Wednesday, June 27, 2012

William Wyler's "Detective Story"

Sandwiched between two period dramas, The Heiress (1949) and Carrie (1952), William Wyler's contemporary Detective Story may be the famed director's grittiest drama. Based on Sidney Kingsley's Broadway play, it takes place during a single day at New York City's 21st precinct police department.

Kirk Douglas stars as Jim McLeod, an uncompromising police detective intent on waging a one-man war against crime. ("We're your army," he tells a victim. "We're here to protect you.") His personal vendetta focuses on Karl Schneider, a former physician accused of operating a "baby farm." When McLeod loses his two witnesses against Schneider--one is paid off and one dies--his anger turns to violence. He beats Schneider severely, turning the would-be criminal into a victim of police brutality. Yet, McLeod can cope with a potential assault charge hanging over his head. He is totally unprepared, however, when his actions set into motion a revelation that destroys the one thing that brings stability to his existence.

Many directors have struggled with transforming a static play to the more flexible medium of cinema. Never known as a visual stylist, Wyler avoids dramatic camera shots and elaborate editing tricks. Instead, he creates a canvas on which the performers can play out the story. Still, that's not to say that he doesn't subtly enhance the setting and performances with his use of close-ups and deep focus. 

Parker and Douglas.
Wyler conveys the chaos of the police station by employing deep focus to show three detectives in one shot, each "stacked" behind the other, talking over one another about different cases. In a key scene between McLeod and his wife Mary (Eleanor Parker), Wyler frames them so that McLeod faces the camera in the foreground while his wife (unable to see her husband's face) struggles to choose her words in the background. And, in another scene between the two, Wyler shows Mary in close-up, while McLeod's clenched fist--symbolically containing his about-to-explode emotions--lurks, barely visible, on the right side of the frame.

Even with Wyler's enhancements, Detective Story's stage origins are obvious--and that's not a bad thing. A large room where the detectives write their reports serves as the principal set as a wide array of characters enter and leave during the day: an eccentric woman who believes her neighbors are making an atomic bomb; a young man accused of embezzlement; a couple of hoods; a nice-guy reporter; and  an apologetic shoplifter (Lee Grant) who observes the proceedings while awaiting her fate. The intertwining subplots add to the film's realism (as does the lack of background music) while never distracting from the portrait of a man precariously on the edge.

Douglas with William Bendix.
The cast is uniformly fine, with several performers (e.g., Lee Grant, Horace McMahon, Joseph Wiseman) repeating their stage roles. Kirk Douglas gives one of his most compelling performances, though it helps that it's a riveting part with memorable dialogue (e.g., "Take a couple of drop-dead pills" and "I'm drowning in my juices"). Ralph Bellamy played McLeod when the play debuted on Broadway in 1949.

Wyler encountered significant censorship challenges in adapting Detective Story from stage to screen. In the play, Schneider is accused of illegal abortions, which would have violated the motion pictures industry's Production Code, which stated "abortion, sex hygiene and venereal diseases are not proper subjects for theatrical motion pictures." 

Joseph Wiseman (the future Dr.
No) with Kirk.
A more serious problem--involving the death of one of the characters--was averted when the Production Code was amended in March 1951. From 1938 to 1951, the Code stated: "There must be no scenes, at any time, showing law-enforcement officers dying at the hands of criminals." That was fortunately amended to: "There must be no scenes, at any time, showing law-enforcement officers dying at the hands of criminals unless such scenes are absolutely necessary to the development of the plot."

With its themes of forgiveness and self-righteousness in judging others, Detective Story fits nicely among Wyler's works. What makes it one of his best movies is Wyler's ability to provide a sympathetic portrait of a a violent man hanging by a thread that he cuts himself.


This review of part of the William Wyler Blogathon hosted by The Movie Projector. To read reviews of other William Wyler films, click here.

29 comments:

  1. Great review, Rick! I like this film a great deal and was totally taken by Kirk Douglas in his part. As I read of the reviews in this Wyler blogathon, it becomes clear that there is one unifying quality about Wyler's films - he could do it all in any genre. And without fuss and muss!

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    1. FlickChick, I agree about Wyler's versatility. When it comes to directors capable of working in multiple genres, I always think of Wyler, Robert Wise, and Michael Curtiz.

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  2. Rick,

    As always, great review. I am fan of this film and always enjoy watching it. Though the film is basically set in the police station I never get the feeling of it being static, same with THE DESPARATE HOURS. Douglas gives another of his fanatical, intense performances. I also think Eleanor Parker gives a real heart felt, sensitive performance. Bendix, Wiseman, and Lee Grant add to the pleasure. I did not know about the censorship problems. I always find it fascinating to see what changes had to be made due to censorship. This all make me want to take another look at this film and even read the play. Thanks for highlighting this film,

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    1. John, another fine "filmed play" that never seems static is 12 ANGRY MEN. In both movies, the confined setting contribute the close dynamics of the characters.

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  3. A great post, Rick. You give a wonderful analysis of Wyler's use of deep focus to express character feelings and tensions in a scene, particularly in the scenes between Douglas and Parker. I was surprised to learn that Ralph Bellamy did the central role on stage; he always seems like such a mild-mannered actor to me, unlike the coiled-tight Douglas, who seems ideal for the part. Fascinating info on the censorship problems, though I think the film did a good job of suggesting what the doctor actually does, without directly stating it. As always, I so much enjoy reading your posts at the Cafe!

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    1. GOM, I can't imagine Ralph Bellamy as McLeod. It seems like a part tailor-made for Douglas. Yes, the doctor's real profession seems pretty apparent despite the censor's efforts.

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  4. This is a great post. I have always thought of Detective Story as being a highly enjoyable movie and its nice to see that others feel the same way. Wyler made so many great movies and that makes it hard to see them all, but this is one that shouldn't be missed. Thanks for your review.

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    1. I hadn't seen it in a long time and enjoyed watching it again. The ending still packs a good punch!

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  5. Thanks for covering this film Rick, its a great Wyler film that is not well known and is under-appreciated. I have a beautiful costume sketch of Eleanor Parker ddesigned by Edith Head and it's one of my favorites. Wonderful review.

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    1. Your sketch of Eleanor Parker in a costume designed by Edith Head sounds awesome!

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    2. Christian, I agree with Toto--the sketch sounds cool. I like how Edith "dressed down" Eleanor Parker to make her look as plain as possible (though it's hard to hide her natural elegance).

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  6. Rick, an excellent, concise post. Your post shows that this film is a good illustration of Wyler's skill at adaptating stage plays for film, something he was especially known for. He met the challenge of their confined settings by turning this confinement into a virtue, and I liked your discussion of the way he used deep focus and staging to emphasize character relationships and psychology over space. I was particularly impressed by your discussion of Wyler's staging of that scene between Douglas and Parker.

    Some of the situations in the film strike me as overwrought, and some of the performances too emphatic, those of some of the stage cast who Wyler didn't or couldn't get to tone down their performances. But I thought the passionate performance by Douglas was fine, and he's an actor whose outsized emotionalism I often find hard to take. I was also very impressed by Eleanor Parker, for some reason not a favorite of mine but here giving the rare performance I like, the year after another I admire, her Oscar-nominated turn in "Caged."

    A appreciative post on a film not as well known as some of Wyler's work, but one that those who've seen tend to admire.

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    1. RDF, the only performance I'd consider overwrought is the one from Joseph Wiseman. Then again, his character is a four-time loser/psycho! As my wife accurately pointed out, it makes no sense to leave him in the detectives' office area instead of locking him up. Of course, if they had done that, the ending would have been very different.

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  7. This is an outstanding post about a work that is perhaps less known but should be required viewing by anyone studying Wyler or Kirk Douglas. I tend to truly appreciate films with a restrained setting, and though this can yield a more theatrical presentation, in the hands of a seasoned director it can rise to the top. I especially appreciated your information about the Production Code's influence on "Detective Story." Extraordinarily well done, Rick!

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    1. Toto, it's always interesting to see how the Production Code shaped certain movies--some for the better.

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  8. Fabulous essay on a film that must surely be included in the top tier of Wyler's career output. Most people will always think of Eleanor Parker as Baroness Schraeder in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, and to a lesser degree as Zosh in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM, but her best performances were in THE DETECTIVE STORY and as the prison inmate in CAGED, both of which earned her deserved Oscar nominations. Douglas is excellent here, and Wyler again shows why he's a master at the very difficult art of stage adaptation. This is not a perfect film, but on balance it scrapes the top level of Wyler artistry.

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  9. Rick, I haven't seen this one yet, but hope to do so very soon. Really enjoyed your review and I will look forward to rereading it after I do get to see the movie!

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  10. "Even with Wyler's enhancements, Detective Story's stage origins are obvious--and that's not a bad thing." So true. I believe that my early viewing of this movie made me a theatre fan as well as a movie fan.

    Over the years, I've become a major fan of Horace McMahon's performance in this film. He's always "in the moment" and note perfect. On the other hand, Joseph Wiseman's work is really starting to grate, but for the life of me, I don't know how else he could play that part.

    Ralph Bellamy went to New York precisely because he couldn't get the type of roles he wanted in Hollywood. I would have loved to have seen him.

    Interesting trivia: Lydia Clark (Mrs. Charlton Heston) replaced Meg Mundy in the role of Mary MacLeod in New York. She and her hubby later played in "Detective Story" in regional theatre. Heston auditioned for the movie and it was a major personal disappointment in that he wasn't chosen. However, he did get to work with Wyler in a couple of other little flicks!

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  11. I think this is one of Kirk Douglas' finest peformances, and the intensity he brings to the role is frightening (in a good way). I've often wondered how many takes Wyler did in the confrontation scene between Douglas and Parker. Douglas would have been wiped out emotionally after one scene, let alone the many re-takes that Wyler customarily desired. Douglas' energy level must have been terrific.

    As others have pointed out, like "The Little Foxes", one never gets the sense of watching a play adaptation.

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  12. Rick, I was to realize I hadn't seen "Detective Story." It's possible I confused the title with "The Detective" or another film similarly named. You've certainly described an interesting film and it's now on my to-watch list.

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  13. Once again, Wyler shows his versatility with what should be a "static" film. He didn't back down from the material, and the performances are top-notch. Great review!

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  14. Rick, I always think of a taut drama when I remember Detective Story. Both Douglas and Parker deliver stellar performances, and Wyler's shot-framing was very inventive. Nice review.

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  15. Great Review. Let me just echo others and say the movie never seems "Stagey" - great direction on Wyler's part. Two, I don't think the production code hurt this film in the slightest, its quite obvious what's going on, even though it isn't S-p-e-l-t-o-u-t.
    Third, I would've loved to have seen Heston, Bellamy, or Bogart in the role. Kirk does well in the 1st part, but was less successful in the 2nd. Finally, Wiseman gives one of the most over-the-top hammiest performances ever in Classical film. But I'm glad someone wasn't bothered by it.

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  16. I'm not sure I have seen the classic film, "Detective Story." It sounds like a very interesting classic film and it's now on my "must see" list.

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  17. This is an excellent review. I have never seen this movie in its entirety, but you've made me want to see it again ASAP!

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  18. I adore this film, and greatly enjoyed your first-rate post. I love Kirk Douglas's intense performance, as well as the other performances, especially those of Joseph Wiseman, Lee Grant, George Macready, Gladys George, and William Bendix. I've seen it countless times -- can't get enough of it.

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  19. Returning to say that I've now seen this film and absolutely loved it - it feels very similar to Wyler's earlier adaptation of 'Counsellor at Law' in the way it takes a stage play and sticks to the confined space, with characters coming to and fro and different stories going on at once, but with one agonised figure at the centre. This film must surely have been hugely influential on later police procedurals. I definitely agree that it is quite obvious what the doctor's real profession is, despite the Code. Kirk Douglas is superb in the central role - I did find Joseph Wiseman well over the top, but everyone else is excellent. Great review, Rick!

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