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Kirk Douglas as Detective James McLeod

Detective Story is a 1951 day-in-the-life police movie directed by William Wyler. It’s a compelling but stagebound production, obviously a film adaptation of a play. The film features a powerful lead performance by Kirk Douglas as James McLeod, a hard-nosed, morally rigid plainclothes detective. We learn he watched his father abuse his mother, and this led him to become a cop, to stop men like his father. Instead, we see in the course of a single, fateful day in the squad room that he’s in many ways become his father. We watch him treat true criminals and foolish young men with equal lack of sympathy. And, in the end, he chooses to ruin his own life rather than learn to see the world in less absolute fashion. The film is well identified as noir because of its emphasis on the darker side of daily life in New York, for the troubled psychology of its characters, especially McLeod, and for its tragic ending. It’s also noirish in its manifestation of postwar anxieties…particularly related to changing gender roles. And that’s what I want to write about for this review.

In essence, Detective Story is a cautionary tale about postwar men failing to see life in its full moral complexity. Everyone around McLeod sees the world with some grays — particularly his partner Brody (William Bendix of noirs The Glass KeyThe Blue DahliaRace Street, Macao), whose son died a hero in WWII, and sweet young Susan (Cathy O’Donnell, from Side Street and They Live by Night), who adores a young man who stole from his employer to be able to afford to take out Susan’s posh older sister, a model. To our gruff protagonist, however, it’s all the same. The boy who steals once to take out a girl who lives beyond his means and a wife who slept with other men in her past but is not devoted to him are as “guilty” as hardened criminals.

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McLeod (Douglas) taunts Dr. Schneider (Macready)

The film has two primary villains, men depicted as beyond redemption. The first is Charley Gennini (Joseph Wiseman, most famous for playing the James Bond villain Dr. No), a thief and four-time loser whose behavior gets wilder and more desperate over the course of the single day in which the film takes place. (It’s a hell of a performance.) The second villain is Dr. Schneider (George Macready, known to noir aficionados as Ballin in Gilda and the sociopathic villain in My Name is Julia Ross). He’s a doctor who earns his fortune from the misfortunes of young women. He has a greasy lawyer who advises him to stay silent and demands the hot-headed McLeod keep his bullying hands off. This isn’t the first time Schneider (note the hint of Nazi in his German name, suggesting the evil of unethical medical experiments) has been brought into custody. Schneider, we understand, is an abortionist. He is blamed both for his illegal, immoral profession and his greed. Women have died in his hands, and McLeod is determined to bring him to justice…at any cost.

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Mary (Parker) longs for her husband’s (Douglas) forgiveness.

Unlike the abortionist, the film is kinder to the woman who seeks an abortion. Or at least she can be forgiven if she proves penitent and properly feminine thereafter. We learn that McLeod’s devoted wife Mary (Eleanor Parker, whom noir fans may recognize from Caged) sought Dr. Schneider’s help once upon a time, when she was young and naive, then pregnant and alone in the big city. McLeod had no idea, and much of the film is about his inability to understand and forgive his wife once he knows. He loves Mary, but he cannot accept that she had a life before him, even if she admits to having made mistakes and begs for his forgiveness. We may find it  progressive that Mary is not openly condemned by the film for her transgressions against social norms and breaking the law, though she speaks of a stillborn baby, not an abortion. In the end, the film leaves Mary without husband or children — the suggestion is that she cannot have any more children because of whatever transpired at Dr. Schneider’s hands — and husband and family were what she claims most to have wanted. While we are meant to find her complex and sympathetic (perhaps explanation for why she got an Oscar nomination despite only a few minutes on screen in a very melodramatic role), it is hard to see her as unpunished as she leaves McLeod after confronting him about his intolerance. Even under a weakening Code, Mary isn’t allowed to end up happily ever after.

 

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Susan (O’Donnell), McLeod (Douglas), and Arthur (Craig Hill)

As opposed to Mary, Susan triumphs. She is the postwar era’s innocent, plucky young woman, ready for a future in which she can pursue and defend a man — even using her own money to help him out. Of course, this is one version of the figure of the good woman of noir, she who longs only for marriage and family. Susan is Mary with no experience and even less independence. So she and her forgiven man can be happy.

 

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Miss Hatch (Gladys George) shows offer her cheap fur to Detective McLeod (Douglas)

In contrast to Mary or Susan, there is Miss Hatch, played by character actress Gladys George (best known to noir fans as Miles Archer’s philandering wife in The Maltese Falcon). She’s the floozy that would be a femme fatale if she were younger and had the smarts. Instead, she’s paid off with a fake mink to stop her testimony against Dr. Schneider. When she promised to testify in the early part of the film, she’s condescended to by McLeod; and when she refuses to identify Schneider, she’s verbally abused and tossed out. Her connection to Schneider and ability to be bought off by his lawyer tells us all we need to know about this bottle blonde and her cheap fur bribe.

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Lee Grant as the shoplifter

Finally, there is Lee Grant as a shoplifter, a character who enters early in the film and remains until the end. And she stands out from the others. She’s the least identifiable by type and most perplexing in terms of her purpose in the film. We can note that this was Grant’s film debut, and a role for which she, like Parker, was nominated for an Oscar (Best Actress in a Supporting Role).  (No men were nominated for acting in the film despite fine performances by Douglas, Bendix, and Wiseman.) This nameless character is primarily played for humor, an uneducated, talky New York gal who wants what she can’t afford and wouldn’t mind a man. She worries about her reputation with her family now that she’s been arrested, but she also flirts and chats with the men. Most of all, she observes. Late in the film, she drops Susan some unsolicited advice that shows how little she understands of life. For me, it’s important that she is unnamed and ever-present. She’s another signifier of postwar womanhood and its anxieties. She has no career, no man, and thus no active role in the film. She seems to observe without learning, to pursue men without sincere interest, and to advise without awareness of self or others beyond platitudes. Perhaps she means well, but she’s lost, as so many women were when the war ended and men returned, broken in spirit and body, to reclaim their jobs and patriarchal authority.

 

All in all, studying postwar anxiety over gender roles and relations in Detective Story provides an engaging study of noir. The film is direct in its condemnation of longtime criminals (Gennini and Schneider), overly harsh cops (McLeod), and aging women who fall prey to bribes. It is equally plain in its sympathies with the kind cop (Brody), the first-time male offender (Arthur), and the selfless woman (Susan). Yet, its perspective on the relative guilt and culpability of other types, especially women, is less clear. The first-time shoplifter does not receive the sympathy that Brody gives to the young embezzler who reminds him of his war hero son. And Mary is a conundrum: the subject of pitying scrutiny by the other cops; the recipient of embarrassed awkwardness by the chief; and the victim of anguished but harsh judgment by her husband. In the end, she literally flees the film, finding nowhere to turn.