Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
William Wyler's Detective Story has some things in common with his The Desperate Hours made five years later - both are film noir-ish subjects taken from stage plays and given a higher gloss that separates them from the noir mainstream. As gritty as Detective Story wants to be, it's still an actor's movie and frequently comes across as forced. Not only that, but the enjoyable Kirk Douglas gives one of his first over-modulated 'star' performances, throwing the film off balance.
It's shaping up as a bad day at New York's Precinct 21 station house. A mousey shoplifter (Lee Grant) hangs around all day waiting to be arraigned while the dangerous criminal Charley Gennini (Joseph Wiseman) is kept in the same space, giving the detectives trouble. Most of the other detectives are easygoing public servants but Precinct Lieutenant Monaghan (Horace McMahon) is worried about Det. Jim McCloud, who seems intent on throwing the full weight of the law at every transgressor he catches. One young thief (Craig Hill) is obviously just mixed up, and has a caring friend (Cathy O'Donnell) to help him, but McCloud insists that he be prosecuted even though sympathetic Det. Lou Brody (William Bendix) tries to intervene. McCloud's personal stake in crimefighting comes to the fore when notorious abortionist Karl Schneider (George Mcready) turns himself in. McCloud's hopes for a good prosecution dwindle as it becomes obvious that Schneider's lawyer has bribed one potential witness and waited until another is near death. But there's more ... Schneider once did business with McCloud's wife Mary ...
Detective Story is basically a one-set play written by Sidney Kingsley of Dead End fame; everything that happens to Jim McCloud has been rounded and contoured into a formal stage pattern. McCloud's parents were no good and his dad was a criminal, so naturally his quest in life is to get back at Pa by being unreasonably pitiless with lawbreakers. Unfortunately, McCloud extends this merciless intolerance to his own family. By a coincidence known only to playwrights, McCloud's own wife was one of the patients of the slimy abortionist Dr. Schneider. McCloud cannot overlook the fact that his wife had lovers before him, including the weasely Tami Giacopetti (reliable bedroom creep Gerald Mohr). McCloud wants to be forgiving but is emotionally incapable of doing so. Next stop, tragic ending.
All of this is for the most part excellently acted but Kingsley's outlook is decidedly old-fashioned. Precinct 21's cops are all straight-shooting Dedicated Dan types, and the structure of the play encourages us to conclude that Jim McCloud is simply too good to exist in the slimy world of criminals and wives that don't tell the truth. The worst we see of police activity is some thuggish coercion extended to a pair of worthless burglars - besides that the Precinct is completely above board - the cops spring personally for free coffee and sandwiches for prisoners awaiting trial. That uncomplicated attitude ignores the fact that our 'hero' McCloud is a psychotic vigilante obviously concocted to arouse the outrage of viewers who feel that cops are disadvantaged in their war with crime.
Hence the fairly groundbreaking introduction of an abortionist into the proceedings; as played by George Macready, a specialist in loathsome characters, Dr. Schneider is even given a German surname to engender subconscious associations with Nazi evil. Schneider and his snide lawyer (Warner Anderson of Destination Moon) are contemptible conspirators laughing up their sleeves at poor stoop McCloud, who thinks he'll actually be able to put the quack behind bars. Emotionally, Detective Story is a loaded deck.
We eventually turn against McCloud when he rejects his suffering wife Mary, played by the capable Eleanor Parker. McCloud appears to be written as an anti-hero, but the balance of the play is thrown off by Kirk Douglas' star performance. He puts so much (overplayed) angst into McCloud that most viewers will side with him unconditonally. The most memorable contrast in the film is between McCloud and the vile Charley Gennini; we know that loveable Cathy O'Donnell and William Bendix will get young Craig Hill off the hook.
The star supporting performances in the ensemble cast make Detective Story worth a second look. Cathy O'Donnell is given her umpteenth opportunity to play a sad-faced adorable young woman, and makes less impact than usual. But the real standout is Joseph Wiseman, a powerhouse actor that made a strong impression in every film appearance. His completely detestable Charley Gennini is a mass of ethnic gestures distorted through a lowlife's self-awareness; he strikes attitudes and insolent postures the way an ordinary person might chew gum. Wiseman's outrageous excess is a heavy contrast to the subdued atmosphere in the Precinct hall, and we're shocked to see a display that seems so before its time. Most of us know Wiseman only through his deadpan performance as James Bond's first nemesis in Dr. No. One look at him and we can see where Harvey Keitel got 90% of his act. Honest, the similarity is startling.
Also grabbing our attention is the great actress Lee Grant. She scores major points as a feeble shoplifter who spends her day at the Precinct wide-eyed at all that transpires and offering worthless observations and advice. She's amazing in her own way, understated in voice and doing a lot of acting with her eyes. Interestingly, even though her paltry crime of boosting a purse is far less grave than the young embezzler across the hall, William Bendix' detective never thinks of offering her a break. I guess she's neither insufficiently clean-cut nor Waspish enough. Actress Grant wasn't given much of a break either. Immediately blacklisted, she only got a few film roles in almost ten years.
Detective Story is a good show even if it has a few dated aspects; it's superior to many a 'serious' crime drama of its time. Paramount's transfer is practically perfect, with beefy audio. We're told that recycled tracks from Miklos Rosza's Double Indemnity augment the score by Victor Young. There are no other extras. William Wyler was nominated for best director, Eleanor Parker as best actress and Lee Grant as best supporting actress.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Detective Story rates:
Movie: Very good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 27, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson