Wyler: Detective Story (1951)

During the late 40s and early 50s, film noir started to shift towards systems narratives – stories that retained the claustrophobic doom of classical noir, but transplanted it onto more ambitiously expansive cityscapes. One of the more unusual entries in this canon was William Wyler’s Detective Story, an adaptation of the 1949 hit play by Sidney Kingsley. Whereas many of these expansive later noirs revelled in location shooting, Detective Story unfolds on a single set, focusing on real time more than real space, as we follow a series of intersecting cases over a day and night in a New York police station. We never leave the station, but the entire city and country seems to move through the station, which acts as a centrifuge for people as far away as Pittsburgh and Des Moines. Anchoring all those cases is Detective Jim McLeod, played by Kirk Douglas, who tries to nail an abortionist as his twenty-four hour shift unfolds.

The first part of the film almost plays as late screwball, paving the way for the many 50s films that parlayed screwball energy into a new wave of real-time, up-to-the-minute workplaces. We’re taken through the minutiae of police procedure – booking, fingerprinting, line-ups, identifications – along with discussions of early criminological theory. We’re also immersed in the pragmatism of the police force, and the sharp sense of jurisdiction. At one point, someone rings in to report a dead body on the sidewalk, but the officer who takes the call refers it on to the next district, because the body was found on the north side of the street. Since most of these early crimes are petty, it’s not hard for Kingsley, and Wyler, to keep the tone light, which suits their portrait of police life as a dynamic balance of procedure and improvisation. At times, you can easily see the distant origin of David Simon’s television style – the perky procedurality that animates series like Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire.

Since this all plays out on a single set, it could easily feel stagebound, but Wyler takes pains to translate Kingsley’s script into his own distinct cinematic lexicon. Echoing his earlier experiments with deep focus, he continually alternates between various points and planes of salience, pairing them with angular compositions and competing sightlines. While the set may be pretty constrained, Wyler frequently pulls back as far as he can to emphasise discrete planes of space, and situates the dialogue so that our eye is always semi-distracted by what is happening in the background. For a set that initially seems fairly transparent, this is actually a pretty dense visual field – dense enough to evoke a city-wide ensemble drama unfolding in a single space. It must have been quite ambitious to stage as a play, and required a fairly complex set – or perhaps Wyler draws out a complexity only implicit in the theatrical version.

Wyler also offsets the stagebound quality with a dynamic interplay between movement and stasis. In one of the earliest scenes, McLeod jumps into a taxi outside the police station and instructs it to “follow that car!,” pointing to the car that is directly parked in front of it. No sooner are we in the cab than the action halts, only to get moving again in a different way when McLeod caresses his wife Mary, played by Eleanor Parker. Later on, McLeod takes the abortionist, Karl Schneider, played by George Macready, to confront a witness in the hospital. For a brief moment, it looks like we might finally enter real space, and location shooting, as McLeod taunts Schneider in the back of a police van, with a series of city streets back-projected behind them. On the very cusp of arriving at the hospital, however, they receive word that this critical witness has died, looping them back to the police station, and to the main set, once again. Scenes like these broaden the action, and add movement, preventing the set from ever appearing too stagebound, even as they reiterate its noirish claustrophobia.

With so much going on, it takes a while for the main narrative to emerge – it doesn’t really come into its own until the second act, when McLeod and Schneider take centre stage. Until then, Detective Story feels like an anthology of short stories brought to life, as Wyler periodically interrupts the main narrative with the texture of more marginal characters. In doing so, he gradually build a hyper-stimulated visual field that, over time, subliminally takes the edge off this comically-inflected opening act. The first criminal booked, a shoplifter played by Lee Grant, becomes a surrogate for the audience as this process unfolds. She’s always drifting around the police station, watching the action covertly, and her movement from place to place gives the audience a surrogate mobility, which in turn makes the story feel more vivid and embodied. At the same time, her perceptions are hyper-sensitive, and deeply visceral, since she suffers from diabetes, which (she says) intensifies her emotions and raises her pulse. 

Between the comic overtones of the opening act and this edgy visual field, the second act emerges as a profound ambivalence about the relationship between the individual detective and the police force as an institution. Early on, Detective William Brody, played by William Bendix, observes that “detective are like fingerprints: no two are like,” and the film follows suit, providing us with a spectrum of detective personae that range from the most punitive to the most restorative. McLeod, Douglas’ character, is at the punitive end, although it takes a while for us to realise that, since his characterisation initially occurs mainly by omission. Most of the restorative work occurs away from him in this first act, while he’s largely absent from the action insofar as it’s framed comically. He’s also the most sceptical detective when it comes to the institution, partly because Schneider, the abortionist, invokes the institution to him – both as a plea for due process and as a threat about his own police friends downtown.

Gradually, as the second act emerges, this turns McLeod into a vigilante figure – only nominally or notionally attached to the police force. We hear him described as a “one-man army,” and he himself is told by a superior that “sometimes you talk like a maniac – you want to be the judge and jury too.” Insofar as he affirms the police force as an institution, McLeod sees it as a military institution, rather than a civil institution, distantly anticipating the 70s vigilantes who would break away from the police to self-militarise as individuals: “This is a war – we’re your army, we’re here to protect you.” Yet he reserves as much contempt – maybe more – for the purveyors of restorative justice as for criminals themselves, to the point where his real enemies are liberal theories of criminology, and their primary focus on reform.

Like the more fully-formed vigilantes of the 70s, McLeod’s main anxiety is continuity. We understand that the continuity of his own name is at stake, since his wife can’t have children. Masculine lack becomes vigilantistic impulse, as McLeod turns his rage upon the abortionist, who he sees as part of the same perversion of the natural order that has prevented him having children. At times, Schneider seems like a projection of McLeod’s paranoid imagination – the hallucinatory canvas he needs to craft his vigilantistic vision of the world. Schneider thereby becomes antagonist on two fronts – a symptom of the moral decay of the masculine order as a whole, but also a symptom of the “liberalised” police force, which kicks in when McLeod’s superior unequivocally warns McLeod not to resort to police brutality, even for abortionists.

To make matters worse, Schneider operated his abortion practice out of a farm in New Jersey, shattering McLeod’s fantasy of a rural elsewhere where traditional gender roles still apply. Early noir films often harkened for the country – a hangover, perhaps of the pastoral interludes of classical screwball – but by the late 40s the rural world had receded to a fantasy in all but the most sentimental of crime films. Here we see the next step in that process, as the country becomes a repository of the most morally bankrupt elements of the city – a refracted vision of Nazi concentration camps in which a German abortionist sequesters patient-victims at a remote spot in the countryside with the tacit approval of civic institutions.

Yet despite McLeod’s hallucinatory animosity for Schneider, it’s the female body that is really on trial here. Whereas the detectives in the film treat a variety of criminals, in McLeod’s world the real criminals are sexually active women – and the men who enable them. As the second act winds to a close, we learn that Schneider performed an abotion on McLeod’s wife, before she became his wife, begging the question – is this just coincidence, or has McLeod targeted Schender for revenge? The answer is somewhere in between, since while McLeod was unaware of the abortion, Schneider has already become a projection of his own anxieties about virility and parenthood – a figurehead for a morally diminished world in which abortion and infertility are simply two sides of the same decadent coin. That makes it doubly traumatic when Mary reveals to McLeod that this abortion is the reason for her current infertility – it’s both a shock and a fatalistic confirmation of all of McLeod’s deepest and most inchoate fears.

We see those fears somewhat reflected in the film’s depiction of marriage. While a variety of criminals pass through the station, most of them throw marriage awry, refracting and echoing Mary’s abortion and infertility. The unnamed shoplifter, played by Lee Grant, regularly laments not being able to find a man, and comes on to a variety of police officers, while we first meet McLeod hauling in a brothel madam for a line-up identification. The other subplot revolves around a young man who committed petty theft to try and impress a wealthy woman – and the other young woman who accompanies him to the station in an act of unrequited love. Although the film doesn’t fully identify with McLeod, it doesn’t totally discard him either, since a healthy police force here partly depends on regulating the role of women in marriages.

Still, the film can’t quite follow McLeod into the raw, visceral and paranoid misogyny that ensues when he finds out about Mary’s abortion, infertility and “infidelity” (even though she had the abortion years before he met him). His overbearing manner with criminals is now redirected towards the true criminal – his wife, who he refuses to even acknowledge as a woman, since a “real woman” can’t possibly have an abortion and certainly can’t be infertile. Wyler now distorts his compositions even further, opting for highly angular configurations that emphasise the space and shifting power differentials between men and women, often with one gender higher in the frame – especially McLeod, who’s always decentred, and increasingly unhinged: “I’d rather go to jail for twenty years than find my wife was a tramp.”

Of course, in classical Hollywood fashion, Mary breaks down, begs forgiveness and throws herself on McLeod’s compassion – and for a moment, seeing his worst fears realised is genuinely cathartic for McLeod. After discussing the situation with his fellow detectives, he realises that his heart should overtake his head. This discussion is probably the closest McLeod comes to genuine critical distance, and it’s also the most prolonged scene away from the main set – a smoke break on the roof of the police station, with the city twinkling in the distance. A conventional Hollywood film, or even an earlier noir, might have ended here, content with the “gritty” realism of a loving duo who have processed abortion and infertility.

In an extraordinary twist, though, McLeod doubles down on his moral disgust, taking us into a compressed third act that plays like an origin narrative for the 70s vigilante. At the very moment that the film tries to reset gender roles, and forestall the devolution of the police force into a vigilante apocalypse, McLeod, and Douglas, seem to break away from the guiding hand of both director and screenwriter. After this briefest show of compassion, McLeod, like so many later vigilantes, realises that he can’t compromise his mission to forestall his own fragility, which he understands as “principle”: “I know I’m different from the others – I’m here out of principle. All my life I’ve lived out of principle and I couldn’t change it if I’d wanted to.”

The tipping-point comes in a scene with Endicott Sims, Schneider’s lawyer, played by Warner Anderson. As he’s leaving the station, Sims drops a contemptuous comment about Mary’s abortion, which he knows about from his client, while descending the staircase. The scene now twists around McLeod as he pursues Warner down the stairs, and the camera work transitions from merely angular to genuinely expressionistic. McLeod’s body language becomes tortured, convoluted, convulsive, until he seems to be experiencing an electric shock with each fresh memory of his wife’s supposed shame. Finally, he confesses to Mary that he longs to be in a morgue, to have his brain removed, so he can finally forget her infertility and infidelity – the two are the same by this point – and recover his masculine pride in the process.

This is a pretty volatile state of mind, so it’s perhaps not surprising that McLeod relents a little. What is surprising is that Mary now completely eschews her former apologetic tone, refusing to allow her husband to shame her, and deciding to value her own pride rather than live as someone else’s compromise. In an extraordinary closing scene, she rejects him as a “cruel and vengeful man,” and curtly informs him that “You think you’re on the side of the angels, but you’re not.” In the final moments, McLeod grows demonic as he departs from police proecedure in the face of an active shooter, by inserting himself, as a one-man vigilante, in the elastic space between criminals and colleagues – the space of future vigilante antiheroes.

This expressionist ending is quite striking after the peppy procedurality of the first half – and even more amazing after the apparent reconciliation of McLeod and Mary, which is retrospectively turned into a false resolution, a deconstruction of Hollywood convention. The final note of the film is a raw male angst that can’t be contained by either the police force or by Hollywood genre – a vigilante operating at a time before his New Hollywood vehicle even existed. And Douglas steps up with one of his most volatile roles, making the most of his signature ability to bite his words on the way out. In these last moments, McLeod seems to be trying to swallow his own lips, consume his own rage and self-loathing, bundling himself into a ball of self-defeating angst that climaxes in the contortions of being shot at close range.

The very last note of the film is a penance and confession – initially from McLeod, but then from the other policemen around him. In these closing seconds, Wyler, and Kingsley, concede that the system is broken – that McLeod is a symptom of the system precisely in the way he chooses to depart from it. Hollywood couldn’t quite conceive of this kind of character as a protagonist until the 70s, so in many ways the texturality of Detective Story, and the thick detail of the police station, feels like window dressing for a story that couldn’t yet be properly told. Yet that texturality also works beautifully on its own terms, embedding the vigilante back in a systems narrative that would take the longform possibilities of the third wave of quality television, and the vision of David Simon, to complete the story Wyler and Kingsley start here.

About Billy Stevenson (936 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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