William Wyler’s Detective Story (1951) is an intensely rendered account of a few hours in a New York police-station. Kirk Douglas as an inflexible embittered detective, dominates with a bravura performance, and is ably supported by an ensemble supporting cast. Director Wyler uses the constrained space and hot humid weather to build a sense of anxiety and frustration. Even the two scenes outside the station are tightly framed: inside a taxi and in the back of a black mariah. In this fashion Wyler turns the staginess of the screenplay, based on a Sidney Kingsley play, to advantage, and by using low angle and mid-level closely framed shots with a mis-en-scene accentuating the closeness of people and objects, he heightens the drama while sustaining visual interest. There is no musical score but unless brought to your attention you would never notice.
The script deftly weaves the detective’s wife and their marriage with the principal story arc, and the melodramatic scenes with his wife at the station played out in confined back-rooms ratchet up the drama to histrionic levels. The other naked city stories are elegantly woven into the tableau to reveal different aspects of the detective’s personality. Many critics have complained that the plausibility of the plot is weakened by there being no deep explanation for the Douglas character’s tortured and fanatical hatred of all transgressors, and his easily-triggered violence, apart from his own testimony that he hated his father, who was a hood and drove his mother insane. But to my mind, from weakness comes strength. In real life, we rarely have either the luxury, skill, or inclination to go beyond immediate actions and their consequences, and the nature of the story makes it entirely plausible that the other protagonists and the audience must deal directly and urgently with this troubled in-your-face cop.
The resolution is strong and very down-beat, and this deepens the poignancy of the final aerial shot of a young couple having been released from purgatory, bolting out of the station and running for dear life. A solid noir drama.
The 2003 DVD print is crisp and clean, and the audio crystal clear.