Detective Story (1951 film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||William Wyler|
|Produced by||William Wyler|
|Screenplay by||Robert Wyler
|Based on||Detective Story
by Sidney Kingsley
John F. Seitz
|Edited by||Robert Swink|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
|Box office||$2.8 million (rentals)|
Detective Story is a 1951 film noir 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. Nominated for four Academy Awards, it was directed by William Wyler.
An angry New York detective is one of a precinct of cops in 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.
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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 apparently been conducting an ongoing hate campaign 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 wife 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 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 a dinner date with an old flame, Susan's beautiful sister, in a vain attempt to rekindle her interest in him. 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 and gone to Dr. Schneider for an abortion. Mary confesses to her husband and asks his forgiveness. McLeod brutally responds 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 permitted to leave. 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.
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.
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.)"
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.
- Detective Story on IMDb
- PARAMOUNT BUYS 'DETECTIVE STORY': Studio Obtains Kingsley Play Rights for $285,000 Plus a Share of the Gross By THOMAS F. BRADYSpecial to THE NEW YORK TIMES.. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 18 July 1949: 14.
- PARAMOUNT SEEKS 'DETECTIVE STORY': Studio Confirms Effort to Buy Kingsley Play, With Alan Ladd in Line for Leading Role By THOMAS F. BRADYSpecial to THE NEW YORK TIMES.. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 15 July 1949: 17.
- Prince, S. (2003). Classical film violence: Designing and regulating brutality in hollywood cinema, 1930-1968. (pp. 128-129). Piscataway, NJ: 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.