Under Their Covers

There's basically one question raised by the film Vice, based on the trial and eventual acquittal of 30 topless dancers busted for indecent exposure at Rick's Cabaret in 1993: Is it necessary to have officers rack up liquor tabs and tips to see if strippers will expose themselves? And if so, how does a fellow sign up?

Several of the dancers were students in an acting class director John Woodward was teaching in Houston when they found themselves facing the possibility of a year in jail. After witnessing some of the behavior of the officers during the trial, Woodward got angry enough to satirize the event on celluloid. His position is clear from frame one: to make the Houston vice squad look like idiots. "They were 0 for 30," Woodward says, evidence the community found the case egregious as well.

It would be easy to dismiss the officers as caricatures if the dialogue weren't taken directly from court transcripts. It adds bite to the strained testimony of agents bemoaning the sacrifice they make catching strippers rubbing their buttocks against their crotches, so they can prevent it from happening to anyone else. "If the police can seize money that they can then use to party at Rick's," Woodward says, "I just think that's a cozy situation."

Remarkably, Vice doesn't use its titillating subject matter as an excuse for pole-licking footage, but plays instead like a court re-enactment.

Captain David Cutler says vice usually investigates clubs only after receiving complaints (predominantly filed by wives and rival dancers), but keeps a close tally on expenditures. He says he really gets pressure to crack down only during TV sweeps week, when news stations go on their moral crusades so they can justify airing shots of pixilated ya-yas. "It's either, 'Look at what the police are doing,' or 'Why aren't they busting them?' " he says, preferring the latter angle.

Besides, where would the guys in this town be if vice squad weren't keeping the strippers in line?

Probably at Rick's Cabaret.

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Dylan Otto Krider