Release Date(s)1951 (November 29, 2022)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B+
Detective Story addresses a taboo topic head-on in a gritty portrait of a tough-as-nails, brutal New York City cop unwavering in his hatred of lawbreakers. Adapted from the stage play by Sidney Kingsley, the film introduces a collection of characters who work in or pass through a Manhattan police station.
Detective Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas) enjoys putting away bad guys. His contempt for law breakers was entrenched in childhood, when his criminal father beat his mother and drove her insane. McLeod has a particular abhorrence for alleged abortionist Karl Schneider (George Macready), being charged again after a previous arrest, and assault, by McLeod. Only with his wife, Mary (Eleanor Parker), does McLeod show his gentle side, as they talk of their future and raising a family.
Schneider’s lawyer, Endicott Sims (Warner Anderson), is about to have Schneider surrender himself but wants assurances that McLeod will not rough him up. Sims indicates that he has damaging information he will make public if McLeod gets out of line. The boss, Lt. Monaghan (Horace McMahon), respects McLeod’s detective work but doesn’t hesitate to warn him about the consequences of his hot temper.
As the main plot unfolds, several subplots are introduced. A hapless young woman (Lee Grant, in her screen debut) is booked for shoplifting. A hopeless young man, Arthur Kindred (Craig Hill), is brought in for embezzling and later must face both his employer (James Mahoney), to explain why he took the money, and his childhood friend Susan Carmichael (Cathy O’Donnell), who comes to the station offering to make good the amount stolen. Two well known burglars, Charley Gennini (Joseph Wiseman) and Lewis Abbott (Michael Strong), are dragged in and turned over to McLeod and his partner, Lou Brody (William Bendix), for interrogation.
There’s a constant bustle in the primary set with detectives at their desks typing reports, uniformed cops entering and leaving, suspects being questioned and fingerprinted. The camera moves constantly to capture all of the activity, much of it unfolding simultaneously. In one scene, three characters are on three phones carrying on three different conversations and the timing is so perfect that we hear key snatches of each one.
Director William Wyler (Ben-Hur) opens the film up only slightly to show the street outside the station house (actually an outdoor set on the Paramount lot). There are many different acting styles in the film, ranging from Parker’s quiet, emotional delivery to Wiseman’s way over the top ranting. Rather than seem inconsistent, they point up the diversity of characters that find themselves in a police station. Grant’s shoplifter is a naive observer on hand for nearly the entire film, watching, asking questions, reacting to what she witnesses. The detectives and cops go about their business, taking whatever comes along in stride. Anderson projects Sims’ arrogance and intimidating tone, totally brushed aside by McLeod. McMahon is completely convincing as the hard-boiled commanding officer of a Manhattan police precinct. Wiseman’s burglar comes across as nuts. He rants, writhes, and bellows about his innocence though the stolen goods are on him and he’s been imprisoned for burglary many times before. His outburst are so intense, they’re funny.
Douglas plays McLeod as a rigid person who sees only black or white. He has no empathy for factors that may have prompted the actions that have brought some of the suspects to the precinct. Psychologically damaged by a terrible childhood, he takes out those years on the suspects who come his way. His hatred for criminals is deeply rooted and he’s merciless as he goes by the letter of the law. Douglas’ trademark clenched-teeth delivery is on view throughout, and most intense in a later scene when his character becomes completely unhinged on learning information that batters his iron-clad beliefs and challenges his affection for Mary. Parker’s Mary allows us to see McLeod in a more favorable light, warm, tender, and loving. Initially the stereotype of the devoted, pretty wife, Parker later embodies Mary’s distress, confusion, agony, hopefulness, and ultimate resolve.
Detective Story was shot by director of photography Lee Garmes with black-and-white 35 mm film, processed photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber Studio Classics is sourced from a 4K scan of the original camera negative. Clarity and delineation are excellent, particularly evident in the spare squad room, patterns in clothing, facial stubble on the male actors, and wood grain in doors. Lighting further deglamorizes the setting, with a few carefully composed shadows to heighten drama in key scenes. The camera is always moving about, following characters. Direction and editing give the story a brisk pace despite the few sets and dialogue-heavy screenplay. In a scene of McLeod and Schneider in a paddy wagon, rear projection is used to suggest that the stationary studio set is the inside a moving vehicle.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is clear and distinct. In tense scenes, Kirk Douglas grits his teeth and practically seethes as he speaks. Lee Grant, equally scared and fascinated by the squad room, speaks with a heavy “New Yawk” accent, accompanying her wide-eyed delivery. Joseph Wiseman dominates his scenes with manic outbursts, shouting, and unprovoked yelling. Sound effects include suspects being pummeled, police and ambulance sirens, a fender bender accident, and gun shots. The film doesn’t have an original score, but music by Miklos Rozsa and Victor Young from other films is used under opening and closing credits.
Bonus materials include the following:
- Audio Commentary with Alan K. Rode
- Trailer (2:21)
- Paths of Glory Trailer (3:03)
- Lonely Are the Brave Trailer (0:54)
- A Lovely Way to Die Trailer (2:25)
- The Web Trailer (2:17)
- Cry of the City Trailer (2:33)
- Kiss the Blood Off My Hands Trailer (1:37)
- The Turning Point Trailer (2:01)
- Deadline U.S.A. Trailer (2:45)
- 99 River Street Trailer (2:14)
In his commentary, author and film historian Alan K. Rode notes that Detective Story was filmed entirely at Paramount Studios. Director William Wyler devoted two weeks to rehearsal. The shooting schedule was five weeks. The screen rights cost $285,000. Members of the original Broadway cast who duplicated their roles in the film include Lee Grant, Horace McMahon, Joseph Wiseman, and Michael Strong. Because of the film’s subject matter, getting it made was an uphill battle. Joseph Been and the Production Code were still powerful in the early 1950s, and it wouldn’t be until Breen’s retirement in 1954 that guidelines were relaxed. In the play, the squad room is described as “nakedly institutional.” Wyler expanded the sets from two in the play to six in the film. Supporting players are identified and a brief career overview is provided for each. Eleanor Parker was nominated for Best Actress for Caged and received a second Best Actress nomination for Detective Story. The film was Joseph Wiseman’s film debut and though he’s often “playing to the balcony,” he turns in a performance that’s fun to watch. A decade later, Wiseman played the title character in the first James Bond film, Dr. No. William Wyler, notorious for doing many takes, worked quickly and actually was days ahead of schedule. He directed three films that won the Best Picture Academy Award, directed Bette Davis in three of her Oscar-nominated performances, and directed many actors who received nominations from the Academy. Wyler’s director of photography was Lee Garmes, who worked very quickly. “Speed is valuable when time is money in Hollywood.” Detective Story includes “day in the life of a police precinct vignettes.” Kirk Douglas was very competitive and could be difficult to work with. Years later, Wyler offered Douglas the role of Messala in Ben-Hur, offering to build up the role, but Douglas refused. If he couldn’t be Ben-Hur, he wasn’t interested.
Detective Story features a powerhouse performance by Kirk Douglas and a first-rate supporting cast. Director William Wyler gives every actor a showcase scene, and avoids a claustrophobic feel by deft camera work and constant movement. Though the word “abortion” is never mentioned, the procedure is a key, dramatic plot point.
- Dennis Seuling