Detective Story (1951 film)

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Detective Story
Theatrical release poster
Directed byWilliam Wyler
Produced byWilliam Wyler
Screenplay byRobert Wyler
Philip Yordan
Based onDetective Story
1949 play
by Sidney Kingsley
StarringKirk Douglas
Eleanor Parker
William Bendix
Cathy O'Donnell
CinematographyLee Garmes
John F. Seitz
Edited byRobert Swink
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
‹See TfM›
  • November 6, 1951 (1951-11-06) (United States)
Running time
103 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$2.8 million (rentals)[1]

Detective Story is a 1951 film noir directed by William Wyler[2] that tells the story of one day in the lives of the various people who populate a police detective squad. It features Kirk Douglas, Eleanor Parker, William Bendix, Cathy O'Donnell, and George Macready. Both Lee Grant and Joseph Wiseman perform in their film debuts. The movie was adapted by Robert Wyler and Philip Yordan from the 1949 play of the same name by Sidney Kingsley. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Academy Award for Best Director for Wyler, Best Actress for Parker, and Best Supporting Actress for Grant.

An angry New York detective is one of a precinct of cops in a grim daily battle with the city's lowlife. Little does he realize that his obsessive pursuit of an "abortionist" is leading him to a discovery closer to home. The characters who pass through the precinct over the course of the day include a young petty embezzler, a pair of burglars, and a naive shoplifter.


A shoplifter (Lee Grant) is arrested in New York City, and her booking occurs at the 21st police precinct. Outside, Det. Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas) is sharing a romantic moment with his wife Mary (Eleanor Parker), and he discusses the children he would like to have. McLeod returns to the precinct to process a young embezzler named Arthur Kindred (Craig Hill).

McLeod then encounters Endicott Sims (Warner Anderson), lawyer of "Dutchman" Karl Schneider (George Macready), a New Jersey doctor who has had his license revoked and is now wanted on murder charges. Sims informs Lieutenant Monaghan (Horace McMahon) that Schneider wants to turn himself in to avoid the wrath of McLeod, who has been conducting ongoing harassment against the doctor, who is known to perform abortions. McLeod professes his hatred of Schneider, and in fact all criminals, lamenting that the law merely "coddles" them.

Two burglars, Charley Gennini (Joseph Wiseman) and Lewis Abbott (Michael Strong), are brought in next. With the help of his partner Lou Brody (William Bendix), McLeod interrogates the men, and manages to turn Abbott against Gennini. Further investigation proves that Gennini essentially makes a living out of thievery. When his record comes in, it turns out that he has done far worse than stealing.

When Schneider arrives with Sims, McLeod taunts him, then explains that the doctor's assistant, Miss Hatch (Gladys George), has implicated Schneider and will pick him out of a line-up. To McLeod's disgust, Schneider has bribed Hatch with a fur stole, and she fails to identify him. McLeod explodes and calls Hatch a liar before dismissing her. He admits to reporter Joe Feinson (Luis Van Rooten) that his hatred for his father and "his criminal mind" (who drove his mother to a lunatic asylum) is what fuels his crusade against evil-doers.

McLeod starts to take Schneider to Bellevue Hospital where a young victim of Schneider's work is being treated. However, on the way he is told that she has died and without her identification, there is no case against Schneider. As they head back to the precinct, Schneider threatens McLeod with information he claims to have on the detective, taunting him that he has a lot of pull in high places. McLeod responds by slapping and punching Schneider, who collapses. As an ambulance is called, Schneider mentions the name "Giacoppetti" and a woman to Lt. Monaghan, which presumably has something to do with McLeod. When Sims comes by to protest his client's treatment, he inadvertently reveals—only in the presence of Monaghan—that the woman is Mary McLeod.

Arthur's boss, Albert R. Pritchett (James Maloney), comes to the precinct to file charges against Arthur. A family friend, Susan (Cathy O'Donnell), arrives and gives Pritchett $120 she has scraped together, hoping no charges are filed against Arthur. McLeod tries to dissuade Susan, but she pleads with Pritchett, swearing that the funds will be repaid the next day. Arthur stole the money to pay for an expensive dinner date with Susan's beautiful sister, Joy, in a vain attempt to rekindle their earlier romance. Brody sympathizes with Arthur because the young man had served in the U.S. Navy during the war, and was about the same age as Brody's son, who died on the USS Juneau in 1942. Brody talks Pritchett into accepting Susan's money but McLeod, who is angered by Brody's interference, essentially bullies Pritchett into filing charges, stating that a first offender always becomes a repeat offender (using Gennini as an example), and no mercy should be shown.

Mary McLeod is asked to come to the station by Lt. Monaghan, who in the privacy of his office inquires about her relationship with Giacoppetti, a racketeer, or Schneider. She denies knowing them, but when Giacoppetti walks in and greets her, she bursts into tears. Giacoppetti, pressured by Monaghan, admits that Mary had gotten pregnant while they dated earlier, and she went to Schneider for an abortion. Monaghan needs to know if McLeod knows about any of this history (as it provides a motive for his treatment of Schneider). Mary is therefore reduced to confessing to her husband about her past, and asks his forgiveness. McLeod threatens Giacoppetti with assault, then brutally responds to Mary that he'd rather die than find out his wife is "a tramp", and asks if her infertility was caused by Schneider's abortion. Stunned and severely hurt by Jim's reaction, Mary leaves in tears.

Susan professes her love for Arthur. The shoplifter is taken to night court, and as she leaves she bids a cheerful goodbye to all in the squad room, to the bewilderment and amusement of the detectives. McLeod, meantime, urged by Brody and Feinson to forgive his wife, tries to curb his anger. Mary returns to the station to say goodbye to McLeod and he pleads with her to stay. Mary relents, but after a snide comment made by Sims about Mary's love life, McLeod falls back on his anger and asks how many men there were before he met her, admitting he cannot wash away the "dirty pictures" in his mind. Calling him cruel and vengeful, she leaves McLeod for good, not wanting to be "driven to a lunatic asylum".

Gennini, taking advantage of the commotion started when a victim runs into the station yelling she's been robbed, grabs a gun from a policeman's holster and shoots McLeod when he deliberately advances on him. McLeod, in his dying words, asks for his wife's forgiveness and has Brody tear up the charges against Arthur Kindred. McLeod then begins an Act of Contrition, which Brody finishes after McLeod dies. A distressed Brody then releases Arthur while admonishing him "not to make a monkey out of me". Arthur and Susan leave as Monaghan calls for a priest, and Joe calls his newspaper to inform them of McLeod's death, "in the line of duty".



Paramount bought film rights in 1949 for $285,000, plus a percentage of the profits.[3] Alan Ladd was the first star linked to the project.[4]

The film version omits details from the play pertaining to the criminal underworld and the dangers of a police state.

During production, the film had some trouble with the Production Code Authority. The Production Code did not allow the killing of police officers or references to abortion. Joseph Breen suggested that explicit references to abortion would be altered to "baby farming". However, when the film was released, film critics still interpreted Dr. Schneider as an illicit abortionist. Breen and William Wyler suggested to the MPAA Production Code Committee that the code be amended to allow the killing of police officers if it was absolutely necessary for the plot. They agreed, and the code was amended, lifting the previous ban on cop-killing. Another noteworthy factor regarding the passing of this film is that at the time that this film was made, the Production Code Administration's primary concern about cop killing was in regards to "Gangster" films, in that there is conflict between the criminal and the police officer. The killing was not premeditated, which again, helped allow the Production Code Administration to pass the film.[5]


Critical response[edit]

When the film was released, Bosley Crowther, film critic for The New York Times, lauded the film and the casting, writing, "Sidney Kingsley's play, Detective Story, has been made into a brisk, absorbing film by Producer-Director William Wyler, with the help of a fine, responsive cast. Long on graphic demonstration of the sort of raffish traffic that flows through a squad-room of plainclothes detectives in a New York police station-house and considerably short on penetration into the lives of anyone on display... In the performance of this business, every member of the cast rates a hand, with the possible exception of Eleanor Parker as the hero's wife, and she is really not to blame. Kirk Douglas is so forceful and aggressive as the detective with a kink in his brain that the sweet and conventional distractions of Miss Parker as his wife appear quite tame. In the role of the mate of such a tiger—and of a woman who has had the troubled past that is harshly revealed in this picture—Mr. Wyler might have cast a sharper dame."[6]

Critic James Steffen appreciated the direction of the film and the cinematography of Lee Garmes, writing "While Detective Story remains essentially a filmed play, Wyler manages to use the inherent constraints of such an approach as an artistic advantage. The confined set of the police precinct is not simply a space where various characters observe each other and interact; it also contributes to the underlying thematic thrust and ultimately to the film's emotional power. The staging of the individual scenes, which often plays on foreground-background relationships, is also augmented by Lee Garmes’ deep focus photography. (Wyler, of course, used deep focus photography extensively in the films he shot with Gregg Toland.)"[7]

Time felt the film adaptation was better than the original play.[8]


Year Award/Category Recipient Result
Academy Awards
1951 Best Actress in a Leading Role Eleanor Parker Nominated
1951 Best Actress in a Supporting Role Lee Grant Nominated
1951 Best Director William Wyler Nominated
1951 Best Writing, Screenplay Philip Yordan, Robert Wyler Nominated
British Academy of Film and Television Arts
1952 BAFTA Film Award Best Film from any Source – USA Nominated
1952 Cannes Film Festival
1952 Best Actress Lee Grant Won[9]
1952 Grand Prize of the Festival William Wyler Nominated
Directors Guild of America
1952 DGA Award Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures – William Wyler Nominated
Edgar Award
1952 Best Motion Picture Screenplay Sidney Kingsley, Robert Wyler, Philip Yordan Won
Golden Globes
1952 Best Motion Picture – Drama Nominated
1952 Best Motion Picture Actor – Drama Kirk Douglas Nominated
1952 Best Supporting Actress Lee Grant Nominated
Writers Guild of America
1952 WGA Award (Screen) for Best Written American Drama Philip Yordan, Robert Wyler Nominated
Argentine Academy of Cinematography Arts and Sciences
1953 Silver Condor (as Antesala del infierno) Special mention


Video and DVD[edit]

In a DVD review of the film, technology critic Gary W. Tooze, wrote, "Absolutely stunning image. One of the best I have seen for a black and white film this year. Superb sharpness, shadow details and contrast. Standard Paramount bare bones release with no extras and a price tag for the frugal minded. The image and price make it a must own for Noir fans and everyone else too. Wyler direction sends the film to upper tier to join the DVD."[10]

Radio adaptation[edit]

On April 26, 1954, Detective Story was presented on Lux Radio Theatre on NBC. Douglas and Parker starred in the adaptation.[11]


  1. ^ 'The Top Box Office Hits of 1951', Variety, January 2, 1952.
  2. ^ Detective Story on IMDb
  3. ^ THOMAS F. BRADY (July 18, 1949). "PARAMOUNT BUYS 'DETECTIVE STORY': Studio Obtains Kingsley Play Rights for $285,000 Plus a Share of the Gross". New York Times. p. 14.
  4. ^ THOMAS F. BRADY (July 15, 1949). "PARAMOUNT SEEKS 'DETECTIVE STORY': Studio Confirms Effort to Buy Kingsley Play, With Alan Ladd in Line for Leading Role". New York Times. p. 17.
  5. ^ Prince, S. (2003). Classical film violence: Designing and regulating brutality in hollywood cinema, 1930–1968. (pp. 128-129). Piscataway, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
  6. ^ Crowther, Bosley. Detective Story. The New York Times film review, November 7, 1951. Last accessed: December 26, 2007.
  7. ^ Steffen, James. Turner Classic Movies, film review and analysis, 2007. Last accessed: February 1, 2008.
  8. ^ "Cinema: The New Pictures, Oct. 29, 1951"
  9. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Detective Story". Retrieved 2009-01-17.
  10. ^ Tooze, Gary W. DVD Beaver, review, 2007. Last accessed: December 26, 2007.
  11. ^ "Those Were the Days". Nostalgia Digest. 42 (4): 35. Autumn 2016.

External links[edit]