing. While it does still depict a city on the brink of collapse, much like Ivan Passer’s earlier Czech New Wave breakout film Intimate Lighting (1965), it is also a delightful, nostalgic look at both the absurdities and simplicities of life.
In spite of its tonal schizophrenia (for example, going for belly-laughs during comical mugging scenes, and even making light of indecent exposure), Law and Disorder is, for the most part, quite restrained in its approach, (outside of the rather clumsy, slapstick-style opening scene, which shows Willie’s TV set being stolen out of his apartment while he is obliviously preparing food in the kitchen). Next, in one of the film’s most brazen (if impressive) acts of delinquency, Cy’s car is stripped clean in broad daylight in just over a minute. The entire virtually effortless process is filmed in real-time using a single simple camera set-up! When the police—in particular, the local precinct’s laidback, disinterested Captain Malloy (Ed Grover)—prove to be no help whatsoever, Cy happily offers his assistance: “You want us to get rid of these animals without the police? We can do it by ourselves!” During a recruitment meeting for the newly-formed Auxiliary Police Force (APF), Cy angrily proclaims that: “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 local community’s angry response (“Let’s get rid of the cops! What the hell good are they anyway?!”), the APF’s coordinating officer Yablonsky (Pepper Wormser) subconsciously backs-up this sentiment when he begins plugging his own local business instead of actually doing something to stem the escalation in criminal activity.
Unwavering in his views and ideals, Cy is a ‘get-up-and-go’ kind of guy who will stop at nothing to get what he wants; a politically conservative gun-nut and avid hunter, who, ever-so-proudly, openly displays an entire taxidermied stag in his cramped New York apartment! In what seems a strangely contradictory anomaly indeed, he sidelines as a ladies’ hairdresser (!?) and the proprietor of his very own salon, a business venture he most likely started as a means of getting closer to Gloria (Karen Black), his former girlfriend and current highly belligerent assistant (“Keep it in yer pants, muscles!”), who even harasses the few customers he can get.
It’s worth mentioning that outside of Karen Black’s brief but hilariously over-the-top turn as Gloria, the film is a veritable roll call of established and up-and-coming actors including Jack Kehoe, a busy NYC actor also seen in Serpico who would go on to appear in a number of films throughout the ’Seventies and ’Eighties including Stuart Rosenberg’s The Pope of Greenwich Village (1983) and Martin Brest’s Midnight Run (1988). Ed Grover was yet another busy NYC actor who also appeared in both Serpico and Death Wish and the late David Spielberg (best remembered as Mr. Casey, the teacher that takes a stand against school bully Buddy Repperton [William Ostrander] in John Carpenter’s Christine ), is also quite funny as the rather meek accomplice in this motley group of neighborhood pals. During the rambunctious recruitment meeting in the present film, keen viewers should also lookout for a very brief cameo from Shirley Stoler, who gained critical accolades for her role in Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers (1969).
As expected, the colorful cast play well of each other and Borgnine seems to relish his role as Willie’s childhood friend, a somewhat buffoonish bully, who just about steals the show on numerous occasions, and at one point, even goes so far as to purchase a refurbished cop car (“You’re buying a lot of trouble here!” remarks Willie.), so they can patrol the streets with even more impunity; just one more example of Cy’s stubborn streak, and how his obsessive devotion to this new (quote) “police outfit” has taken precedence over all else. It comes as no surprise really that everything in his life is related to power and control, which he, much to the amusement of his buddies, bluntly demonstrates when he feeds a goldfish to his Red Tiger Oscar, a rather voracious freshwater fish. Cy is resolute in his conviction that “You gotta fight for what’s comin’ to ya!” which is one of the many nuggets of sage advice which he imparts to Willie. However, unlike his pet Oscar, Cy isn’t the only big fish in the tank (so to speak), and his bullheaded/hard-nosed behavior proves to be more-than-a-little dangerous when he takes it to the Big Apple’s mean streets.
While Borgnine does commit himself to his part with the proper (and highly entertaining!) enthusiasm, his performance is nicely counterbalanced by O’Connor’s convincing portrayal of Willie—the ‘straight man’ of the duo—his level-headed and down-to-earth best friend, who is constantly held back by his family and friends (including Cy, who angrily reminds him that he’s always dreaming of [quote] “goin’ up some river in some dreamboat!”). Shot during Carroll O’Connor’s lengthy tenure on Norman Lear’s smash-hit sitcom All in the Family (1971 – 1979), his role of Willie herein is not unsurprisingly, considering its ongoing popularity, pretty much interchangeable with O’Connor’s celebrated Archie Bunker character from said television show and, although his amiably grouchy, ‘weathered’ persona is once again very much on display here, Willie—much like Archie—also has far more depth outside of the expected wisecracks and inflammatory racial slurs.
An opportunist at heart, Willie feels hindered by the grind of his day-to-day life and is plagued by deep-rooted melancholia about his life’s missed opportunities. In one of the film’s many emotional highpoints, Willie expresses his dream of opening a restaurant (was it mere coincidence that Norman Lear created the AITF spin-off series Archie Bunker’s Place [1979-1983], which also had Archie opening a business?). But, as Willie tries to convince his wife Sally (the late, great Anne Wedgeworth) about taking more calculated risks in life and to stop worrying about the (quote) “nickels and dimes”, he bares all his regrets and vulnerabilities when he touchingly remarks, “I ain’t a failure, Sally. I just ain’t on time.” Beautifully written and wonderfully executed, this remarkable scene is the film’s heart and soul, and much like Bambas (Zdenek Bezucek) from director Passer’s aforementioned Intimate Lighting (1965), Willie tries his best to get the most out of life, which has been filled with numerous disheartening compromises. In what may have been just a throwaway line from the above-described scene, Willie excitedly exclaims, “I know it doesn’t look too beautiful, but there’s a lot of good stuff in here!”; which just happens to be a perfect summation of the film itself and all its flawed-but-lovable characters, and even of New York City too, a place that, while riddled with crime and corruption, was also (and still remains) one of the most vibrant and exciting cities in the world.
Released during the format’s infancy, the first (and thus far only) DVD edition of Law and Disorder came from Anchor Bay Entertainment in 2000, and copies have since become quite difficult to locate. Although not remastered up to today’s standards, AB’s disc nevertheless still remains a highly-serviceable transfer, which is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with the benefit of 16×9 enhancement. The only extras included are the film’s entertaining theatrical trailer and a couple of TV spots, with the usual talent bios for O’Connor, Borgnine and director Passer also included.