Detective Story (1951)

So I’d never heard of this movie until I came across it flicking through the channels. I saw it, saw it had Kirk Douglas in, had an interesting story, so felt like watching it. After all, I thought, if it doesn’t grab me I can just watch something else.

What I found was a fantastic film noir, with some really memorable characters and a storyline that remains focused on the police precinct and those there during one day – both cops and criminals. I’m surprised I haven’t heard or read about this one before. Especially in connection with Douglas. He’s great in it, but then he’s a mesmeric actor in any film I see him in. It also stood out for me because his main rival is played by George Macready, who he has stood against before in the classic Paths of Glory and who he argued with in Seven Days in May. It made me wonder about the two of them. Apparently these are the only movies they worked in together. They are superb sparring partners.

So this film had some notable aspects to it when I looked it up. They weren’t allowed to mention the word abortion, even though that’s clearly what they mean, and this was a first for having a cop be shot and killed. It was also interesting to see a black patrolman who seems part of the team, never has any racial issues to deal with, is just there and getting on with it. For a movie in 1951, it was surprising to see. Subtle.

Even without this, it is a damn good movie. At first it moves along at a nice pace with people coming and going. We meet a young female shoplifter who often provides humour. A young man who has robbed his boss and feels ashamed. A couple of burglars who are proven criminals – one who denies and lies right up to the point that they discover he has a rap sheet a mile long, then laughs it off. Oh, just found that this actor later played Doctor No himself. He was very good too.

But the plot builds to becoming more personal and focused on Douglas’s character, McLeod. He has been after an abortionist for some time, thinks he has him, but things go wrong. There are accusations of it being a personal vendetta. It is toward the end that you find out why this is and who is involved. It pushes him to breaking point.

What makes this film so engaging is that McLeod sees things in black and white. He hates criminals, calls them evil, even says they have their own smell. To him, there are no blurred lines, no simple mistakes of judgement. Criminals are bad and they should be punished. When others urge him to let the young man off, he doesn’t just refuse, he practically bullies the robbed boss to press charges. He declares the fight against crime a war, that the police are the people’s army fighting it and he has to protect them, even from themselves.

He’s a good cop, no question of that, and his boss even makes it clear he isn’t on the take. But bit by bit others challenge him, point out the lack of forgiveness that is hurting him and others. The fact he sees his own criminal father in the faces of his prisoners makes it more personal, gives him more of a drive. He’s a fanatic, if for a good cause.

The question of criminality isn’t simply examined via one character. The culpability of the culprits is tested as we see the various sorts brought in – there is a world of difference between the career criminals and the young thieves. Arguably, the worst two are the abortionist and his lawyer, seedy characters both. The burglars tease the young man who stole by saying he’ll end up just like them, which is McLeod’s view. Others believe differently. The way events unfold are told in a matter of fact way for the most part too, with lots of paperwork going on, phonecalls and fingerprints, quiet conversations interspersed with heated exchanges. This is not portrayed as good versus evil. It is officers grinding through another day, dealing with idiots, thugs and each other.

So when McLeod crosses a line, then later things get worse for him, you see this blurring of the lines go even further. While a good man, you could imagine he would go far to get his man. He threatens the abortionist outright, warning him to get out of New York or he’ll put a bullet in the back of his head. If criminals are evil, then McLeod has his own demon. But when he realises this, he thinks of his father, thinks of him laughing at him but then wonders if he was crying. Could his father help himself from being what he was? So he finally questions his own black/white views. He finally empathises, to an extent.

I won’t spoil the ending. I will say it works and, while melodramatic, felt a fitting way for things to be wrapped up. You see how troubled McLeod was while having confirmation of him being a good, righteous cop at heart. There are consequences for actions, which I’m always a fan of. The plot is interesting once it really gets into McLeod’s past, with Douglas performing brilliantly but ably supported by all around him. It was a really thought provoking, emotional story. Very much a film of its time – little action, no swearing, sometimes tiptoeing about subjects we speak freely about now. But it was compelling viewing and, again, I’m surprised I haven’t come across this one before. Glad I finally did.

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