Out of the Past: Detective Story

[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]

Detective Story is a precinct-house Oedipus Rex; and though I have neither seen nor read Sidney Kingsley’s original play, I am certain that the Attic overtones are his work, not that of Yordan and Wyler. In the film, Kirk Douglas puts in one of his finest performances as the uncompromising, obsessive detective who learns, reluctantly, and to his horror, that his crusade against evil swings past the wide assortment of criminals who come daily to precinct headquarters to be questioned and booked and ultimately focuses on himself. Oedipus’s relentless inquisitiveness is equally divided between Detective McLeod (Douglas) and his gruff supervisor (Horace McMahon). Teiresias appears as a lawyer (Warner Anderson), in possession of key evidence but reluctant to share the truth he knows. Iocasta is McLeod’s wife, with a carefully guarded secret about her past (ineptly played by the miscast Eleanor Parker, in the only job of acting in the film that falls short of splendid). Even the shepherd, who gives the final bit of evidence that seals Oedipus’s doom, appears in the person of an oily racketeer (Gerald Mohr) who shares Mrs. McLeod’s secret. The film also boasts an assortment of messengers and a Chorus of helpful fellow detectives who place McLeod’s suffering in perspective. But, though the unities are generally maintained, the turgid ritualism of Greek tragedy is exchanged for a seriocomic realism by the introduction of a most interesting and well-played bunch of pathetics and grotesques: the witnesses and arrestees of an evening’s work in the precinct.

The update of Oedipus Rex doesn’t work altogether, because McLeod’s discovery of evil in his own house is precipitated by a coincidence far less likely than any in Greek tragedy; because the far-reaching implications of Oedipus’s self-realization are here reduced to sexual and behavioral superficialities and tin-badge Freudian self-analysis; and because McLeod’s judgments of himself and of his wife are insufficiently motivated by anything we learn about him in the film. And, of course, it’s rather difficult to accept a man who is surprised to learn—after several years of marriage—that his wife was not “pure” when he wed her. The script’s inability to probe beneath the surface of self-awareness, to suggest human realities instead of settling for fatuous mock-Freudianism, causes the film to collapse in a welter of soap-opera melodramatics (and never more so than whenever Ms. Parker is onscreen).

Ultimately, the film’s finest achievement remains the crisp characterization of the supporting roles and their superb portrayal by McMahon, Joseph Wiseman, Lee Grant, and a precinct-full of marvelous character actors. Wyler, unwisely, has tried to “open the play up,” setting one scene on the street, another in a paddy wagon, another on the roof of the police station. Even so (and despite some of the better efforts of Lee Garmes’s camera), the film functions better as drama than as cinema.

DETECTIVE STORY (1951)
Direction: William Wyler. Screenplay: Philip Yordan and Robert Wyler, after the play by Sidney Kingsley. Cinematography: Lee Garmes. Production: William Wyler. A Paramount Picture.
The Players: Kirk Douglas, Eleanor Parker, Horace McMahon, William Bendix, Lee Grant, Craig Hill, Cathy O’Donnell, Warner Anderson, George Macready, Joseph Wiseman, Michael Strong, Gerald Mohr, Bert Freed, Frank Faylen, William Phillips, Grandon Rhodes.

© 1974 Robert C. Cumbow