It's a warm summer day in New York City and things are going about as normal at the 21st Precinct with its crew of detectives and seemingly never-ending stream of criminals, some petty crooks and others looking at a stiff prison sentence. Among the officers on duty is Detective Jim McCleod (Kirk Douglas), a hard-boiled officer who always gets his man, albeit with some less than legal methods. Now he has to deal with a case from his past, a doctor, Schneider (George Macready), who has built a reputation for all the wrong reasons. In previous run-ins, McCleod has never been able to close the case on the doctor through a variety of coincidences that certainly smell fishy. He's become almost obsessed with sending Schneider to jail no matter the case, no matter by what means he can do it. Will McCleod go too far this time around?
From director William Wyler, 'Detective' is based off a play by Sidney Kingsley. Wyler's film picked up four Oscar nominations but ultimately winning none. I've long tried to track it down, Netflix taunting me with the DVD that never seemed to be available. Well, I win Netflix! I found it on Turner Classic Movie's schedule! And in the end, it was well worth the wait. The stage-based roots pay huge dividends, almost the entire 103-minute running time spent in the 21st Precinct's bullpen and offices. It's busy, claustrophobic and a great backdrop to the ensemble story and long list of characters. It is a simple, straightforward technique that works in pretty effortless fashion. There isn't anything particularly flashy about Wyler's film, but it's realistic, tough and often enough ahead of its time mentality, 'Detective' is an easy recommend.
Just 35 years old at the time, it's crazy to think what Douglas accomplished in his first five years in Hollywood. Talk about a guy who hit the ground running, Douglas having Champion, Out of the Past and Ace in the Hole to his name. Add his performance here as Detective Jim McCleod to an impressive list for a young actor. There are times late where things get a little over-dramatic, but Douglas knows just where to stop where things could be considered a little hammy. McCleod is absolutely dripping with rage and fury, his job tearing him apart, not to mention some inner demons coursing through him. We see he's a good cop, pushing and pushing to catch the crooks, knowing all their tricks, but it's also a job that's pushed him to a state where he is hanging on the verge of absolutely losing his mind. Brimming with intensity, this is quite a performance for Douglas. Surprisingly enough, he wasn't nominated for an Oscar here, two other performances picking up nods.
Rounding out the cast is a solid ensemble starting with Eleanor Parker (picking up a Best Actress nomination) as Mary, McCleod's wife. She's a cop's wife, knowing her husband pushes himself while trying not to involve her too much in the horrors of what he sees. As for the other 21st Precinct detectives, look for William Bendix as McCleod's partner, Lou Brody, with Horace McMahon as Lt. Monahan, and Frank Faylen, Bert Freed, Grandon Rhodes and William Phillips rounding out the crew. Other folks to watch out for, Lee Grant as a first-time pickpocket, observing all that goes on in prison (and picking up an Oscar nomination?!?), a young man (Craig Hill) who robbed $400-plus from his boss but his girlfriend's sister (Cathy O'Donnell) wants to help him, and two crooks (Joseph Wiseman in just his second film, Michael Strong) trying not to turn on each other for their long list of burglaries. It's a cool ensemble, all the different responses from both sides of the law as the day develops.
There are weaknesses, but none are deal-breakers. Wiseman hams it up like his life depended on it. Grant's cute pickpocket comes across as more annoying than anything. It is a tad slow-moving at times. That said? It's a gem of a movie. Ahead of its time in dealing with an abortion doctor (in a 1950s film at that!), the story gets uncomfortable and very real as certain elements of the script come to life. The ending is not so surprisingly downbeat. Pay attention with some quick cues within several other scenes, and you should see where it's going. Well worth a watch. Highly recommended.
Detective Story (1951): *** 1/2 /****