1951 / Best Director

Film #599: Detective Story (1951)

We move on to the other half of our Wyler double bill which features a couple of traits that I struggle with namely the fact that almost the entire film takes place in one place and that’s it’s based on a play. But, whilst Detective Story does have some moments where you can tell it originally played on the stage, there are enough cinematic flourishes to compensate for the more theatrical elements of the piece. Furthermore, this showcases Wyler’s brilliance as a director and in a way demonstrates why he’s the man who still holds the record for the most Best Director nominations of all time.

The film depicts a day in the life of New York City’s 21st Precinct and follows both the cops that work there as well as the criminals they bring in. Throughout we learn that criminals come in many forms such as Lee Grant’s first-time shoplifter; an almost comic character who lifts the mood in the precinct while she waits for a date in night court. Other criminals are painted as sympathetic such as Arthur Kindred, who stole some money from his employer in order to impress a former girlfriend who had become accustomed to a certain lifestyle that he couldn’t possibly finance on his meagre wage. Arthur’s story at least has some sort of a happy ending as he gradually falls in love with his old flame’s younger sister when she arrives at the precinct to bail him out. The criminal underworld is well-represented in Detective Story thanks to burglars Charly Gennini and Lewis Abbott whose story intersects with the other characters during the course of the film. However the centre of the piece is Kirk Douglas’ world-weary Detective Jim McCloud, whose most recent case has seen him attempt to bring a Dutch doctor to justice for performing illegal abortions. As he’s portrayed by Douglas, it’ll be no surprise to anyone that McCloud does a lot of talking with his fists and indeed Dr. Schneider winds up the detective so much he almost loses his life. But there’s more to McCloud than meets the eye as we learn about his hatred of the criminal underworld and how it stems from his relationship with his father. But as the film goes on it appears as if Schneider and McCloud are linked by the latter’s wife and primarily an event in her past which brings everything the detective believes into question.

By now you’ll know my feelings on films based on plays and especially those that stay within the one setting however the confined spaces sort of fit the narrative of Detective Story. By setting almost all of Detective Story in the claustrophobic confines of the precinct, Wyler immerses the audience into the four adjoining tales of different levels of criminal activity. Robert Wyler and Philip Yardan’s adaptation of Sidney Kingsley’s play of the same name keeps the action snappy and keeps the audience guessing over the secret involving Schneider and McCloud’s wife Mary. The fact they’re able to weave comedy, romance, intrigue and ultimately death into the film makes for a compelling watch thanks to snappy dialogue and mostly believable characters. McCloud could easily have been something of a one-dimensional character however thanks to his backstory and relationship with his wife he becomes fully-rounded. Furthermore, the precinct is populated with officers who aren’t as hot-headed as McCloud such as his calmer partner Lou Brody who forms an attachment to Arthur as he reminds him of his late son who drowned during the war. The intensity of the piece is greatly anchored by Wyler’s direction as the camera darts around the relevant areas of the precinct and captures the reactions of both the police and criminals inside.

Along with Wyler’s directorial nomination and a nod for the adapted screenplay the film’s only two main female performers were also recognised in separate categories. I can sort of understand Lee Grant’s inclusion in the Best Supporting Actress field as she made a memorable impression during her brief time on screen. Despite being arrested for shoplifting, it’s hard not to warm to Grant’s charming persona and her facial reactions to various events of the precinct more than warrant her nomination. The harder nomination to understand is the Best Actress won given to Eleanor Parker for her portrayal of the complex and haunted Mary McCloud. Firstly, Parker isn’t in the film very much; popping up near the beginning and only making a real impact two thirds of the way through. Secondly, she doesn’t make an impression when she’s on screen, mainly sobbing and spouting off exposition as the audience slowly realise what’s going on. In my opinion there were better performances in the film from both Kirk Douglas and most notably William Bendix who I felt became the film’s moral centre as the thoughtful Brody. Whilst Detective Story might not be a film that’s particularly memorable it was still an enjoyable easy watch thanks to having a gripping narrative and strong direction from the legendary Wyler.

That’s it for our Wyler retrospective and next time we reach a milestone on the blog as I review my 600th film which actually won two of the four acting awards at the 1963 Oscars.

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