Blog Directory CineVerse: Book 'em, Kirk-o

Book 'em, Kirk-o

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Last week, our CineVerse group closely examined Detective Story, the 1951 film directed by William Wyler and based on a play by Sidney Kingsley (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here). Arguably, Detective Story is more of a police procedural than a proper noir. The movie is interesting not just because it’s set entirely in a police station within a bustling New York precinct over the course of one day and night. It’s also fascinating because the main character – Detective Jim McLeod (played by Kirk Douglas) – is, on one hand, a tough and relentless cop known for his dedication to his job and his uncompromising approach to justice, but on the other hand, he’s a deeply flawed and conflicted individual, haunted by his past and struggling to come to terms with his own failings.

The making of Detective Story was notable for its use of innovative camera techniques and its ensemble cast, which included several prominent actors of the era, such as William Bendix, Lee Grant, and Joseph Wiseman. The film was also praised for its realistic portrayal of police work and its nuanced depiction of complex characters.

What makes Detective Story a thought-provoking film worthy of retrospection? It’s essentially the filming of a popular stage play that takes place entirely in a single locale. Shooting such a confined story in a sole setting was likely challenging for the filmmakers, as the set and clustering of actors can become tedious and repetitive. For visual oomph, director William Wyler chose to employ deep-focus cinematography in which characters in the foreground, middle ground, and background are all in focus and we have multiple planes of characters to concentrate on in the same shot. Likewise, he occasionally uses overlapping dialogue – relatively rare at the time – to underscore how frenetic a police station can be.

This would have been a controversial film for the early 1950s in that Dr. Schneider is assumed to be an illegal abortionist. He’s not called as such in the film, but audiences then and today can interpret that he was terminating pregnancies illicitly. Additionally, the Breen censorship office normally would not permit a police officer to be killed, but they made an exception for this movie because the murder of McLeod is not premeditated and the killing serves an important dramatic purpose that makes his character more sympathetic.

Consider how our allegiance toward McLeod dramatically shifts as the story progresses and we learn how violent, ill-tempered, and resentful he is. Even though Schneider is a loathsome character, we cringe at how McLeod continually breaks the law in his violent treatment of the suspect and digs his own grave. The final straw comes when McLeod pathetically rejects Mary for the second time. His character is redeemed somewhat at the conclusion, however, when McLeod practically begs Gennini to shoot him and put him out of his misery, after which he drops his case against Arthur.

It’s somewhat refreshing to see an African-American police officer character in a 1951 film. Granted, Russell Evans as officer Steve Barnes isn’t given much to do or say, but it’s a small sign of racial progress in a Hollywood feature nonetheless.

Sadly, this movie reveals sexist gender politics of the time, putting Mary through the wringer for getting pregnant out of wedlock and having multiple lovers before marrying McLeod, for which he called her a tramp. New Yorker critic Richard Brody wrote: “William Wyler’s 1951 drama shows the dangers that women face when abortion is illegal—and suggests that an underlying sociopathology, the control of women’s sex lives, drives men to ban abortion…The drama’s tension involves the destructive extremes of masculinity, linking strength and courage with pitiless judgment and sexual domination; the essential subject is society’s—rather, men’s—obsession with women’s virginity, and the film’s liberal-minded perspective brings a hint of reality to rigid Hollywood mores.”

Among the major themes underpinning the story is the message of “bend or break.” McLeod is too obsessed and rigid to change his extreme views on law, order, and retribution. His intransigence and adherence to a hyper-masculine code of self-righteous ethics leads to his downfall, including the likely loss of his job, the dissolution of his marriage, the loss of respect from his boss and peers, and ultimately his life.

Another reading? Forgiveness, mercy, and empathy are as important as justice and safety. McLeod isn’t willing to give war hero Arthur a break or forgive his wife’s actions as a younger unmarried woman. Detective Story demonstrates that police officers need to be flexible and compassionate human beings who can benefit from better work/life balance.

Detective Story also serves as a rumination on the dangers of taking the lawn into your own hands. McLeod tries to play judge, jury, and executioner in addition to his role as detective, and his heavy-handed methods of interrogation and personal punishment are more than reprehensible – they’re illegal. Sadly, many other officers on the force practice similar physically violent methods of coercion and vengeance that were more widely tolerated decades ago.

Significant takeaway #4: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Despite his intentions and determination, McLeod turns out to be just as violent, recalcitrant, and psychologically twisted as his father, whom he vowed never to emulate.

Similar works

  • The Desperate Hours
  • Glengarry Glen Ross and Homicide, both by David Mamet
  • Dragnet
  • His Girl Friday/The Front Page, The Petrified Forest
  • The Sniper
  • The Naked City
  • Call Northside 777
  • Boomerang
  • Panic in the Street

Other films by William Wyler

  • The Best Years of Our Lives
  • Ben Hur
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Mrs. Miniver
  • Roman Holiday
  • Dodsworth
  • The Little Foxes
  • The Heiress
  • Funny Girl

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