As most of you know, I don’t think of myself as someone who loves film noir. I’m generally turned off by the words as I associate them with films about angry men and murder. There are great movies often put in the category of film noir which subvert these stereotypes. And don’t get me wrong, I know I’m being unfair – some of those gangster, angry men films about murder are really good!
All this to say, I wasn’t over-the-moon excited to see Detective Story at this year’s TCM Film Festival. However, this was on my dad’s must list, so it was required viewing for me, just like Bye Bye Birdie was required viewing for him. Surprisingly, I was so mesmerized by Detective Story and Kirk Douglas’s insane performance that I ended up counting it as one of my favorite experiences from this year’s festival.
If you’ve never seen Detective Story, (which, y’know, no judgement), it follows Detective Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas), a hardworking guy in love with his beautiful wife, Mary (Eleanor Parker). We see a day in his life at the police station, where he fights for justice. However, when one of his cases ends up connecting to Mary and a secret in her past, James is not exactly levelheaded. Also at the station that day are a cast of crazy characters including a shoplifter (Lee Grant) and Charley Gennini (Joseph Wiseman). And, as usual, things go CRAY.
Here are just a few reasons you should give Detective Story a watch:
Kirk Douglas has been crazy in many of his performances, but Detective Story was when he graduated to straight up CRAY. He also made Billy Wilder’s acclaimed satire, Ace in the Hole, the same year. I almost feel like Kirk’s acting style was ahead of his time. Although the film is basically a filmed play, Kirk’s intense performance makes you feel like he was really trying to “live” his role. He apparently did follow around New York City police detectives to prepare for the role.
At the festival, Actress Lee Grant was interviewed about her experience working on the film and how she dealt with being on the Hollywood blacklist for more than a decade. She really is quite the revelation in this film. Lee plays the “shoplifter,” a part she desperately wanted. She was originally offered the part of the ingenue in the stage play, but thought it was a boring part and so fought for this one. She was 24 at the time and just after she was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar, Grant was blacklisted for speaking at a known Communist’s funeral. She lost several years of her film career, but filled her time working on the stage. Now, she’s an accomplished writer and director who aims to represent the people who can’t speak for themselves.
Lee is so incredibly funny in Detective Story and she literally steals every scene she’s in.
Eleanor Parker is also wonderful as Kirk’s wife with a secret past. She’s feminist and speaks truth to stupid. #TheFutureIsFemale
The supporting players are also wonderful – William Bendix, Cathy O’Donnell, George MacReady, and Horace McHanon.
Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Sidney Knight wrote the stage play of Detective Story, which was adapted for the screen by Robert Wyler. I love plays so to me, it’s no shocker why this film hit with me. It’s, in my mom’s coined phrase, “talky, talky, shit, shit, shit.” I love it though because it’s all about the character development, about the small moments. Also, as heavy as the film can be, there’s a lot of humor which I always appreciate.
William Wyler was no stranger to adapting stage plays for the screen. In fact, one such adaptation, The Heiress, I’ve already discussed on this blog and it’s one of my favorite films. Wyler was wonderful with actors and in a film so dependent on performances, he certainly deserves credit.
Lee Garmes of Scarface and Duel in the Sun took a filmed play and added new dimensions, using deep focus. He makes it feel cinematic.
The Production Code
This film was obviously made while the production code was in effect and the Breen office had several problems with Kingsley’s play as it was. Most specifically, they took issue with the play having an abortionist character. In the film, the dialogue is vague, but looking at it today, it’s pretty easy to see that’s what they’re talking about. Additionally, they had a problem with any law enforcement officer being killed, but they made an exception for this film.
It’s a thought-provoking, emotional, hilarious crime drama
And it’s one-hundred percent worth your time, mostly for the outstanding performances by Kirk Douglas and a very young Lee Grant. Times have changed and there are moments of this film that feel very outdated, but that to me, is the magic of film. It’s a snapshot of a time and a place and specifically, in this film, how the country addressed difficult issues such as abortion.
Vintage trailer below:
Photos and Gifs property of Paramount Pictures.