Detective Story (1951)

Detective Story (1951), directed by William Wyler.


I'm going to give you a piece of advice, Karl. When they let you free again, get out of New York. You butcher one more patient and law or no law, I'll find you. I'll put a bullet in the back of your head, and I'll drop your body in the East River. And I'll go home and I'll sleep sweetly.

A fine drama about one evening in the detective squad room, the intersection of all the little stories and tragedies large and small. Obviously adapted from a play but that's OK in this case: it's a confined area and the story moves along like clockwork with no dead air at all. The camera offers many vivid foreground portraits.

Scatterbrained shoplifter Lee Grant is our surrogate: wide-eyed and open-mouthed, boggled by what's happening around her. We wouldn't mind seeing her let off, along with the love-struck embezzler. On the other hand we don't mind seeing wise-ass burglar Joseph Wiseman slapped around.

Most of the cops are calloused but often kind and understanding, but Kirk Douglas is fierce and unforgiving, zealous in his job with a tightly wound intensity that may mask mental illness. He is particularly eager to get a local abortionist; it seems a sore spot with him. When he learns his wife consulted the doctor years before they were married: well, it's not pretty. The total collapse of a marriage.

Eleanor Parker projects the same sort of terrified, stunned shock she showed in Caged (1950).

The production code did not allow abortion as a topic, but it's clearly understood here, despite circumlocutions and references to an illegal "baby farm".

Ed McBain claimed he invented the "squad room as character" ensemble, but this was several years before his 87th Precinct stories.

Edith Head costumes.