Detective Story (1951): “I built my whole life on hating my father”

Detective Story (1951)

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.

Detective Story (1951)

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.

6 Comments

  1. This is certainly a significant film in Wyler’s canon, and one that received this response from Pauline Kael in her famed volume “5001 Night at the Movies”:
    “The brash, hyperactive Sideney Kingsley melodrama set in a precinct station-house, directed by William Wyler. The action is stagey, but there’s certainly enough going on. Kirk Douglas plays a brutal detective, full of hatred for the offenders who cross his path, and Eleanor Parker is his wife. When he learns that she once had an affair with a gangster, he can’t forgive her, and then can’t live with himself. That’s only one of the interrelated stories, which involve Lee Grant as a flirtateous shoplifter and Joseph Wiseman as a seasoned burglar (playing roles they’d already scored in on the stage), as well as George Macready, William Bendix, Horace McMahon, Burt Freed, Frank Faylen, Gerard Mohr, Cathy O’Donnell, and Warner Anderson. Cinematography by Lee Garmes.”

  2. Needless to say, Mr. D’Ambra has again fashioned a deftly-composed and insightful review of this “solid noir drama,” which I share his enthusiasm and respect for.

    Mr. D’Ambra rightly cites Kirk Douglas’ outstanding performance, and astutely points to the “constrained space and hot humid weather to build a sense of anxiety and frustration.” Similarly he notes the “tightly framed staginess, low-angle and mid-level (closely framed shots) with a mis en scene accentuating the closeless of people and objects.” These are brilliant observations by the master of film noir. “The absense of music” is inobstrusive in this film, notes Tony, and that’s the sign of a film of near-flawless craftsmanship.
    I also admire the “weakness from strength” conclusion in reference to some narrative issues that some other critics have taken issue with.
    On this particular film, I must say I am pretty much with Tony right down the line. I applaud him for spotlighting it too.

  3. Thank you kindly Sam for your comments, and for the Pauline Kael quote, which adds substantially to my review. Your enthusiasm for sharing your wide knowledge of cinema always brings something to the table.

  4. Tony: I am learning from you. I have always admired film noir as a special genre in cinema, and think some of its greatest entries, like DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE MALTESE FALCON, THE BIG SLEEP, OUT OF THE PAST, etc, rank among the greatest films of all-time in any category. But learning from you on a daily basis of the smaller gems and several titles I haven’t seen, have rendered to me a greater appreciative of the genre, and of all its socilogical and artistic underpinnings. It’s a ride I don’t want to end.

  5. Allan Fish

    Another excellent, thorough piece, Tony. I always liked Detective Story, theatrical but very powerful, and probably edges the other Wyler Kingsley film Dead End.

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