Sunday, January 29, 2023


Paramount Pictures, 103m 33s

Police station procedure merges with noir city grit over an eventful single day in DETECTIVE STORY, Paramount's big screen version of the popular 1949 play written by Sidney Kingsley. Director William Wyler's adaptation is set in New York City, where the 21st Precinct is a non-stop revolving door for assorted criminals, lost souls, lowlifes and local loonies. It is a colorful (albeit B & W) atmosphere where law enforcement officials have become well practiced in communicating with every imaginable representation of the public. The hot summer heat surely makes for a long workday, especially for Detective James McLeod (Kirk Douglas), who has been working long hours but has a dinner date commitment with his wife Mary McLeod (Eleanor Parker). Based on the goings-on at the precinct, however, the viewer has good reason to suspect that dinner date will not take place. A complex case is introduced when attorney Endicott Sims (Warner Anderson) enters the precinct and asks for Lieutenant Monaghan (Horace McMahon). Sims's client Karl Schneider (George Macready), a reputed baby broker, has agreed to turn himself in but is fearful of McLeod, who has been known to beat suspects. In fact Sims has gone so far as to photograph the physique of Schneider to verify an absence of bruises and lacerations!

Given his reputation for roughhouse tactics with suspects, McLeod is the obvious antecedent of so many popular cop characters that populated movies released in the 1970s and 1980s, the sort of crime stories in which the end always justifies the means. McLeod is bothered particularly when bad guys are released on the grounds of insufficient evidence. Unfortunately he abhors criminals too much for his own good, as when he brutalizes Schneider during a police wagon ride, with a hard punch to the midsection serving as the exclamation point. One of McLeod's fatal flaws is his inability to believe any criminal could reform. The following McLeod quote neatly summarizes his philosophy that even remorseful criminals like Arthur Kindred (Craig Hill) never change:

"Miss Carmichael (Cathy O'Donnell), you seem like a very nice young lady. I'm gonna give you some advice. I've seen a thousand like him. You take your money and run."

In a familiar film noir hardship that afflicts the lead protagonist, McLeod is haunted by his past. His criminal-minded father drove his wife, McLeod's mother, insane. In fact she died in a mental asylum. A contributory factor from McLeod's past that emphatically shaped his belief system was an occasion when he let some criminals go out of pity. McLeod came to regret that move after one of the men he released killed someone just two days later. In a train of thought congruent with his personal and professional history, McLeod theorizes civilians are part of the problem since often they are unwilling to press charges.

Blocking is everything for a film heavily concentrated in one setting.
Note the background presence of the villain played by
George Macready in the three screen captures above.

The classic film noir is noted for ironies, often several in the same film, and DETECTIVE STORY embodies noir irony at its most cynical. All the historical tensions that merged to form Detective James McLeod reach a crescendo when he learns his dear wife Mary once required Schneider's professional services. The knowledge that her baby was "born dead" (aborted by inference) calls into question McLeod's sentimentalized view of Mary. As a former patient of Schneider's, probably the worst brand of criminal as measured by McLeod's uncompromising values, both Mary and her husband are linked forever with the corrupt evil McLeod associates with Schneider. The instant McLeod learns of Mary's complicated past, rather than offering support he transfers his eternal hatred for Schneider to his wife. In the dark wit of the noir film, everything McLeod despises most is connected inseparably to his own marriage.

"I thought I knew you. I thought you were everything good and pure."

The notion of the devoted wife converted to whore in front of her righteous husband leans into another persistent noir trope, that of disillusionment with the traditional American family. McLeod did not know his wife to the degree he though he did and had made unrealistic assumptions about her purity, the sort of idealized notions that essentially guaranteed her male counterpart's disappointment over one thing or another. Once McLeod learns about his wife's past, he cruelly downgrades her to "tramp" status. "My immaculate wife" he sneers dismissively. To make matters worse for a marriage disintegrating before our eyes, it is revealed Mary has been unable to bear children since her fateful visit to the Schneider "farm." McLeod becomes obsessed with thoughts of how many other men may have known Mary intimately before he did. The possibility of an unknown number of men in Mary's background amounts to the unthinkable for McLeod. His obsessive thoughts about her past lovers prove to be the last straw for Mary, who realizes she has no future with a man unable to understand she had a personal life before she met him.

In another of the film's bleak ironies, McLeod vowed to be a different man than the father he detested, yet matured into an eerily similar figure characterized by both physical and mental abuse of others. Mary leaves McLeod when she recognizes he is no different than his horrible father. The greatest irony of all is that McLeod, the supposedly principled character with the strongest moral compass, in truth is the film's villain. And like all of the purest examples of the noir narrative, McLeod faces an unwelcome moment of existential recognition when he realizes he has morphed into the father he always hated. Perhaps that development was genetically predetermined, or as the noir film time and again insists, his fate. In the final irony, McLeod is done in by exactly the type of criminal that, as he always stressed, never should have been walking around free in the first place.

The cluttered appearance of the 21st Precinct is
reflective of the varied personalities who come and go.

In spite of Production Code concerns, this stage-to-screen noir variant is enriched by appropriate character types that suggest a corrupt, noxious environment. Karl Schneider is depicted as a doctor who takes care of unwanted pregnancies via an illegal adoption racket in New Jersey, but the implication is he is an abortionist (as he was in the stage version of the story). What goes unspoken in the narrative is that Schneider serves a public need with his work. The illegal activities that take place at the Schneider property should hold special interest to the modern viewer since the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade in June of 2022. One wonders if operations like the fictitious one founded by Schneider will become more plentiful in the US moving forward.

DETECTIVE STORY's major criminal might be Schneider, at least in the eyes of McLeod, but a potpourri of urban characters suggests a city overrun with people who are far from model citizens. Long-term louse Charley Gennini (Joseph Wiseman, his debut) is matched with mild-mannered Lewis Abbott (Michael Strong), the dim light of two burglars. Arthur Kindred is an embezzler who stole from his employer Albert R. Pritchett (James Maloney) in an attempt to impress a woman named Joy Carmichael (now isn't that a noir thing to do?). Kindred has come to regret his actions and seems deserving of a second chance. Racketeer Tami Giacoppetti (Gerald Mohr) is the man who impregnated Mary and helped forge her path to Schneider. The witness Miss Hatch (Gladys George), the recipient of a nice new fur, abruptly does not recall what Schneider looks like. Detective Lou Brody (William Bendix), a heavy drinker, stands in contrast to McLeod as the more compassionate man. Brody believes in second chances, and the story is resolved accordingly.

The screenplay was co-written by Philip Yordan and Robert Wyler (William’s older brother), who did an admirable job transporting the Kingsley play from stage to screen. Director of photography Lee Garmes does well with a limited backdrop. The only negative really is the performance of Joseph Wiseman, who portrayed the same 4-time loser in the play. Wiseman certainly could have toned down his performance for the film. Director William Wyler should have realized Wiseman's overacting was a distraction to an otherwise well-oiled machine. DETECTIVE STORY earned four Academy Award nominations:  William Wyler (Best Director), Eleanor Parker (Best Actress in a Leading Role), writers Robert Wyler and Philip Yordan (Best Writing, Screenplay) and Lee Grant in her debut as the timid shoplifter (Best Actress in a Supporting Role).

The dual-layered Blu-ray version of DETECTIVE STORY now available from Kino Lorber Studio Classics was one of my favorite physical media releases of 2022. Framed at the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, the presentation was remastered in HD by Paramount Pictures from a 4K scan of the original camera negative. Some scratches are visible but this transfer passes the eye test in the two areas that matter most:  contrast level and film grain.

Night and the city.

McLeod's potential for domestic violence is implied in this shot.

The audio commentary track by film historian Alan K. Rode emphasizes the differences between the stage version and this filmed adaptation. Paramount acquired the rights to the play for $285K plus a percentage of the profits. Shot in sequence primarily on a soundstage, it would be the speediest production of director William Wyler's career. Paramount brass had no interest in Wyler's penchant for perfection via many, many takes. The subject matter of the film tested the limits of the aging 1930 Production Code. Top code official Joseph Breen objected to the play's abortion content, also to the killing of McLeod by a seedy criminal. Thus the abortionist was converted into a doctor who delivers babies born out of wedlock and furthers his profits through an illegal adoption racket.

A collection of theatrical trailers for similar titles available from Kino is the only other supplement.

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