Thursday, August 13, 2009

Detective Story (1951)

By Eric Jessen 8/12/09

“Never mind a doctor, get a priest.” Detective Story has a foul, rotten milk, stewing in the fridge, chunky and yellow, grimy aroma: first setting me back in my chair, cringing, then only tingling my nostrils. Its squalid B-Movie cop melodrama reeks of a rank stale cheese passion: everyone has a rap-sheet, there are criminals, tramps, and officers bemoaning the “crummy system.” The sizzling misanthropic stench and gamy taste simmers and spoils but eventually becomes interesting tart.
The movie has a scrapping, clawing, tearing up dirt method, searching desperately for significance and barely breaking the surface, but making for an exorbitant romp.
Detective Jim McLeod's (Kirk Douglas) demons are drudged up during the course of one raucous day at the precinct. McLeod is a bloated stiff, his belt tightened to puff up his chest (a perfect Douglas role). He fancies himself a one man street sweeper, ridding the big NYC of crooks, sticking to his principles, never letting anyone off the hook. He huffs and puffs, steam shoots out of his ears, he stomps around, pounds his fists on his desk at work and then heads home to his “immaculate wife” who is blonde, thin, gorgeous, and saintly (Eleanor Parker).
But underneath McLeod has untold fears. And when he discovers that his untouchable wife has a shady past that includes premarital sex and abortion, his craggy exterior begins to crack and clichés burst out of his seams, cluttering up the Styrofoam, cardboard, blatantly fake set. William Wyler ramps up the ridiculous and Douglas leads gaudy, but absorbing tangy cheese acting. We learn McLeod had one bad case, “when he was just a rookie.” His father was a “hardass.” His tough bravado is only for show, to hide his inner torment. McLeod pulls his hair out, envisioning his wife with another man, threatening to kill himself and saying with a creepy seriousness, “I'd give my soul to take out my brain, hold it under the faucet and wash away the dirty pictures.”
As much as Detective Story stinks it has zesty bellowing exuberance. And within the cloud of odor, Douglas' relentless yelling and the look and feel of overwrought cheapness, I think director William Wyler stumbled upon the patch job of an actual character. McLeod dreads a murky world and lack of control so he neatly packs everything into black and white, good and evil terms but as the movie warns, he is only “digging his own grave” of disappointment.
So I admire, or at least value Detective Story. It doesn't pack things together nicely, it scrapes together flames of overripe passion, lets emotions run wild and the result is an exhilarating, if sometimes disagreeable or laughable, experience.

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