Director: William Wyler
Writer: Robert Wyler and Philip Yordan; Detective Story (1949) play by Sidney Kingsley
Cinematographer: Lee Garmes and John F. Seitz
Producer: William Wyler
by Jon Cvack
The first films that come to mind are David Mamet’s Glengarry, Glen Ross (1992), except with police detectives instead of real estate salesmen, leading you to those select scenes from Mamet’s Homicide (1991) where all the Chicago cops gather in the office. Expecting a film noir, Detective Story somehow escapes the tropes, offering a live-time chamber drama, shot almost entirely in a police bullpen.
Kirk Douglas plays the tough as nails Detective Jim McCleod (Kirk Douglas). We meet Jim outside of the precinct, bringing in a middle-aged, nameless woman shoplifter who acts as us the viewer; the fly on the wall watching it all go down. Jim’s wife Mary (Eleanor Parker) arrives to meet up for lunch and Jim pays off a cab driver so that the two could make out in the back seat, possibly having sex (though I’m not entirely convinced).
What seems like a passionate and romantic gesture will later point to Jim’s hypocrisy. Jim views law as strict; that there is no gray zone between right and wrong. When he returns to the precinct we meet a young and attractive embezzler Arthur Kindred (Craig Hill) who stole from his employer in order to provide for his supermodel girlfriend, Joy. Rather than Joy coming to Arthur’s help, Joy’s sister Susan (Cathy O'Donnell) arrives, begging the detectives to let him go; that it was done in the name of foolish romance than criminality. Soon one of the detectives approaches McCleod, asking if they could just let the kid go to which McCleod refuses.
Next is the lawyer Endicott Sims (Warner Anderson), representing doctor Karl Schneider (George Macready) who’s wanted on murder chargers, which we later learn is due to his performing abortions. McCleod is especially incensed at Endicott’s willingness to accommodate Schneider who’s a clear cut criminal. When a witness drops out of identifying Schneider in a line up and one of Schneider’s patients dies in the hospital, McCleod ramps up his rhetoric, leading Endicott to threaten to release damning documents about McCleod’s methods.
Third comes the film’s alleged comedy relief Charley Gennini (Joseph Wiseman) and Lewis Abbott (Michael Strong) who’re a pair of lowlife thieves caught with nearly two thousand dollars and a firearm. Abbott is the tough guy and Gennini is the loudmouth who thunders through each scene; giving everything he’s got, constantly on the hustle.
And so McCleod cycles between the three stories until McCleod’s wife comes to the office when Lt. Monaghan (Horace McMahon) gathers evidence that she might have been one of Schneiders patients. McCleod soon finds out and melts down, demanding to know how many others there were. They part and McCleod’s partner tries to calm him down, urging him not to give up the best thing he’s got in life. In the film’s most gripping exchange, McCleod begs for forgiveness and the two embrace for only a moment before McCleod; declaring he can’t unsee the images of Mary with other men. Mary officially storms out, vowing to leave him forever.
While McCleod’s in a daze, Gemini grabs his gun, shooting him multiple times in the stomach. Knowing it’s the end, he opts for a priest instead of a doctor where he begs for contrition. Before dying, he orders his partner to tear up the charges on Author who then learns that Susan - his girlfriend’s sister - loves him and the two embrace.
The story leaves you full as from a great meal. Weeks later, I’m left hungry to revisit, realizing how many minor details I missed and failed to connect. Until halfway through, I had no idea the whole film took place in a single location, or that rather than a hard boiled noir thriller it’d be a drama that just so happens to involve police detectives and criminals. It’s ridiculous that I have to go all the way back to Glengarry, Glen Ross to think of a comparable film.
An initial take is that the film is about the flexibility of laws and morals. McCleod is on the absolutist side of the spectrum. Some of his partners join him and others, like Brody, are more flexible. They see the difference between Arthur and Geminni and Abbott. One made a mistake, perhaps even caused by his experience from the war, and the other two have been criminals all their lives. It’s an easy enough concept to differentiate from 10,000 feet, but we get to see how the sausage is made. The process is complex and bureaucratic. It’s the initial stage of justice. I was left wondering how bias could have fit into the story; where a person’s skin color or religion creates debate amongst the officers.
The harder part to figure out is McCleod’s state of mind and how it leads to contrition. Throughout the film he mentions his “criminal mind” father who drove his mother to the insane asylum, how he’s going to end up in the institution himself, portraying his damaged mind as he obsesses over the images of his wife with other men, no matter the situation. He despised that she wasn’t pure when he met her. These images are easy to see - the virgin woman and the father figure. Except in this case, the alleged virgin is McCleod’s wife, who wasn’t even a virgin anymore (at least not since the taxi cab). Here it gets muddy. Is McCleod supposed to be a Jesus-like figure? If so, he sure was an asshole.
I’m guessing that none of this connects all that well; that rather, we were watching a man who wanted to be the exact opposite of his criminal father. The law was king. It was his idol. Insert even more religious symbols here. But from a secular standpoint, he inherited some form of mental illness. He wasn’t crazy, but suffered from some form of compulsive anxiety, exploding at his colleagues, boss, or wife no matter the consequence. It was a battle between commitment to the law versus an obsessive struggle to demand everyone he loves stick to it, rather than bending toward them. Although in an honorable job, he too pushes people away. And by the time he makes the realization, he’s dying.
The complexity is in the sacrifice. He would be remembered as dying in the line of duty; saving everyone’s lives. But it doesn’t seem from the criminals so much as from McCleod himself. By leaving the world he can ease the pain he brings on all those who love him. To rid the world of someone who can’t forfeit his views of the world.
What it all means beyond that is only something another viewing could provide.
BELOW: Love and crime
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