Detective Story

Cinema and theater, two near relatives in the visual/performance art sphere, both well suited to the presentation of drama via their shared familial traits while also exploiting their own distinctive characteristics to spin their yarns in subtly different ways. In brief, theater is all about intimacy and immediacy – capturing the essence of the moment in an almost tangible way – whereas cinema, somewhat paradoxically, uses its inherent distance to draw us in through the broader visual splendor. The fusion of these two competing yet complementary forms can have mixed results, largely dependent on the scope of the production and its ultimate goal. At worst, it can descend into a static talk-fest, trapped by structure and a vague sense of claustrophobia. On the other hand, a clever filmmaker can use his cinematic bag of tricks to create the illusion of breadth without sacrificing the feeling of closeness associated with the stage. William Wyler’s Detective Story (1951) makes a reasonable fist of striking an equitable balance.

In a nutshell, we’re witnesses at the wake and funeral of one man’s humanity. It opens on a bustling New York street and quickly moves indoors, into the precinct house that will form the backdrop for the bulk of the story. We’ve seen this a thousand times; cops and criminals coming and going, some chirpy and others dejected but most just mired in the routine of their everyday lives. Gradually, the focus is drawn to Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas), a superficially typical detective, cocksure and confident in his professional and personal life. Yet right away, there are hints of something not ideal as he shares a quick kiss with his wife Mary (Eleanor Parker). A snatch of conversation, an apparently throwaway line suggests that the All-American wholesomeness on display may be misleading. And so it proves to be as the various characters, from a ditzy shoplifter to a lovestruck embezzler sharing the squad room with genuinely vicious hoodlums, orbit the core drama that will force the McLeods to confront their own inner selves.

Rather than spend a lot of time on the plot and how it develops, I’d prefer to mull over some thoughts that occurred to me as I watched this movie again. To begin, I liked Wyler’s unobtrusive direction and the way he uses Lee Garmes’ cinematography to contextualize not only each scene but the movie as a whole. Wyler can, I suppose, be seen as one of those classic era heavyweights who tended to be associated with “important” pictures. We’re talking “message movies” and that phrase may well evoke thoughts of Stanley Kramer and others at their most ponderous. Still, that’s not entirely fair for these people knew how to shoot a film with skill and artistry too. Here the theme is the impossibility, or maybe the undesirability, of pursuing  purity on an emotional, intellectual and philosophical level. McLeod is set up as a man striving to become a paragon. The story charts the deconstruction of this effort, finally highlighting the hollowness at the heart of it all. And Garmes’ photography, especially his deep focus shooting, keeps the viewer aware of the satellite stories circling the main event, thus preserving the intimacy of the theatrical experience while simultaneously adding a wider cinematic perspective.

I started off this piece referring to the different approaches cinema and the theater take to the same material and those thoughts were always with me as I watched Detective Story. The origin is a stage production, written by Sidney Kingsley, and that aspect is always there, mainly in the restricted setting but even in some of the performances too, to a certain extent anyway. The stage, with the necessity to project calls for a bigger performance, and the use of a different set of acting skills. Cinema is a whole different matter; the giant screens and the possibility of using close-ups, magnifying even the least significant twitch a thousand times, mean more care, control and minimalism are the order of the day. As much as anything, it’s the size of the performances that delineates these forms.

A simmering presence at all times, Kirk Douglas has always been capable of tailoring that size to the demands of a range of roles. I think he was generally at his best when working with strong, experienced directors and the part of McLeod demanded he tread a fine line, touching on the explosive and emotive without straying too far into bombast. His character is ruled and driven by an adherence to rigid principle and moral fundamentalism. This quest for purity has twisted his love and seen it mutate into a passion for vengeance, of the type that has the destruction of the soul as its final destination. It must have helped that the more powerful scenes had to be played against the assured Eleanor Parker. She provides the emotional center of the movie, grounding it and lending it meaning with dignity and empathy.

If the inherent theatricality of the roles has been harnessed by Douglas and Parker, I feel that Joseph Wiseman kept a looser grip on the reins.  There’s a loudness about his work here, and that even goes for the times when he’s not speaking a word, and a tendency to succumb to self-indulgence. He’s very definitely performing, is fully aware of the fact, and wants to make sure everyone watching him knows it too. This could have overwhelmed the picture, but it’s a credit to the measure and subtlety of the likes William Bendix, Cathy O’Donnell, Craig Hill and Frank Faylen that an equilibrium is maintained. And if I haven’t made individual reference to Lee Grant, George Macready, Horace McMahon and others, well that’s not to say their work is any less deserving of mention.

Personally, Detective Story has always been an enjoyable watch for me, powerful without being preachy and with a timelessness to the core theme to ensure it remains relevant. It’s never, to the best of my knowledge, been released on Blu-ray but the DVD  should be easy enough to track down and, besides, it looks excellent in standard definition.

Finally, I find it very pleasing too to be able to post this on the day the movie’s star Kirk Douglas turns 103.

29 thoughts on “Detective Story

  1. Your review of Detective Story echoes my feelings. I adore the movie, for both its theatre and its cinema. I admire many of the performances (Horace McMahon received my undying respect on my most recent viewing) and I have wanted to strangle Joseph Wiseman since my first viewing in my teens. For years, my stomach would start to tighten up when I saw his name in the credits.

    – Caftan Woman

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    • Yes, McMahon is excellent, cool, calm and entirely credible. Wiseman seems to know no control in this part, and I’m surprised Wyler let him have so much freedom. The contrast with so many other delightful performances around him is marked to say the least.

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      • Actually I am not surprised at all….matter of fact, I feel that Wyler probably encouraged it. It’s what the role demanded out of Wiseman that would show a very vivid contrast of the very sick and not as sick characterization of players in that tension filled claustrophobic environment. As you state Colin, it showed a stark contrast that was needed to create an equilibrium from the insanity to a controlled sense of sanity. I also feel Wiseman’s role was key, with all his ongoing demented actions that would be instrumental in bringing us to the story’s conclusion. Of all the characters in that setting who was the most likely to sink a bullet in Douglas. Anyway, that’s how I saw it.

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        • Possibly, Scott, that hadn’t really occurred to me. I’d need to chew it over a bit more. I think part of the problem for me is that I don’t generally respond well to very “big” performances – think a completely unrestrained Rod Steiger and you’ll get the idea – and I found Wiseman overpowering and it took me out of the picture at times.

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          • Ya know……there were so many people blowing their fuses at one time or another, Douglas (too many times to count), Wiseman of course, a somewhat restrained Bendix and the young man who extorted his boss……it was a crazy place. If I recall, I can only remember one time when Wiseman went completely bonkers is when they were taking him down the stairs after realizing he was going down for life as a 4-time loser. The reason he was believable to me, with all his demonstrative behavior, was because I assumed he was also a drug addict having a very bad day.

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            • The atmosphere is charged, that’s for sure. I found I could buy into this with the other characters much more readily though – we all respond in different ways of course and I realize that because something strikes a wrong note with me it doesn’t necessarily follow that everyone else will be bothered by it. By the way, I also had the impression that Wiseman’s character was a junkie.

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              • “Well it’s the Green Light Hotel ain’t it”!!! I wonder where he dreamt that up. By chance was there such a hotel or maybe a common expression of the time? Any ideas?
                Colin, I’ve watched this film three times now. Every time I’ve pick up new underlying meaning. For instance, Douglas told his wife if he went home that night and she wasn’t there he would blow his brains out. Well, when she told him he would never see her again……the idiom was set in motion and the die was cast.

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                • Yes, Douglas and Parker are on a downward spiral from that first scene together in the back of the car – the seeds are planted there.

                  Green light hotel – if you do a Google search for slang uses of the term, it brings up a reference to a book of war slang listing the phrase as a prophylactic station.

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                  • That actually may explain his physical and mental behavior………
                    “Does syphilis make you crazy?
                    If syphilis goes untreated, the affected person is at risk of developing neurosyphilis. This is an infection of the nervous system, specifically of the brain and the spinal cord.”
                    Google

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    • There are a fair number I’ve yet to see myself, JC. The Devil’s Disciple always seems to elude me, for example.
      And an (early) Merry Christmas to you and yours too!

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  2. Totally off-topic, but I nominated you for the Sunshine Blogger Award. Don’t know if you participate in these kind of things, but I thought your blog deserves mention.

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    • I haven’t participated in one of these things for a long time now, mainly because I don’t regularly follow enough sites to do them justice with nominations. Having said that, they are great way to learn about new and worthwhile sites, and of course there’s no greater honor than that of one’s peers. So thank you very much, Margot.

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  4. This one evaded me for decades, I was so pleased when I finally hunted it down. Then disaster! We had a once in a century flood tear through Calgary. Needless to say this one was among the thousands of titles I had in the downstairs storage. I’m sure i’ll get around to laying my paws on another one.

    Gord

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    • Yes, I remember when you spoke about that devastating flood some years ago. This film shouldn’t be all that hard to track down again though, which I imagine may not be the case with some of the other stuff you were unfortunate enough to lose.

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  5. Cinema definitely takes advantage of the close-ups as it should. Every entertainment medium has certain advantages. I always thought that comics heavily influenced cinema since it’s like looking through the camera lens. Movies may have come along first, though. I’m not exactly a fountain of research. Haha. Great post, Colin!

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  6. Excellent review! Joseph Wiseman also goes way over the top as the professional agitator, Fernando Aguirre, in “Vivia Zapata”, screaming to the heavens in one scene. Again, he hams it up as the crazed angel of vengeance, Abe Kelsey, in “The Unforgiven”. He really pushed the envelope with three top directors: Wyler, Kazan, and Huston.

    The only actor I ever saw who out ham Wiseman was Jay Robinson as Caligula in “The Robe” and even more so in “Demetrius and the Gladiators”. I actually love Robinson’s performance in “Demetrius and the Gladiators”. I can’t help but howl with laughter when I watch his interpretation of the mad emperor.

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    • I actually haven’t seen Kazan’s film so I can’t comment on that. With The Unforgiven, Wiseman does indeed cut it thick again. I can see what he was trying for in terms of mystery and a man driven to the very edge of reason, but it’s certainly an extremely “broad” performance to say the least.

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