Detective Story (1951)
William Wyler’s 1951 police procedural Detective Story will feel familiar to modern viewers (think Homicide: Life on the Streets, Law & Order, NYPD Blue, etc), but it’s important to remember how truly ground-breaking the film was in it’s day. Based on the Broadway play of the same name by Sidney Kingsley, the film remains pretty stagy. But its strength is in the stunning set design and the intricate camera work of cinematographer Lee Garmes, who keeps his camera active to offset the lack of physical action in the script. Over all, Detective Story is pure grit, right down the lack of musical score.
Detective Story covers one 24 hour period in Manhattan’s 21st Precinct detective squad room. Crack detective Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas) is a take-no-prisoners criminal hater who does whatever – including beating his suspects – to achieve his own stringent definition of justice. His cut and dried view of the world becomes the film’s focus and eventually leads him to an operatic tragic conclusion.
Today, Detective Story is an almost unbearably overwrought morality tale, but the pleasure of the film is in its masterful construction. Kirk Douglas is the master of the melodrama and his performance carries the show. Fortunately, the squad room is spiced up by a parade of criminals and their comedic subplots, providing some relief from McLeod’s unrelenting black and white morality.
Detective Story is available from Warner Archive. Click here to order.