Detective Story (1951)

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).

15 thoughts on “Detective Story (1951)

  1. Ooh, thanks for the link, Madhu! Your review had me riveted! Like you (no surprises there!), I love movies that are constrained by space and time. It shows me how good a director is at, well, (for want of a better word) ‘sparseness’.

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    • I like that word, sparseness! And oddly enough, all the films I recall having seen that follow this idea of sparseness (I must add to that list Ittefaq and its original) – have been very good. I can’t think of any, constrained by time and/or space, that have been mediocre.

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      • I finally got the dvd (I am a physical media person) and saw the film. Boy, am I glad I saw it! As you mentioned, very tautly scripted. I was especially fond of the fluid change of scene from one perpetrator to another in the police precinct. The end was perhaps a little over the top bit that’s quibbling. Good choice and review, Madhu.

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        • I am so glad you enjoyed this, Soumya. True, the end is a little over the top, but honestly, I was so blown away by the rest of the film, that didn’t really irk me too much.

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    • Edwina is safe and well, from what I know. I am part of her friends network on Facebook, so I wrote her a quick note today to let her know you were asking about her.

      The LO is now eight years old. In fact, coincidentally enough, my next post – which I’ll be publishing this weekend – features her.

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  2. A nice review of a well-written and well-executed movie.
    Had seen the movie few years back and enjoyed it too.
    Though that time, I had thought that Schneider case was not closed well at the end And wished that the ending was different ( don’t want to discuss it here as many would not have seen the movie).
    I too like movies set in a infinite time period – like Twelve Angry Men, Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf, After Hours etc.

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    • I have actually never seen Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and don’t recall hearing of After Hours, so both of these go on my watch list! Thank you for the recommendations.

      I agree with you that it does seem as if the Schneider case isn’t closed well, but by then my focus had shifted from the legal/practical aspects of the film to the moral/emotional. I was so deeply invested in the McLeod tangle by then that Schneider became pretty much irrelevant to me. But of course, that’s not to say that it was fine for the film-maker to not complete that plot element better….

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