Detective Story (1951 film)
|Directed by||William Wyler|
|Screenplay by||Robert Wyler|
|Based on||Detective Story|
by Sidney Kingsley
|Produced by||William Wyler|
John F. Seitz
|Edited by||Robert Swink|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
|Box office||$2.8 million (rentals)|
Detective Story is a 1951 American film noir directed by William Wyler 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 film 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.
Detective Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas), whose violent criminal father drove his mother to insanity, nurtures a lifelong hatred of lawbreakers and believes that they are being let off too lightly. He maintains a particular contempt for Dr. Karl Schneider (George Macready), wanted for murder in connection with his work as an illegal abortionist.
Schneider’s assistant (Gladys George) is ready to implicate him in a police line-up, but Schneider has bribed her not to pick him out, to McLeod’s fury. Another chance to establish Schneider’s guilt is missed when a victim dies in hospital before McLeod can get him there for identification. Schneider boasts that he’s got sensitive knowledge about McLeod, who finally explodes in anger and brutally attacks him, requiring McLeod’s colleague Monaghan (Horace McMahon) to escort him to the hospital in an ambulance. Schneider, half-conscious, mentions the name Giacoppetti, in connection with a woman supposedly linked with McLeod.
When Schneider’s lawyer Sims (Warner Anderson) arrives to protest the incident, he inadvertently lets slip that the woman is McLeod’s wife Mary (Eleanor Parker), and Monaghan interviews her in private, to investigate the connection, which she denies, until Giacoppetti (Gerald Mohr) walks in and greets her by name.
Mary is reduced to confessing to her husband that she had become pregnant by Giacoppetti. McLeod had worried about her apparent infertility, and now cannot stomach the thought that it was caused by her abortion by Schneider, especially when Sims hints that there may have been more lovers. But at that moment, McLeod is fatally shot by a repeat offender (Joseph Wiseman) who has taken advantage of a distraction to grab a revolver from another cop. McLeod asks his wife’s forgiveness with his dying words. The local paper praises McLeod for dying "in the line of duty".
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. Plotlines involving the killing of police officers or references to abortion were not permitted by Production Code. 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.
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."
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.)"
Awards and nominations
Video and DVD
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."
- 'The Top Box Office Hits of 1951', Variety, January 2, 1952.
- 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.
- 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.
- Prince, S. (2003). Classical film violence: Designing and regulating brutality in Hollywood cinema, 1930–1968. (pp. 128-129). Piscataway, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
- Crowther, Bosley. Detective Story. The New York Times film review, November 7, 1951. Last accessed: December 26, 2007.
- Steffen, James. Turner Classic Movies, film review and analysis, 2007. Last accessed: February 1, 2008.
- "Cinema: The New Pictures, Oct. 29, 1951"
- "Festival de Cannes: Detective Story". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved 2009-01-17.
- Tooze, Gary W. DVD Beaver, review, 2007. Last accessed: December 26, 2007.
- "Those Were the Days". Nostalgia Digest. 42 (4): 35. Autumn 2016.