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Paramount Home Video presents
"Jim, you gotta bend with the wind...or break."
DVD ReviewLook up "intensity" in your handy Webster's Dictionary, and, next to the definition, you're bound to find a picture of Kirk Douglas. The chiseled actor with sandy hair, blazing eyes, and a cavernous chin cleft has carved a career out of portraying angry, anguished, and rebellious characters who often feel like a square peg in society's round hole. Always a magnetic screen presence, Douglas fearlessly brandishes emotion while maintaining an intrinsic virility that attracts both women and men. And in William Wyler's Detective Story, he brings his "A" game, pumping Det. Jim McLeod so full of angst, bitterness, revulsion, and self-righteousness, he looks primed to bust a gasket at any moment.
Based on the play by Sidney Kingsley, Detective Story chronicles a day in the life of New York's 21st Precinct, and how the various cases on McLeod's plate not only push him to the breaking point, but also force the cocky detective to confront both external and internal demons. His lieutenant (Horace McMahon) sarcastically calls him "a one-man army against crime," yet McLeod lives and breathes law enforcement, passionately pursuing offenders, and chiding his superiors for coddling them. Known to rough up suspects on occasion, McLeod is ordered to treat Karl Schneider (George Macready), an unscrupulous "doctor" (1950s euphemism for abortionist), with kid gloves. He complies at first, but when the case collapses, McLeod literally goes for the jugular, angering Schneider's lawyer, who, in turn, drops hints about a long ago connection between Schneider and McLeod's wife, Mary (Eleanor Parker).
Abortion was a favorite subject of Kingsley (who also explored the issue in his 1933 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Men in White), and though the Hollywood production code prohibited the movie from addressing the topic by name, the innuendo comes through loud and clear. As a result, Detective Story gains a powerful social angle that goes far beyond the crime-doesn't-pay moralizing of most police dramas of the period. The film also treats premarital sex and adultery with surprising frankness, and effectively juxtaposes the tales of a shoplifter, embezzler, and serial burglar within its framework. (They all may be thieves, but their personalities and motivations couldn't be more diverse.)
A precursor to TV cop shows like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue (especially the latter), Detective Story brilliantly depicts the grimy atmosphere of an inner city precinct, and how the jaded, overworked officers juggle deskwork drudgery with carefully choreographed interrogations and the outbursts of various criminals. By dovetailing both petty and serious cases, and juggling an offbeat cast of felons, the Oscar-nominated script (adapted by Robert Wyler and Philip Yordan) creates a rhythmic ebb and flow to this daily grind that slowly builds to a powerful crescendo. Such substantive, character-driven stories attracted Wyler—who was no stranger to Kingsley's work, having directed the film version of the playwright's Dead End in 1937—and it's tough to imagine another director better suited to the material. (Only Elia Kazan, who spent the same year molding A Streetcar Named Desire—and would beat out Wyler for the Oscar—comes to mind.) Wyler wisely clings to the drama's stage roots; with few exceptions, he confines the action to a single set, heightening the emotional timbre and keeping the focus claustrophobic. He also succeeds in conveying a gritty realism (punctuated by the lack of a music score), and eschews any noticeable technique in favor of doing what he does best—milking raw, riveting performances from his actors.
Much to his dismay (and ours), Douglas didn't even garner an Academy Award nomination for his blistering portrayal of a man held hostage by his implacable principles. The actor has filed plenty of great performances over the years, but even his turns as Vincent Van Gogh and Spartacus struggle to eclipse his gutsy work here. Like a bungee-jumper, he dives into the role, unafraid to paint McLeod as an arrogant, holier-than-thou prick. With a grin that always seems to mask a snarl, a deeply penetrating gaze, and turmoil churning inside him like a nasty case of reflux, Douglas, as always, comes dangerously close to going over the top, but reins himself in just before he falls off the precipice.
The Academy did, however, deservedly honor Parker with the second of her three career nominations (though she would lose that year's award to Vivien Leigh's Blanche DuBois). Best known as the bitchy baroness in The Sound of Music, Parker has crafted many more complex and demanding portrayals, yet today's audiences often forget those accomplishments. In Detective Story, she takes a relatively small role and makes an indelible impression, beautifully conveying Mary's shame, regret, and disillusionment as her secret is revealed. Twenty-four-year-old Lee Grant (Shampoo) also nabbed a nomination—in her first film, no less—reprising the role of the shoplifter she created on Broadway. The portly William Bendix (as McLeod's Sipowicz-like colleague), Wyler favorite Cathy O'Donnell (Ben-Hur), Gladys George, and Frank Faylen round out the stellar cast.
A searing character study distinguished by fine acting and adult themes, Detective Story is a welcome departure from the typical cops-and-robbers shoot-'em-up that Hollywood so fervently recycled during its Golden Age. Few actors command the screen with as much authority as Douglas, and his memorable portrayal gives this juicy film its bite.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: Unlike the grubby office space in the precinct, the Detective Story transfer is practically spotless, with only a few minor blemishes marring the silky presentation. Clarity is flat-out superb, thanks to a richly varied gray scale, inky and rock-solid blacks, and excellent contrast. A bit of grain can be detected in some scenes, but for the most part, a crisp smoothness prevails. This is definitely one of the best black-and-white transfers of the year, and a treat for both classic film and home theater aficionados.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: Dialogue is the film's key element, and the well-scrubbed mono track ensures every word is understandable, even when characters talk simultaneously. Music plays only over the opening and closing credits, but possesses a fine tone, and subtle ambient effects are clearly reproduced.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 15 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Extras Review: Typical of Paramount's classic releases, the disc includes no extras whatsoever.
Extras Grade: D-
Final CommentsA cop chronicle for the connoisseur, Detective Story features taut direction from William Wyler, great ensemble acting by a first-rate cast, and another intense Kirk Douglas performance. A terrific black-and-white transfer almost compensates for the lack of supplements, and adds extra luster to this richly textured, often riveting adult drama. Recommended.
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