We spend a few hours in a police precinct as the officers go through their daily duties, bringing in a combination of hardened criminals and those who are mildly troubled. Standing out from the crowd is Det James McLeod (Kirk Douglas), a man driven by his hatred of his criminal father and an obsession to stop evil. His total lack of empathy leads to tragedy when his wife (Eleanor Parker) turns out to have a connection to a current case.
Detective Story is not Film Noir, though it is often incorrectly placed in that category. It is a stage-based procedural merged with a soap opera. The camera work is reminiscent of your average TV sitcom—no odd angles or German expressionism here. There is no general feeling of disease and darkness. The police are reasonably good people, if flawed, and the criminals run the gamut from evil to pleasant and kindly. The only character who fits the Film Noir stereotype is McLeod, and one character does not define a film.
So, why am I reviewing it and sticking it with the Noirs? Well, I wanted to review it as part of my Foscar’s look at the best films of each year (no, it didn’t make it) and had to put the review somewhere, and what better place to say it isn’t Noir than surrounded by actual Noirs?
OK, enough of how to file it, is Detective Story any good? Yes, but not as good as its reputation would suggest. Its two parts don’t fit together. The procedural potion is played reasonably realistically, or at least realistic as written for a stage play. The characters all seem like people you could meet if you went down to the local police station. They act like normal humans and the events that occur are all plausible. That doesn’t mean boring. The day at the precinct is captivating, aided by some first rate acting, particularly from William Bendix as a cop who sees a little of his dead son in a troubled ex-sailor brought in for a minor crime, and Lee Grant as a very sympathetic shoplifter. This is the stuff of a great film.
But the Kirk Douglas plot is a whole different matter. It is soap opera turned up to eleven with grand speeches about the meaning of good and evil and exposition about cruel fathers. There are coincidences that could fit a very different kind of movie but stand out as ridiculous when sitting next to the more down to earth procedural material. But the writing is only part of the problem, the rest is Douglas. He can be a superb actor but he can also go over the top and here he’s way over. There’s emoting, over-emoting, and scenery-chewing ham, and we’re in the third category here. I don’t know if either his performance or the overwrought character could work in a different setting, but neither work in this setting.
It all wraps up far too neatly. Real life is sloppy and the pat ending feels artificial.
None of which makes this a bad film. What’s good is very good, and what’s not-so-good isn’t unpleasant. The pieces just don’t fit. I give it an extra half star for its place in film history and how it pushed the production code right to the edge.