Detective Story (1951) is an absorbing police drama that examines a chaotic, trauma-filled day in the life of a cynical detective who's on the verge of an emotional breakdown. Most of the film takes place in a cramped New York squad room. Director William Wyler does a masterful job in adapting Sidney Kingsley's Broadway play to the big screen, creating a raw, realistic atmosphere. The squad room has a dingy, lived-in look to it: The bleary-eyed, overworked detectives flick cigarettes butts right on the dirty floor and write up their reports sitting at their rickety desks that are surrounded by dull, smoke-stained walls. And the dialogue is pitch-perfect as the detectives trade wisecracks and interrogate suspects, or "squeals" as they call them. The viewer can easily imagine that this is how a police squad room would look like around the time the film was released.
Kirk Douglas simmers as Detective James "Jim" McLeod, a jaded hard-nosed cop who's seen and heard it all. During the entire film, he's like a ticking time bomb ready to detonate at any second. McLeod has very little sympathy or patience for criminals and believes the judicial system and society in general "coddle" them. He takes a very tough, uncompromising stance on criminals that borders on cruel and obsessive, and he sometimes engages in excessive force on suspects. There is a scene where he mentions his parents, which gives viewers some insight into his behavior. McLeod's father was a cruel and sadistic criminal, and that behavior took its toll on McLeod's mother, sending her to an early grave. McLeod vowed never to be like his father; thus, he became a cop. And he also vowed never to be "soft" like his mother: "I hate softness. My mother was soft; it killed her," he says.
Near the end of the film, McLeod, to his horror, recognizes that he in fact did turn out just like his father, but only on the other side of the law: "I built my whole life on hating my father; all the time he was inside of me laughing." Like his father, McLeod is cruel, hateful and unforgiving, severely lacking in empathy and compassion. A sordid secret from his wife's past destroys his perfect image of her, causing his world to crash down around him and setting the film up for its tragic conclusion.
In addition to Douglas' searing performance, several other cast members also get their moments to shine. William Bendix is terrific as Detective Lou Brody, McLeod's partner and close friend. Detective Brody is a tough, no-nonsense cop, but unlike McCleod, he possesses empathy and compassion. He's more flexible and doesn't see everything in black and white like his partner does. And Joseph Wiseman turns in a riveting performance as the psychopathic burglary suspect Charley Ginnini. Other stand-out performances include Lee Grant as a nervous shoplifter, Gerald Mohr as smooth and dapper gangster Tami Giacoppetti, and Eleanor Parker as McLeod's anguished wife Mary.
Detective Story was a precursor to police dramas and comedies on television shows such as Hill Street Blues, Barney Miller, Homicide: Life on the Street and NYPD Blue, where much of the action takes place inside the squad room. This film revealed that a lot of drama as well as comedy can be found within the confines of a cramped police squad room.
Wyler deserves much praise for taking a Broadway play and making it breathe so well on screen, not an easy thing to do. It's not surprising that he's directed several film classics, including Ben-Hur, Wuthering Heights, The Best Years of Our Lives, Jezebel, The Desperate Hours and Roman Holiday. He did a top-notch job in creating the mood and atmosphere for the film. In addition, his brother writer/director/producer Robert Wyler, playwright Sidney Kingsley and screenwriter/producer Philip Yordan did a stellar job on the screenplay, showing a great ear for police and street lingo. This is an excellent film in a number of ways and boasts an amazing performance by screen legend Kirk Douglas.
Detective Story at Amazon