The insanity of Kirk Douglas in “Detective Story”

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.

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He’s a little nutty.

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 

Here are just a few reasons you should give Detective Story a watch:

The Cast

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.

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TBH he seems a little more than annoyed…

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.

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A totally natural way to leave a police station. Gotta say goodbye. Just good manners…

Eleanor Parker is also wonderful as Kirk’s wife with a secret past. She’s feminist and speaks truth to stupid. #TheFutureIsFemale

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Don’t you love old trailers? SO EPIC.

The supporting players are also wonderful – William Bendix, Cathy O’Donnell, George MacReady, and Horace McHanon.

The Script

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.

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Seriously, WTF does this even mean? DUMP THIS GUY!

The Direction

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.

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Intense, NO?

The Cinematography

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.

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My favorite line in the film. Look at his eyes. LOL.

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.

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CC: my mother

Vintage trailer below:

Photos and Gifs property of Paramount Pictures.

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#FeministClassics: ‘The Heiress’

Olivia de Havilland, who you might know as Melanie from Gone with the Wind, recently celebrated her 100th birthday. The occasion reminded me of a movie I saw a few years back at The TCM Classic Film Festival – William Wyler’s 1949 classic The Heiress. 

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Black & White + Rain + Love Scene = Perfection

Turner Classic Movies, celebrating Olivia as their star of the month this July, had the film on their digital counterpart, available to stream. I expected to be able to get other things done while the movie was on, but that proved impossible. I was too caught up in the drama and the emotions.

If you’re unfamiliar with the film, The Heiress follows Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland), a young, introverted heiress lacking proper social skills by 19th century societal standards. At a party, she meets Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), a poor, but handsome man who woos Catherine with great tenacity. Catherine falls for him easily, having not been paid attention to very often, if at all. Catherine’s father (Ralph Richardson) disapproves of the union because he believes Morris’s intentions dishonorable. Simply put, her father believes Morris only wants her for her money. Catherine wishes to give up her inheritance if it means Morris and her can be together. So I don’t ruin its ending, let’s just say, drama ensues!

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Catherine, I feel you! #AwkwardGirlProblems

A little background on the film itself – the film was adapted from a stage play which was adapted from a Henry James novel called Washington Square. De Havilland saw the play and knew she had to play Catherine in a film adaptation. She approached director William Wyler and then sought the film rights.

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De Havilland and Clift on set with Director William Wyler

Clift was originally not wanted for the role of Morris as it was thought that he would appear too modern to be a 19th century gentleman. Clift and de Havilland apparently didn’t see eye to eye on their acting techniques either. Clift believed Olivia came to set knowing her lines and nothing else. He believed she put everything into the direction she was given which he didn’t believe to be “real acting.” Olivia respected Clift, but thought that everything he did acting-wise was for himself. Still, she said it helped her give the best possible performance as Catherine is supposed to feel isolated.

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Montgomery Clift, DON’T COME ANY CLOSER!

I remember seeing this film at the festival at the end of a very long day. I was ready for bed and honestly thought I might fall asleep in it. As it turned out though, the film was so mesmerizing I was overcome by a second wind. Much of that was due to Olivia’s performance – she was so incredibly understated and nuanced. A less talented actress could have made Catherine seem wooden or boring. Olivia makes you feel for her – you can see the thoughts behind her expressive face. The scenes between Clift and De Havilland at the party are some of my favorites because they so remind me of how I feel at parties.

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I would’ve probably kicked him a few times too. #AwkwardGirlProblems

Taking place in the late 19th century, it’s fascinating to examine the gender roles. This film almost feels like the anti-Pride and Prejudice. In Pride and Prejudice, you have a poor, but intelligent woman rejecting the concept of marriage without love, even if it means security. Whereas, in The Heiress, you have a wealthy, but naive girl rejecting the idea of a life without love, even if the person doesn’t necessarily want her for her.

The most gut-wrenching bit of the film for me is when Catherine’s father and aunt tell her they believe Morris only wants her for her money. Moreover, her father tells her she has nothing else that anyone could love her for. I was so angry on Catherine’s behalf. Just because a girl is introverted and slightly awkward and can’t play the piano, she’s not worthy of love? Absolutely ridiculous! But the idea that the two people Catherine is closest to see her as nothing is emotionally terrifying. It made me think about how much of our sense of self is built on the validation of the people around us.

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Catherine’s father = Father of the Year #NOT

The film is absolutely beautiful – the cinematography, the music, the costumes. However, at its core, the film is a classic because it is still relevant. It questions societal norms, especially in regards to an unmarried woman. Olivia’s performance is stunning and by the end, unsettling. She won her second Academy Award for the role. Her speech captures her essence – it doesn’t seem that Gone with the Wind‘s ‘Melanie’ is far from who the real Olivia is.

Also, small BTS story – When Catherine climbs the stairs, dejected in the second half of the movie, Wyler began to get frustrated. Olivia, who was known for her professionalism, ended up throwing the suitcase she had been carrying at Wyler. Wyler, seeing it was empty, told the crew to fill it up so that when she walked up the stairs, she’d feel the full weight of Catherine’s despair. And I’ve got to say, it kind of worked!

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Just an independent woman doing her thing!

The film was apparently going to be remade in 1993 by Director Mike Nichols and Tom Cruise. However, after screening the film, they didn’t believe it could be improved upon. A remake was finally made in 1997 with Jennifer Jason Leigh, though, of course, it didn’t surpass the success and critical acclaim of the original.

The vintage trailer for The Heiress is below.

WARNING: do not plan to get anything done while watching this film. IT WON’T HAPPEN.