Detective Story (1951 )

Directed by William Wyler
Cinematography Lee Garmes
John F. Seitz

This 1951 movie is a police procedural type of movie adapted from a play written by Sidney Kingsley. It represents part of one 8-hour shift at the 21st Precinct in New York City and only about three scenes take place outside the police station.

Ever notice the overwhelmingly Irish makeup of characters in the NYC PD in the 40’s and 50’s, at least if the film industry’s perception can be trusted? We have Lieutenant Monaghan (Horace McMahon), Jim McLeod (Douglas), Detective Lou Brody (William Bendix in a serious role!), Detective Gallagher (Frank Faylen), and Detectives Callahan and O’Brien?

Just for a little variation we have a Detective Dakis (Greek?), and an African-American Patrolman Barnes (Russell Evans)!! I don’t recall seeing a whole lot of black cops in the 40’s/50’s movies, do you? He doesn’t figure prominently, but at least his character is treated respectfully.

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This is a Precinct which quarrels among themselves, but genuinely cares about one another and supports one another. Jim McLeod is both hot-headed and intolerant, but is so good at his job that the others support him. Lieutenant Monaghan is (IMO) the epitome of what a boss should be, giving his subordinates a lot of autonomy and trust, but is not averse to chewing some hiney when he thinks it’s warranted. Lou Brody (Bendix) is fatherly and from absolutely blue-collar roots, and is probably the soul of the precinct. Det. Gallagher has the unenviable duty of handling crank calls and dealing with “characters.”
Among these “characters” are embezzler (?) Arthur Kindred (Craig Hill), a young WW II vet, and his girlfriend’s younger sister Susan Carmichael (Cathy O’Donnell, a lovely actress who died far too young!). Lee Grant, in her first movie appearance as an unnamed shoplifter and first-time visitor to “The System”, earned an Oscar nomination for her role. (Personally, to me she’s mostly just comic relief, and almost as exasperating as Edith Bunker, but she played her role so well!) Eleanor Parker plays the loving and forgiving Mary, wife of uncompromising and steely cold Detective Jim McLeod. Gladys George plays Miss Hatch, who is called upon to identify a miscreant from a line-up and subsequently infuriates McLeod to the point where he tells Miss Hatch to “take a couple of Drop Dead pills!” Burt Mustin appears in a throwaway part as the janitor for the 21st precinct.
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The “Bad Guys” in this movie are abortionist/adoption ring leader Dr. Karl Schneider (well-played by George Macready!), burglar Charley Gennini (a memorable Joseph Wiseman!), and slick sleazeball lawyer Endicott Sims (a smooth and oily Warner Anderson). Charley Gennini is either crazier than a bedbug or on drugs, but he alternates between catatonic and explosive with a stop at maniacal along the way, and makes for a VERY memorable character. (No wonder I’ve always liked Joseph Wiseman as an actor!) George Macready’s portrayal of abortionist Karl Schneider is very effective, and Warner Anderson’s lawyer role represents the present-day perception of lawyers as “hired guns for dirtbags” superbly.

IMO, Douglas’ portrayal of Jim McLeod was very intense, and his persona kept this admittedly slow-moving movie from dragging. Wiseman was also great! The ensemble worked together superbly, and this is a movie I could watch once or twice a year for the rest of my days without ever tiring of it.

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There are a few items about this movie that I’d like to list:
(1) The 21st WASN’T air conditioned. Sweat stains on shirts abound!
(2) Bill Bendix’s character Lou Brody lost a son in WW II on the cruiser USS Juneau. The real-life ship disintegrated from a torpedo hit with only 10 survivors in 1942, and 5 of the dead were the famous Sullivan Brothers!
(3) The opening scene illustrates that big-city cops weren’t expert drivers!
(4) When Lee Grant’s character makes her phone call, notice that she refers to a NAMED EXCHANGE rather than today’s generic “555-whatever” numbers.
(5) A “line-up” is held right in the squad room rather than the present-day “behind one-way glass” arrangement. Maybe this is the way it was in real-life 1951?
(6) GREAT LINE, Bendix to Douglas: “Maybe it would melt that rock you’ve got for a heart!”
(7) GREAT LINE, Craig Hill to Cathy O’Donnell: “Joy is prettier than you, but you’re more beautiful!”

(8) GREAT LINE, Parker to Douglas: “You’re everything you always said you hated in your own father.

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Eleanor Parker would get an Oscar nomination for Best Actress and newcomer Lee Grant another for Best Supporting Actress in her screen debut, as well as William Wyler for Best Director and the duo of Phillip Yordan/Robert Wyler for Best Screenplay. None of them won. (In my opinion Kirk Douglas should have gotten TWO nominations for Best Actor in 1951, for both this movie and “The Big Carnival“!)
detective-story
So “Detective Story” is a day in the life of the 21st Precinct, and a crucial day in the lives of Detective Jim McLeod and wife Mary, and about-to-become criminal Arthur Kindred and more-than-friend Susan Carmichael. Is it worth 103 minutes of your time? It certainly was (and will be many times again) to me!
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