Detective Story (1951)
A Day in the Life of Detective Douglas
I built my whole life on hating my father. All the time he was inside me, laughing - McLeod
When I saw "Detective Story" appear on the TV schedule I knew only one thing about it, that it starred Kirk Douglas and that was enough to make me want to watch. I am glad it was because "Detective Story" is a brilliantly, intense movie which never lets up. From the opening minute as we watch a shoplifter taken into the 21st precinct police station to when the credits roll there has been a rollercoaster ride of drama and emotion. And all of this comes basically during one day, maybe even just a few hours at the 21st Precinct as criminals are brought in and attitudes are challenged.
Det. James McLeod (Kirk Douglas - Young Man with a Horn) is fanatical about upholding the law, his methods of law keeping may not always be ethical but to him if your break the law you deserve your punishment. And whilst he has various criminals to deal with his main focus is on former doctor Karl Schneider (George Macready) who is not only providing illegal abortions but also dodgy baby adoptions. But with Schneider's lawyer making out to Lt. Monaghan (Horace McMahon) that McLeod's zealous pursuit of his client is fuelled by personal reasons things become more complex especially for McLeod when he discovers that his wife Mary (Eleanor Parker - The Sound of Music) had once called upon the services of Schneider, causing his world to come tumbling down.
It doesn't take you long to realise, that is if you didn't know, that "Detective Story" is an adaptation of a stage play. The play in question is Sidney Kingsley play of the same name and why it becomes so apparent is basically everything happens in one room with people coming and going. There are a couple of other rooms, the Lieutenant's office, the lobby and the records room as well as a brief excursion to the roof but in classic stage play style pretty much all of the drama happens in one location.
Now as to that drama well to be honest "Detective Story" is full of minor storylines, there is the quirky shoplifter we meet right at the start who has no idea of police protocol, there is a young former servicemen resorting to stealing money to impress his girl and some other criminals. All these minor storylines have a part to play when it comes to what in many ways is the main storyline but in many ways they contribute to the crazy atmosphere. And that is one of the things which strikes you because it is non stop in the Detective's room; there is interrogations, identity parades, finger printing and a lot of shouting and aggression. It does feel chaotic but it also makes it non stop and you can't take your eyes off of what is happening be it Det. James McLeod's intense grilling of a young thief or the humour of the naive shoplifter giving her detective a headache.
But whilst you have what seems at times just a lot of noise there is the central storyline which starts with McLeod's determination to see crooked Doctor and abortionist
Karl Schneider pay for his crimes. Now there is mystery surrounding this because McLeod seems fanatical in his pursuit of justice but there is what Schneider and his lawyer has on McLeod which could get him off. This mystery is revealed and it is no spoiler by telling you that McLeod's wife once used Schneider's service when years ago she had an affair with a married man all of which is not known by McLeod. But when he does learn it tests his principles because McLeod is very black and white, with criminals paying for their crimes and betrayal never being forgotten which puts him in a quandary over his relationship with his wife Mary.
Now all of this, the evolving central storyline as well as the subplots and the various characters collide in an explosive ending which is spectacular. But here is my one criticism of "Detective Story" everything fits in together too perfectly, basically it is too tightly put together so everything and every character has a part to play when in some cases a bit of looseness would have helped. It's also in the dramatic verbal bantering because it is all too sharp, no stammering or searching for words and it makes it feel too scripted. It's the same with the occasional moment of humour it all feels too calculated, thrown in at just the right moment to provide a brief smile before the drama ensues.
But whilst the script is so tight it doesn't allow for error the performances are superb. At the centre of all this drama is Kirk Douglas as Det. James McLeod and in many ways "Detective Story" features one of Douglas's best performances, how he never got an Oscar nomination for this is beyond me. On one had Douglas gives us part of what you could say is his typical performance charming and confidence all of which is delivered with a glint in his eye but then there is the intensity, the driven way he hounds criminals, wearing them down by his intense and relentless questioning and no compromise attitude. But Douglas is not alone as William Bendix as his partner Det. Lou Brody also gives a brilliant performance and again one which didn't even get an Oscar nomination but should have. To be honest whilst everything is delivered in a too sharp and theatrical style every single actor delivers eye catching performances and eye catching in the right way even when it seems over the top.
What this all boils down to is that "Detective Story" is a brilliant movie, an intense non stop drama which keeps on giving and giving. You literally can't take your eyes off of it, not just because you may miss something but because the evolving drama and the performances grab your attention and never let it go.
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