Keneely and Farrell are detectives with the LAPD vice squad. Although they show great talent for breaking up prostitution and drug rings, many of these enterprises are protected by crime boss Carl Rizzo, who exerts his influence throughout the city and the department. Evidence is altered before trial, colleagues refuse to help with basic police work, and the detectives are pushed to pursue other cases—mostly stakeouts on gay bars and public lavatories. After personally confronting Rizzo, Keneely and Farrell are brutally beaten while investigating one of his prostitutes. Frustrated but without any legal options, they resort to harassing Rizzo and his establishments, warding off customers and following his family around the city. Soon, Rizzo is rushed to the hospital for a heart condition. Realizing that he also used a medical emergency as an alibi during a previous drug sale, Keneely and Farrell head to the hospital and discover that drugs are trading hands there, hidden in flower pots. Rizzo escapes in an ambulance, while Keneely and Farrell make chase in another. The chase ends when both ambulances crash; although Keneely holds Rizzo at gunpoint, Rizzo laughs that the evidence against him is circumstantial—and, at most, will result in a light sentence.
The film ends on a freeze-frame of Keneely’s face as Rizzo dares him to shoot. In a voice-over, Keneely applies to an employment agency, claiming that he doesn’t know why he left his job at the LAPD—finally concluding that he “needed a change.”
Robert Chartoff wanted to make another film about vice cops after The New Centurions. They hired Peter Hyams to write and direct one off the back of the success of his TV movie, Goodnight, My Love. “I’d made a TV movie of the week that people had liked, and people started coming after me,” he recalled. “The producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler came to me and said they wanted to do a film about vice cops. I said okay, and spent about six months researching it.”
Hyams later said “like a journalist, I went around to New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles and spoke with hookers, pimps, strippers and cops and DAs. Every episode in the film was true.”
In February 1973 Ron Leibman was cast as Gould’s partner. However he was soon fired. Hyams says, “It turned out the contrast between Ron and Elliott Gould was not the same contrast between Robert Blake and Elliott, so it was suggested we go with Robert and I listened.” Gould says that while he respected Leibman as an actor it was he who suggested Leibman be replaced. “I just had a sense that I don’t know if he’s the right partner for me.”
Filming started in February 1973. The film was shot over 35 days.
“United Artists was a dream studio,” said Hyams. “Once they thought the script and the people making the film were good, they really didn’t intrude. They were very encouraging, and fabulous for filmmakers.”
Gould was cast here after writer/director Peter Hyams saw him and his attitude on The Dick Cavett Show. He wore Converse low-tops and for some reason took one of them off mid-interview. “He [Cavett] sort of made a joke with the audience that my feet had an odor, which they didn’t. I was really taken back and so I insisted that Dick Cavett take his shoe off.” The host declined, but Gould pressed saying that he was offended and wanted them to be on equal footing. Ron Leibman was originally cast as Gould’s sidekick – “a fabulous actor, one of our finest and best actors” – but Gould had him replaced. “I just had a sense that I don’t know if he’s the right partner for me,” he says. He went to see David Picker, the head of United Artists, and softly suggested as such, and Picker replied “I knew it! I knew it! When Ron Leibman plays tennis with my 11 year-old daughter he hits the ball back to her like a rocket!” He went on to suggest either Peter Boyle or Robert Blake.
Hyams suggested Garry Marshall for the character of Carl Rizzo, but the idea apparently fell on deaf ears – including Gould’s. It was nixed, but in retrospect Gould sees his error. “Garry Marshall in that part would be genius, would be a total fucking surprise,” he says. The role instead went to Allen Garfield, “and Allen, bless him, Allen is such a good actor but completely predictable.”
Interview with Director Peter Hyams
Do you think your first theatrical feature BUSTING benefited from your documentary and journalistic experience?
Peter Hyams: It came in handy in terms of my years of research. Before I wrote BUSTING I spent six months on the road going to L.A., Boston, Chicago and New York, talking to cops, hookers, pimps and the real people. The fact is that every single episode in BUSTING was based on something that actually happened. Whatever training I had as a self-impressed asshole reporter, the most important thing I learned was research. There was a great satirist called Tom Lehrer who wrote very funny and perverse songs. One of his quotes that I always remember was about Nicolai Lobachevsky. He said ”I’ll never forget the time I met the great Lobachevsky. It was he who taught me the secret of great writing -plagiarise. Only don’t call it ‘plagiarise’, call it ‘research’. ” My approach to a story is always research, and then try to make drama out of it.
What fascinated you about the world of vice cops to make the film?
Peter Hyams: An esoteric and artful thing – I was asked to write a movie about vice cops. The producers were Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, who had done a very successful film for Columbia called THE NEW CENTURIONS (1972). They caught me at that point where I was about to break into features. GOODNIGHT, MY LOVE had gotten more attention than it deserved and was incredibly highly praised. Irwin came to me and said ”We would like you to make a movie for us. ” Irwin was spellbinding and terrific, the greatest film school a young filmmaker could ever attend. The charter was to make a movie about vice cops.
Was it difficult to cast the leads?
Peter Hyams: Elliott Gould was at his apogee, and he wanted to do it. He had made MASH (1970) and GETTING STRAIGHT (1970). United Artists was a dream studio. Once they thought the script and the people making the film were good, they really didn’t intrude. They were very encouraging, and fabulous for filmmakers. David Picker was head of UA at the time.
How close did Ron Leibman come to playing the Robert Blake part?
Peter Hyams: Pretty close. We weren’t sure if it was going to be Ron or somebody else. It turned out the contrast between Ron and Elliott Gould was not the same contrast between Robert Blake and Elliott, so it was suggested we go with Robert and I listened.
Was the shoot-out in the market a learning curve for you? It’s one of the great action scenes.
Peter Hyams: I spent a lot of time plotting that thing out. This was not the days of Steadicam, where you could run around and do what you wanted. You had bigger cameras and all those movements on dolly tracks where things were upstairs and downstairs. I just drew out the way I wanted to do it.
How long did you spend filming the scene?
Peter Hyams: The whole film was a 35 day schedule. We spent maybe a day or two on the shootout. The more you’re prepared and the more everyone else is prepared, the quicker things go.
The film was criticized for homophobia on the grounds of its depictions of gay characters and the attitudes of the lead characters towards them. In an essay for The New York Times, journalist and gay rights activist Arthur Bell condemned the film for derogatory language used by characters to describe homosexuals, as well as a scene in a gay bar that he called “exploitative, unreal, unfunny and ugly” for its presentation of gay stereotypes. Hyams defended this on the ground it was accurate to the milieu depicted.
Elliott Gould as Det. Michael Keneely
Robert Blake as Det. Patrick Farrell
Allen Garfield as Carl Rizzo
Antonio Fargas as Stephen
Michael Lerner as Marvin