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Thursday, July 14, 2016

Detective Story

I didn't know much about Detective Story before I watched it last night, and wow was it good. Based on a play by Sidney Kingsley, it was directed by William Wyler in 1951 and stars Kirk Douglas in his one of his most intense roles (and that's saying someone) as a cop who never compromises.

You can see the stage origins, as it has one set--the detective squad room at the 21st precinct in New York. We see the various oddballs and other characters that come through--it might have been an inspiration for the old Barney Miller TV show. It starts with a scatter-brained shoplifter (Lee Grant, an Oscar nominee) who is constantly apologizing for bothering everyone. Later a pair of burglars are pulled in, including one (Joseph Wiseman, who was later Dr. No) just a little too close to madness.

Douglas is Jim McLeod, and the case he's been working on is a doctor. Now, this is a 1951 film, so the word "abortion" is never mentioned, but it's pretty clear what's going on--this obstetrician has killed woman in botched abortions, and Douglas is hell-bent to put him away. But the doctor has lawyered up, and warns the cops that he wants his client not to be touched by rubber hoses or any other methods. The lawyer also insinuates that Douglas has a personal reason to be after this doctor, and to ask his wife about it (Eleanor Parker, also an Oscar nominee).

One can see what's coming, and even though there's a predictability it's still fascinating to see Douglas, who sees things in black and white, confront the reality that he's not much different from his father, who was a career criminal. "You're a cruel, vicious man," Parker tells him. Douglas was never one to shy away from histrionics, but there always entertaining to watch.

Other members of the cast include William Bendix, as a kindly detective and Burt Mustin, as a janitor. Mustin, for people of my age, was a fixture on TV through the fifties to the seventies, as he always played an old man. That's because he was old--Detective Story was his first professional role, and he was sixty-seven years old. Also notable is the photography by Lee Garmes, who uses deep focus photography to excellent results.

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