Today, June 26, 2022, marks the birth centenary of one of my favourite Hollywood actresses, the beautiful and very versatile Eleanor Parker. Born in Cedarville, Ohio, on June 26, 1922, Eleanor Parker had decided fairly early on that she wanted to become an actress; but despite being noticed and invited for screen tests several times, she turned them down in order to focus on stage performances, preferring to gather experience onstage before getting into films. Finally entering Hollywood with a debut role in Busses Roar (1942), Eleanor went on to work in a very wide and varied range of films over the next nearly 50 years.
Most people associate Eleanor Parker with her role in The Sound of Music: but the elegant, beautiful, scheming but eventually gracious Baroness was only a minor role in what was a blockbuster hit of a film (which, I think, was the main reason for Eleanor’s popularity in it). You only have to watch Eleanor Parker in films where she had bigger, meatier roles—as the wild gypsy in Scaramouche, or the woman who finds herself imprisoned in Caged, or the feisty and funny Mary Stuart Cherne, out to get her man in Many Rivers to Cross—to realize that she was so much more versatile than many of her contemporaries. Of course, she could (and did) swing the standard arm candy roles, as in The Naked Jungle or Escape from Fort Bravo, but she could also do justice to roles that required some hardcore acting skills.
Like this one, which won Eleanor Parker her second Academy Award nomination. Detective Story, directed by William Wyler and based on a play by Sidney Kingsley, is set in a New York police station, the entire story taking place over the course of a single day. Eleanor Parker appears very early on in the film, but after that all-too-brief appearance, her character vanishes, only to return at about the 45 minute mark: and then on, she is mesmerizing.
The story is about Detective Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas), a cop who is pretty much the epitome of the stolid, unshakable defender of the law. He has very clear-cut ideas about right and wrong, and one cannot, in McLeod’s eyes, be ever the other. It’s this or that.
In one memorable scene in the film, in a burst of anger, McLeod explains why he’s so staunchly certain of his morality (and that of others), why there are no shortcuts for him. His father, says McLeod, was a drunk: he used to ill-treat his wife so badly that she finally ended her days in a lunatic asylum. McLeod swore he’d never be like his father.
McLeod’s attitude makes itself amply noticed in his behaviour as the day progresses, but right now, in the morning, just as he’s going upstairs, we see another side of him. A woman calls out to him, and McLeod, turning around, sees his wife Mary (Eleanor Parker). McLeod hasn’t been home the past two days, and Mary’s come to check on him.
The love and affection between McLeod and his wife is obvious: he puts her in the back seat of a taxi (the driver of which is a friend of McLeod’s, and who stands discreetly by, letting husband and wife have a few moments together). McLeod and Mary hug; he asks her if she went to the doctor, and she says she did. McLeod vows, fervently, that she will have babies; a son and a daughter. They will be parents, come what may. Mary looks briefly wistful, but then she smiles and all is well.
McLeod sees Mary off—the taxi takes her home—and goes into the precinct. Here, all the softness and love that McLeod displayed with Mary moments ago is gone; he’s the hard-bitten cop, not a gentle, empathetic bone in his body.
From various conversations with the lieutenant (Horace McMahon) and McLeod’s colleague Lou Brody (William Bendix), it soon emerges that McLeod is feeling fairly triumphant right now. He’s been chasing after a slimy obstetrician named Dr Karl Schneider for the past year, and has finally got him. (This being the days of the Hays Code, it’s not specifically spelled out, but it’s obvious that Schneider is a doctor who performs abortions).
McLeod is elated; he also knows of two women who will testify against Schneider. One of them, true, is in hospital and in a critical condition, but the other has agreed to testify—in fact, she’s identified Schneider from a photograph.
While Schneider is brought in, McLeod attends to other business. Most importantly, he’s caught a young man, Arthur Kindred (Craig Hill), for embezzlement. Arthur, till now with a spotless reputation, stole a paltry sum of a little over $400, and when McLeod interrogates him, Arthur (who looks shamefaced about it) admits that he needed the money to impress the girl he’s been in love with these past several years. A girl named Joy Carmichael.
Told to phone Joy, Arthur tries—but the phone is answered by Joy’s sister Susan (Cathy O’Donnell), who comes rushing to the police station immediately, to leap to Arthur’s defence, to take up cudgels on his behalf with McLeod. Arthur is not inclined to criminality; he is good.
But McLeod refuses to listen, not even when Arthur’s employer arrives and after some thinking (and some gentle persuasion by Brody, who sees in Arthur his own son, killed in the war), decides he doesn’t want to charge Arthur. Give him another chance.
McLeod, however, refuses outright, and gets furious at these people, who cannot seem to see why Arthur needs to be charged, needs to be convicted, needs for this rot to be stemmed right now.
To show them just what Arthur can become a few years from now, McLeod points out another criminal—this one with several convictions, several charges—named Charley (Joseph Wiseman). Charley has just been brought in, along with another accomplice named Lewis (Michael Strong), and it’s clear that Charley isn’t just a hardened criminal, he’s also a psychopath on some level. Vicious, somewhat mad, violent, dangerous.
While all this is going on, Karl Schneider is brought in. McLeod tries to get him to confess, but Schneider isn’t talking. Never mind, McLeod says; there is that witness, the woman who identified his photograph. She’s coming for the identity parade, she’ll identify Schneider sure enough.
But when Miss Hatch (Gladys George) arrives, she denies having seen any of the men in the lineup. When an enraged McLeod pushes Schneider forward, too, she refuses to admit that she’s ever seen this man.
McLeod is close to bursting a blood vessel, he’s so angry. It’s clear that Schneider and his crooked lawyer Endicott Sims (Warner Anderson) have bribed Miss Hatch. McLeod’s fury comes bubbling up and all out of control a short while later, when he bashes Schneider so badly that Schneider passes out and has to be taken to hospital. Before he loses consciousness, though, Schneider mentions a name: Tami Giacoppetti.
When Schneider’s lawyer Sims begins to get all bombastic, the lieutenant probes further, and discovers something: Tami Giacoppetti was linked to Mary McLeod.
How? What is the connection between Mary, Giacoppetti, and Schneider?
I must admit to a special fondness for films that restrict themselves to one time, or one space. The one-room film, the 24-hours film: Rope, Twelve Angry Men, Rear Window, Life Boat… fitting an entire story into one restricted space, and/or a few hours, is something I find fascinating. Detective Story is a good example of this type of film, and one I’m glad I ended up watching.
What I liked about this film:
The tautness, the busy-ness, the way everything builds up. I don’t know how real Detective Story was in portraying life at a police precinct in the early 50s, but it came across convincingly, from the range of characters who pass through the precinct, to the range of cases that come up. There is the hardened Charley here, and the naïve, rather silly shoplifter (Lee Grant) who seems to hardly realize what’s happening around her.
There is Brody, realistic and nuanced; there is McLeod, certain that life is all black and white. There is anger, and the will to forgive. There is hope, and despair. There is the past, and the future. All of it is worked into a story that raises questions about human error, about love and forgiveness and moving on in life.
Then, there’s Eleanor Parker as Mary McLeod. Detective Story is inarguably Kirk Douglas’s film (and yes, how excellent he is); Detective James McLeod is the central character here—but Mary, in the few scenes that she appears in, comes through also as a pivotal character. This woman, her past, and her relationship with her husband, form the basis of the dilemma that eventually grips McLeod and forces him into the climactic moment of the story.
And Eleanor Parker is superb as Mary: now gentle, her eyes glowing; now distressed and upset, trying desperately to cope with the past; deeply hurt, cold and angry. Each nuance, each emotion, comes vividly through.
Thank you for the films, Ms Parker. You were a wonder.
(No, there wasn’t anything I didn’t like about this film. A free copy can be viewed at the Internet Archive, here).