Sunday, November 06, 2011
“Can’t you say ‘Yes, sir’ without making it sound like an insult?”
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
Group Theatre playwright Sidney Kingsley established his reputation in the 1930s with plays that focused on controversial social issues and gritty depictions of real life…and nowhere were these hallmarks more prevalent than in his first production, Men in White, a story about a doctor torn between his sense of duty and sense of social obligation to his fiancée. White also dealt peripherally with the subject of abortion, and because of the play’s success and topicality Kingsley was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his freshman effort. He followed the success of White with Dead End in 1935, a production that examined the connection between crime and life in tenement slums. Both plays were eventually adapted as Hollywood motion pictures (with MGM’s version of Men in White considerably downplaying the abortion angle); Dead End being particularly notable for introducing a group of juvenile actors that would soon be tagged as “The Dead End Kids.”
Director William Wyler helmed Dead End for Samuel Goldwyn in 1937, so it seems only fitting that Wyler would tackle (as director and producer) another Kingsley stage success 14 years later; a play that debuted on Broadway on March 23, 1949, and ran for 581 performances until closing in August the following year. Set against the backdrop of a New York police precinct, Detective Story is in fact several stories — one of which involves abortion but, again, the film version discusses the subject only on the movie’s outer edges (using the euphemism “baby farming”) in deference to that pesky Breen office. Scripted by Philip Yordan and Wyler’s older brother Robert, Detective Story debuted in theaters 60 years ago on this date. While some of its elements may not stand the test of time, it continues to be a by-the-book example of exceptional ensemble acting.
Detective James McLeod (Kirk Douglas) is a dedicated plainclothes cop with NYC’s 21st Precinct and as described by his commanding officer, Lt. Monaghan (Horace McMahon), “he ain’t on the take…got no tin boxes.” What McLeod does have is a strong moralistic streak, resulting from his white-hot hatred of his father, who possessed a “criminal mind” and drove Jim’s mother to an insane asylum. There are no grays in McLeod’s world; black is black, white is white and criminals are not to be “coddled.” He demonstrates this by collaring young embezzler Arthur Kindred (Craig Hill), with the expressed intent of bringing the hammer down on the young man despite it being Kindred’s first offense (he stole $480 from his employer in order to have money to accommodate his girlfriend’s expensive tastes).
McLeod’s enmity in his “one-man army against crime” is directed primarily toward physician Karl Schneider (George Macready), a retired doctor whose spartan country lifestyle is supplemented financially by his willingness to help out “women in trouble.” Schneider’s lawyer, Endicott Sims (Warner Anderson), has advised his client to turn him himself on a warrant issued by McLeod, and also has warned Monaghan to keep Jim's excesses in check because McLeod apparently has a personal vendetta against Karl. Trying to make his case against the doctor stick, McLeod arranges for a show-up in the precinct’s squad room and asks a confederate of Schneider’s, Miss Hatch (Gladys George), to pick Karl out of the lineup. Hatch refuses to identify Schneider and McLeod deduces that she was paid off for her silence in the form of a fancy fur stole. Taking Schneider to Bellevue Hospital in a patrol wagon, McLeod gambles on a patient’s positive identification of the doctor (a victim of Schneider’s illegal procedure) but the woman dies before the two men arrive. Schneider taunts McLeod by insisting that he has juicy information on the detective, and McLeod responds by administering a beatdown to the doctor on the way back to the station.
Before losing consciousness, Schneider mumbles the name “Tami Giacoppetti” to Monaghan, making a veiled reference to a mysterious woman of Giacoppetti’s acquaintance. Wanting to get all the facts if McLeod is brought up on charges of murder (should Schneider expire from his injuries), the lieutenant learns from Schneider’s lawyer that the woman in question is Mary McLeod (Eleanor Parker), Jim’s wife. Monaghan questions Mary about her connection to Schneider and Giacoppetti and learns that the latter (Gerald Mohr) was a racketeer with whom Mary had an affair before meeting Jim. She became pregnant, but Giacoppetti already was married and couldn’t obtain a divorce from his wife so she sought out Schneider for an abortion…whereupon Giacoppetti repaid Dr. Karl with a beating similar to that of McLeod’s. Monaghan still isn’t convinced McLeod isn’t aware of these details, and pressures Mary to spill the beans to Jim. Learning of his spouse’s colorful history, McLeod does not take the news well at all; he calls his wife a “tramp” and posits that her infertility resulted from the procedure.
McLeod’s world begins to crumble around him; his police reporter pal Joe Feinson (Luis Van Rooten) begs him to reconcile with Mary but Jim’s principled world view simply will not recognize that human beings are frail and susceptible to weakness. Jim’s longtime partner Lou Brody (William Bendix) is trying to get McLeod to drop the charges against Kindred since the sister (Cathy O’Donnell) of his girlfriend has offered to make restitution to Arthur’s employer (James Maloney). His inability to compromise reaches a point when a temporary reunion with Mary goes sour after he complains he’ll never be able to “wash away the dirty pictures” in his mind after discovering her past and she announces her intention to never see him again. It is only when McLeod is shot and killed by burglary suspect Charley Gennini (Joseph Wiseman) in the squad room that he attempts to atone for what he’s done by asking Brody to go easy on Arthur during an act of contrition. Lou lets Arthur off with a warning (“Don’t make a monkey out of me”) while Feinson contacts his paper with the story that McLeod was killed in the line of duty as the film concludes.
Detective Story was well-received at the time of its release, winning much critical praise and snaring four Academy Award nominations including best director for Wyler and best screenplay for scribes Yordan and Br’er Robert. Viewed through the prism of a 21st century moviegoer, however, it’s lost a bit of its luster; the film has difficulty escaping its stage origins and its once-daring subject matter seems fairly tame in light of the countless movies that have followed. What makes the film a worthy watch is Lee Garmes’ breathtaking deep focus cinematography (which really shines on the 2005 DVD release) and Wyler’s always-expert handling of his actors. Willie was fortunate to acquire the services of some of the thespians who had appeared in the stage version, notably Maloney, Wiseman (whose hysterical performance in this is admittedly a bit ripe) and Michael Strong (as Wiseman’s dimwitted partner)…and particularly McMahon, who is quietly effective here as the no-nonsense Monaghan — a rehearsal for his later stint as Lt. Mike Parker on the classic TV crime drama Naked City.
But the real play-to-movie prize in Detective Story is Lee Grant, who reprises her role as an unnamed shoplifter in her feature film debut. Grant’s timid and vulnerable “booster” is visibly agog throughout the squad room’s proceedings, often providing comic relief (her one-sided phone conversation with her lawyer brother-in-law is riotously funny — particularly when she wails “I took a bag…” in a delightful Noo Yawk squawk) and stealing practically every scene she’s in (my favorite Grant bit is when she asks Bert Freed’s detective if he has a two-way wrist radio like Dick Tracy). Her performance won her best actress honors at the Cannes Film Festival the following year, not to mention an Oscar nod as best supporting actress but by that time she was already on the industry’s blacklist for refusing to testify against her husband, Arnold Manoff, before the House Un-American Activities Committee. (She would receive her Oscar due more than 20 years later for her wonderful supporting turn in 1975’s Shampoo.)
Comic actor William Bendix had been making appearances in feature films since the 1940s, and his range was broad enough to encompass both lighter and dramatic fare; he was particularly effective in the 1942 film The Glass Key as the sadistic henchman who has a homoerotic fixation (“You mean I don’t get to smack Baby?”) on hero Alan Ladd. But most people were more familiar with Bendix at the time of Story's release as the star of the radio sitcom The Life of Riley, which is why his performance here as the veteran cop Brody is one of his best thespic showcases. His Brody is certainly no creampuff (he threatens the young embezzler by telling him “Don’t get funny with me, son…I’ll knock you through the floor”) but he’s able to temper that toughness with the mercy lacking in his partner McLeod, even offering to call a lawyer on Arthur’s behalf despite it being against protocol. Audiences will see a couple of other familiar sitcom faces in the film: future Dobie Gillis dad Frank Faylen plays the sarcastic Detective Gallagher, whose opening scene with loopy Catharine Doucet is a real gem, and “Gus the Fireman” himself, Burt Mustin, has an uncredited bit as the irascible squad room janitor Willie — it was one of the veteran character actor’s first film appearances, after deciding at the age of 67 (he was a former salesman) to develop a flair for the buskin.
On Broadway, the role of James McLeod in Detective Story was played by Ralph Bellamy — and though it would seem that the veteran character actor would be perfect to reprise that part for the movie version (I say this facetiously, since Bellamy at the time was also starring in a TV show entitled Man Against Crime) the decision to use Kirk Douglas was a good call (and his box office draw no doubt figured in the deal as well). At this point in his career, Kirk had perfected that oily obnoxiousness that defined many of his motion picture roles; he could be a delectable bad guy (Out of the Past, Champion) but even when his characters weren’t out-and-out villains (A Letter to Three Wives, The Glass Menagerie) they still had “the mark of a heel,” if you’ll pardon the pun. McLeod is a decent individual and his heart is certainly in the right place, but for most of the film’s running time he’s oblivious to the fact that in his quest to denounce his father’s influence he’s wound up exactly like him — incapable of any form of forgiveness (“I built my whole life on hating my father. All the time he was inside me, laughing”). Detective Jim McLeod could very well be the “good twin” opposite of Chuck Tatum, the unscrupulous reporter Douglas played in that same year’s Ace in the Hole, but he’s every bit the rat bastard that Tatum was, and oftentimes gleefully so. (I can’t swear to this, but Detective Story provides a couple of moments of Kirk's trademark manic intensity that surely must have influenced future Douglas impersonators such as Frank Gorshin and Joe Flaherty.)
In his review of Detective Story for The New York Times, the universally reviled Bosley Crowther had high praise for the entire cast save for Eleanor Parker, whom he damned with faint praise by remarking that, in light of Douglas’ performance, “the sweet and conventional distractions of Miss Parker as his wife appear quite tame.” Crowther also went on to say that Wyler should have “cast a sharper dame” in the part of “the mate of such a tiger” but I’ve always thought Parker did a magnificent job considering the size of her part. Parker’s Mary McLeod is a woman who’s faded into the background not because she’s mousy or unsure of herself but because she harbors a dark secret and doesn’t want to attract attention to it; her true feelings about her husband (whom she loves very much, despite his dickish behavior) finally emerge when she realizes than she will always bear the brunt of his holier-than-thou crusade and kicks him to the curb. (Parker’s was the fourth nomination Detective Story would receive at the Oscars the following year.)
In addition to Lee Grant’s Cannes win, Detective Story scored its original author Kingsley and adapters Wyler and Jordan an Edgar Award for best motion picture screenplay and, despite its crow’s feet, the film is a fairly effective crime drama with a marvelous blend of comedic and dramatic moments. Kirk Douglas’ letter-of-the-law cop Jim McLeod is sort of a psychotic version of Jack Webb’s Sgt. Joe Friday…and even echoes what Friday eventually morphed into by the 1960s when he chastises Arthur’s boss for having second thoughts about prosecution (“…you civilians are too lazy, or selfish or scared…or just too indifferent to appear in court”). The film’s dialogue is pungent and punchy (McLeod snarls to Miss Hatch at one point: “Take a couple of drop-dead pills”), the attention to detail vibrant (the squad room no doubt inspired that used on the TV sitcom Barney Miller) and the actors — particularly Bendix, Grant, Macready and McMahon — are at the peak of their perfection. Sixty years after its debut in theaters, Detective Story remains a tale well told.