Stream On: noir ‘Detective Story’ starts mild, turns wild

By on March 28, 2024

Back in the day, detective stories like Dragnet (1954) played like ritual: the deadpan detectives solved crimes mechanically and that was that. The original Law & Order was like that, too, until they began to feature more of the detectives’ personal lives, culminating in the death of one of the core characters in 1994. David Milch’s NYPD Blue was always more about the characters inside the precinct than the cases. Detective Story (1951) is like that—about the detectives.


/Archive.org /Streaming /🍅72%🍿71% /Trailer /1951 /TV16

Detective Story occurs over a single night in the detective bullpen of a police station. Actress/director Lee Grant made her debut as a wide-eyed shoplifter brought in by Detective Dakis (Bert Freed) in the opening scene. Apparently an audience surrogate, as she’s being booked for the first time, she sees various cases unfolding, a few of which are fleshed out.

Detective Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas, Seven Days in May) nurtures a lifelong hatred of lawbreakers and is convinced that he has a flawless instinct for identifying criminals. He maintains a particular contempt for Dr. Karl Schneider (George Macready, Seven Days in May), who McLeod is convinced has performed illegal abortions that have resulted in patient deaths.

William Bendix (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court) is sympathetic Detective Lou Brody, a voice of reason, the yang to McLeod’s zealous yin; and Frank Faylen (The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis) plays the entertaining squad room supervisor: think Michael Conrad in Hill Street Blues.

Adapted from Sidney Kingsley’s play, Detective Story is dialogue-driven, with a dozen characters representing cases including shoplifting, petty theft, burglary, and a paranoid rich lady who believes her neighbor is shooting atomic-bomb gas through her walls, but some stand out—a young man who has stolen money to impress a girl; two apprehended burglars, one of whom is much more; and Dr. Schneider, who has turned himself in with the request that Detective McLeod specifically not be involved in his case. Schneider lost his obstetrics license and maintains a farm in New Jersey—but McLeod has discovered four bank accounts with the kind of money that doesn’t come from farming.

Directed by William Wyler (Wuthering Heights), Detective Story is immersive, even claustrophobic—the set, the detectives’ precinct, along with a street and a rooftop, is dark and realistic. (I would have liked to see the play!) The acting is fine in the good sense, even if the scenery displays some teeth marks at the end—it is Kirk Douglas, after all, and overacting is one reason we love him. Joseph Wiseman (who played Dr. No in the first James Bond movie; he was once called “the spookiest actor in American theatre”) gives Douglas a run for his money as Charley Giannini, a psychopath in custody whose performance can be seen from space.

The swirling narrative settles on Kirk Douglas’ Jim McLeod, an affable everyman—until his emerging past illuminates some of his increasingly troubling behaviors. He turns out to be a hard-line moralist who sees everything in black and white—and he can’t help himself, even when it comes to saving his own family.

Detective Story was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Director for Wyler, Best Actress for Eleanor Parker, who plays McLeod’s wife Mary, and Best Supporting Actress for Grant.

Sources include AllMovie and Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

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