Detective Story (1951)

Detective Story (1951) is a classic stage play brought top screen film noir psychological police drama directed by William Wyler and starring Kirk Douglas and Eleanor Parker, among many more.

It's not the most obvious film noir but makes up for that in a mighty cast, with a mighty punch, based on a play by Sidney Kingsley. This picture also brings up the tricky subject of police brutality — something that should have been against the Production Code of the time — and yet which still forms the central moral aspect of this piece.

Detetcive Story is a brilliant cop-on-the-edge narrative, a form familiar to film noir. Kirk Douglas is that cop, every bit as tense and nervous as Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground (1951); or maybe Sterling Hayden in Crime Wave (1953).

Different cops and different beats but the burn-out and the seething violence is purely film noir and these men are smouldering with deep rage.

Kirk Douglas and William Bendix in Detective Story (1951)

The movie's events occur over a single night in the detective bullpen of a police station. Detective Jim McLeod is played by Kirk Douglas). He is a cop whose violent criminal father drove his mother to insanity, and he nurtures a lifelong hatred of lawbreakers and is convinced that he has a flawless instinct for identifying criminals.

The precinct in real time in Detective Story (1951)

He maintains a particular contempt for Dr. Karl Schneider (George Macready), who McLeod is convinced has performed illegal abortions that have resulted in patient deaths. 

McLeod has persuaded Schneider’s assistant (Gladys George) to implicate him in a police line-up. However, Schneider bribes her not to pick him out, infuriating McLeod.

Kirk Douglas and Eleanor Parker in Detective Story (1951)

This is one story strand from several in a hard-bitten and dramatically satisfying adventure in classic film noir coppery.

The precinct is awash with tragedy and violence, and as the home life of chief cop in distress Kirk Douglas spills into his work environment, everything fundamentally breaks down and things get a lot worse than you think they are going to.

Kirk Douglas in Detective Story (1951)

Detective McLeod is one of several film noir types who informed the cop characters of the movies and television of the 1970s and 1980s, cops for whom the end would justify the means. McLeod is most upset when bad guys are released for what of sufficient evidence, and he hates criminals too much for his own good. He is violent towards Schneider during a police van ride, and does not also believe that any criminal can reform. 

"Miss Carmichael you seem like a very nice young lady. I'm gonna give you some advice. I've seen a thousand like him. You take your money and run."

In familiar film noir form, cop McLeod is haunted by his past. His criminal father drove his mother, insane and she died in a mental asylum. 

Cathy O'Donnell in Detective Story (1951)

The Hollywood Motion Picture Production Code seemed to have a say in the flow of film noir, from its enforcement in 1933, right up until its relaxation in the 1950s. Its influence may be most manifest in films' displays of or attitudes to sexuality and nudity but its restrictions on criminal behaviour were just as impactful. 

It's odd to imagine the 1940s without the Code. In this vision of society criminals were always justly punished and seen to be punished for their breakings of the law and their lack of morality. Similarly the police officers, district attorneys, judges and others — the guardians of the legal process and the law itself — were in general portrayed in a positive light. 

There was a heading under the original code written in 1930 which was Plot Material — and point 7B of Plot Material expressed how the law was to be seen:

“Law and justice must not by the treatment they receive from criminals be made to seem wrong or ridiculous.” 

This might have amounted to a certain problem in the flawed and fateful violent world of film noir. Requesting that the American legal system be always seen as fair — it's a tall order. Under Plot Material

The Code makes a special case concerning vigilantism in section 6C: 

“Killings for revenge should not be justified, i.e., the hero should not take justice into his own hands in such a way as to make his killings seem justified. This does not refer to killings in self-defence.”
Kirk Douglas as a broken cop — Detective Story (1951)

Such hardship for the moviemakers of the 1940s created works of noir genius. In the demand that the system be portrayed as fair and working efficiently to bring about justice — film noir was going to have to find different kinds of stories, with justice secured creatively as a number of the movies made in this style were all about the criminal underworld, featuring psychopaths and regular crooks, mooks, molls and criminal gangs, petty criminals and accidental criminals and the full gamut of framed men.

Lee Grant in Detective Story (1951)

The Code’s prohibitions against criticism of the justice system were clear, strong and inviolate. Nobody was going to be making any movies in which the law failed, criminals got away with serious crime, and the courts and their judges made the wrong decisions.

However certain films in the classic age of noir period did find an opening in a subject that seemed to be less apparent in the restrictions — police brutality. Although in theory the Code would have been against such a thing, film noir is well catered for with corrupt cops and corrupted lawyers and even judges.

Kirk Douglas and George Macready in Detective Story (1951)

In terms of the cops, Otto Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) and Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951) both point towards the difficult conditions that the police worked under, and at the same time were able to make comment on the results of that — the violent detectives who abused their power when the stresses became too much. 

In the 1940s and 1950s film noir was the only place on screen where these issues could be faced up to. In its vision of a world gripped by crime and criminal tendencies, as well as the existential dread brought about by mass urbanisation and the effects of World War 2, film noir did generate some of the first and some of the best corrupt and violent cops on screen.

The reprehensible characters of these cops, emerging around the turn of the decade 40s / 50s wondered at the possibility of their redemption — and brought about a great new paradigm, a world we know well — the world in which the criminals and cops are as bad as each other.

What the violent cop reveals is telling — and as with all solid noir, the truth is a shattering indictment of the society it has sprung from. The question is still asked today in American society, almost daily in fact. But film noir was the first to bring it up: what about these cops who betray their oaths? 

Sometimes it seems that the political system will do nothing about it, and often in film noir this is exactly the case. The cop's actions go unnoticed, or people look the other way. Sometimes the results speak for themselves and at other times the administration is also corrupt, and so the system does nothing, or little.

In the case of cop McLeod, Detective Story opens in classical special brutal cop style, with Kirk Douglas being called into the chief's office. In there is a public defender who warns McLeod that his violence against suspects is not going unnoticed, and that it won't be long before it goes unpunished.

But McLeod's past has completely formed his point of view and it turns out there was an occasion when he let some criminals go out of pity, and one of them killed someone just two days later. In a train of thought which flows in parallel with his history as a detective, McLeod just argues in the end that civilians are part of the problem as too often they are unwilling to press charges.

Kirk Douglas as the brute detective — as well as inheriting —  seems to be essentially good but has a tragic flaw insofar as his sense of justice doesn't quite match that of the law itself. Somehow it feels as well that this type of cop that he plays was going to become a mainstay of many films and even television shows in later decades.

There is a newish feel too to the complexity of Detective Story with its central story added to with its several side-stories. Most bravely of all, Detective Story  tackles the subject botched abortions — without ever using the word abortion in fact — and although not staking a claim as to whether we should feel sympathy about the subject of abortion, it certainly expresses sympathy for the women who seek abortions.

There's an attitude in fact that the responsibility lies with society at large and not the individual women — and even Macready who is a parasite profiting off this, is little compared to a society that cannot cope with unwanted and fatherless children.

Finally McLeod insists on booking a young man named Arthur (played Craig Hill) who stole money from his boss so he could impress a girl. The girl’s sister, Susan (Cathy O’Donnell), has pawned some of her own jewellery to commence Arthur’s restitution and others have convinced Arthur’s boss not to press charges. 

Further, Arthur has a clean record, including war service and appears contrite honestly contrite. Even Brody (William Bendix), McLeod’s partner, is convinced that Arthur should go free — but McLeod does not feel any of this and won't hear any appeals — and appears to want to humiliate the boy almost taking a new fascistic approach to righteousness. His own purity — the working man and his wife at home who just wants to have his children — has been smashed and this is his reaction.

When McLeod calls his wife a tramp in an argument it becomes clear that he is as much a part of the problem of society's double standards as anyone. He is the reason Mary must now feel extreme shame. The cruelty of the husband in this situation transcends the moral failings and fantasy worlds of film noirs habitual lousy husbands. She is adoring and faithful and plays the wifelet as diligently as any woman, and yet he can still look at her and call her a cheap slut for breaking his own idealised and fabricated moral world view.

For a film that starts in quite a carefree manner, even with a bit of bonhomie and jollity, it does turn extremely dark as it flows — linked to the slumping decline of Kirk Douglas' character. He begins the film as quite likeable cop, and with his good looks and smart attitude, quite happy go lucky. However after he assaults Macready things deteriorate fast.

The lighter moments earlier in Detective Story (1951) do trick the viewer. There's a petty thief who confesses why she stole a bag: "I had to admit it —  it was on my arm!" —  and the gentle banter of the precinct carries on.

The most unusual aspect of this cop crime noir is that the breakdown of a relationship is at its  the centre. In fact there is a point at which the film seems to change into a relationship drama, and it's not only unexpected but it packs a punch harder than most film noir would like. Film noir of the 1940s did tackle issues, but usually couched these in fantasy, and would never have such a profound moral unravelling as occurs to McLeod and his wife. 

The theatrical drama seems like it could only have come from a stage production, as it shows at close quarters a man who has been building up years of pent-up anger for a long time — since the childhood resentment of his father. Further, Kirk Douglas' character is tragically unable to fix things between himself and Eleanor Parker because he genuinely doesn't see what he has done wrong.

Joseph Wiseman in Detective Story (1951)

Kirk Douglas in Detective Story (1951)

The disintegration of their relationship is devastating. Revealing a conservative and morally controlling interior person that seeks a flawless image from his wife he cannot cope when she is revealed to have a past that he regards as imperfect, and he lashes out in the cruellest of ways and is only doomed to fall further into a pit of mental breakdown — making the unlikeable and likeable cop played by Kirk Douglas one of film noir's most challenging characters.

The noir city — Detective Story (1951)

Detective Story (1951) at Wikipedia

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