Detective Story (1951)

Dir. William Wyler. Starring Kirk Douglas, Horace McMahon, Eleanor Parker

Once a director finds a source material s/he’s fond of, it’s not unheard of for them to return to that well. Rob Reiner has Stand by Me and Misery, two relatively grounded works originally by Stephen King. John Ford went back to the James Warner Bellah well multiple times for his Cavalry Trilogy. Francois Truffaut, like Hitchcock before him, found inspiration in Cornell Woolrich. And there are two very, very similar upper-mid Wylers which are based on plays by the largely forgotten Sidney Kingsley. (Before I watched either, my only filmic impressions of the guy were via Mervyn LeRoy. Kingsley wrote the screenplay for Homecoming, which is not particularly good but which I’ve covered in some detail as part of the genus of World War II homecoming films.) Dead End and Detective Story are both cluttered movies: crammed sets that seem to be falling in on themselves like pre-rigged Jerichos, characters who existed on stage to give the leads a chance to wipe the sweat off their brows, emotional gunplay which undercuts the power of the remaining stretch of the story. Something in Kingsley prizes not just the thunderclap in the reports of pistols, but the intent to create the smell of rain when the surviving characters step outside again. This is admirable, but of course quite puzzling to pull off; try evoking the smell of new rain as opposed to the sounds of a thunderstorm, and you can see the problem pretty quickly. What’s funny about that is that I don’t think Wyler has a special gift for filling in the edges that Kingsley is not deft enough to color into. At his peak, Reiner had such a gift with actors, which intersects generously with King’s motormouth obsessions in Stand by Me and Misery alike. I’m not sure there’s a similar generosity between the director’s talents and the original writer’s foibles in either Dead End or in Detective Story.

New rain is not really Wyler’s best scent. If there’s a sense I’d associate with Wyler it’s more touch than smell or hearing. In his best sequences, you can feel a hand, fingertips, knuckles against the head. When Dana Andrews sits in a ruined aircraft, you can feel the viselike pressure of calloused palms against the temples. When Herbert Marshall realizes Bette Davis is going to watch him die, you are as alert and shocked as you might be if someone slapped you across the face. You can feel thumbs moving your chin to watch Bette Davis on her wagon to the docks achieving sainthood in front of your eyes. And to be entirely fair, there are some moments in Detective Story where you can feel those hands winding up again. In all cases, Kirk Douglas’s embittered cop McLeod is there to lay down the boom.

There’s the scene where he beats a strategic abortionist, Schneider (George Macready), especially with one extremely symbolic blow to the abdomen. Before this, it’s possible to view McLeod as an especially obsessive cop, the kind of person who gets basically affectionate treatment in a film like Zodiac, someone who who views police work as a civic good but who has not entirely forgotten about the beautiful wife, Mary (Parker), who stays at home. After this it’s impossible, and that is a cold and wet back of the hand to the brow. The movie shifts as McLeod does exactly what Schneider and his blueblood lawyer Sims (Warner Anderson) expected him to do. They took photographs of Schneider’s nude and unhurt body before he came into police custody, and regardless of physical pain they expect to obliterate McLeod, and thus his yearlong case against Schneider, in the courts.

There are the scenes where it’s revealed to him first that Mary has gotten an abortion—Eleanor Parker. queen of social misery in this period, did everything but star in a Neutral Milk Hotel album to earn that title—and then where she explains that she’s leaving him because he has soullessly become the father he hated. Once the film reveals what it is that Macready has been doing to arouse McLeod’s enmity (and the film doesn’t exactly dilly-dally in getting there), I had my hackles up a little bit around this subplot. I wouldn’t say that Detective Story is especially sympathetic to the idea of abortion, but it is far more sympathetic to the women who seek abortions than Lois Weber is in Where Are My Children?. The reason why Mary had an abortion is fairly similar to the reason Rut, of Ingmar Bergman’s early film Thirst, has one. There’s an attitude in both films, and especially in Detective Story, that the responsibility for the abortion is outside the woman herself. The fault is in Giacoppetti, or the fault is in a society that will not accept an unwed mother or her bastard, but the fault is not primarily in Mary. (If we did this to every unwed mother named Mary, you get the point.) She may be the one who makes the decision, and a man like Macready might be something of a parasite who profits off the business, but the guilt belongs to other people. When Jim calls Mary a “tramp” in a heated moment, it’s clear that he is as much a part of the problem as anyone else in this sad, regretful group. Giaccoppetti pushed Mary too far, society gave her no other choice, Macready profited off of her mistake, and now McLeod is the reason Mary must place her shame in some deep warren. Since the Dobbs decision, one of the things I keep thinking about is how many anti-choice women have had abortions themselves, or had friends who have had abortions. These people have excuses why their abortion was necessary or particularly difficult to go through or what have you, but no one else can have had such a good reason for it. Mary is the simple answer to this kind of rhetoric, a woman whose reasons the film validates primarily by recognizing the cruelty in the husband, who can look at his faithful and adoring wife, who has waited for him while he was at the precinct, and somehow decide that she is a cheap slut first and foremost.

Most affecting (and probably the most heavy-handed) is the scene where he insists on booking a guy in his early twenties named Arthur (Craig Hill), who stole money from his boss so he could buy something to impress the beautiful girl he’s got his eye on. The girl’s kid sister, Susan (Cathy O’Donnell), has pawned some of her jewelry to start Arthur’s restitution off; everyone’s managed to convince Arthur’s boss to decide not to press charges. Arthur has a clean record, he’s a good kid, he has a fine war record, he was wrapped up and made a mistake, he’s honestly contrite, he will pay the boss back. Everyone has agreed to it. Even Brody (William Bendix), McLeod’s occasional partner, is convinced that Arthur should go free. But having been defeated—outfoxed is more like it—by Schneider and Sims, McLeod is choleric and impervious to pleas for mercy and appeals to grace. This is the scene that feels most like an open-handed slap where you can tell the impulse behind the motion is to humiliate rather than discipline or harm. McLeod gets off on this fantasy of ramrod righteousness which girds what I think might safely be called a fascist perspective. At home, supposedly, there is purity between the blonde working man and the blonde wife who just wants to have his children. (It’s not lost on me that Wyler and Douglas came from Jewish families.) In the world, there are those who attack the family (and by so doing attack the root of civilization itself) and who must not be permitted to go free. A criminal ceases to be a person at the moment of doing the crime, regardless of what may have led him or her to it. What lurks in all hearts outside his own is a venality just waiting to expose itself like a giddily anxious flasher. And despite the professional, personal, and financial pleas made by a coworker and the criminal’s would-be girlfriend and the criminal’s boss, McLeod decides that it is heavy thumb which must come down and erase an Arthur from the streets like one might erase an ant from a wall.

The movie does not end all that well, as I’ve suggested earlier. The film has characters to treat as the ones who are going to go on after the violence at the end of the picture, people like Arthur and Susan, or harmless all-thumbs shoplifters like Lee Grant’s character. The fatal wound which puts the world in perspective for Kirk Douglas in this picture is, in effect, basically identical to the one which sends him back reeling to the newsroom in another ’51 picture, Ace in the Hole. In both cases, the film is not entirely sure what to do with someone as troubling as him, and so the films kill him off. And in both cases, it’s hard not to read the character’s death as being let off easy. Shame is an emotion that comes through loud and clear for the run of Detective Story. Guilt, funnily enough, doesn’t have a sharp enough beak to crack through the eggshell.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s