Our recommendation this week is the classic 1951 film, Detective Story. It tells the story of troubled Detective James McLeod, played memorably by Kirk Douglas. His uncompromising view of crime and strong-arm tactics make him a great detective — and are also his fatal flaw.
The film takes place almost entirely in a New York Police Department detective squad office. The people floating in and out at the movie’s outset are a perfect representation of the usual characters seen in a squad room: Emotionally Disturbed Persons (“EDP’s”), wise guy detectives, timid rookies, boisterous perps, and hysterical complainants. There’s some drinking, some physical persuasion to go along with questioning, and some schmoozing of complainants. It’s the job in a nutshell, circa 1951.
The film even gets most of the terminology correct, such as referring to a perp’s “B” number, which is what was used before fingerprints and NYSID numbers in New York (a “B” number likely referred to “Bertillon,” the previous system of identification from France that was based on — wait for it — skull measurements!).
A few typical 1950’s cliches also get thrown around, which provides some laughs (“take a couple of drop-dead pills” if you don’t get a kick out of them).
Kirk Douglas does a great portrayal of Detective McLeod — a fanatical investigator who often has to be reigned in by his Squad Lieutenant. Known for his physicality and tenacity, McLeod’s fellow detectives both respect and are bothered by him.
So when he catches a big, difficult case — one based on a scenario that Hollywood wouldn’t touch today — it’s this development that tips McLeod towards the edge. What occurs next is real drama. Will McLeod be able to go on with his job? Or his relationship with his wife? Clearly, something has to give.
Watching McLeod fight not only the case but his own inner demons is what really makes the movie worth watching. It gives the audience something to think about the next time they might dig their own heels in a bit too deep… (not that I would know anything about that!).
The film also benefits from the effort the writers and director took to detail the steps real detectives take in a complex case, including the unglamorous pursuit of banking records and witness interviews — basic stuff that hasn’t changed since 1951.
Detective Story can be rented for $3.99 on Amazon. It’s also available on Apple TV. The DVD goes for $13 on Amazon (which is $1.15 in 1951 money… when movies cost about fifty cents! Yeesh — inflation, indeed).