While the word “detective” may appear three times in the title of this post, William Wyler’s film version of the play by Sidney Kingsley isn’t really about catching criminals or solving crimes. Instead it examines the working environment of a group of cops, focusing primarily on Jim McLeod.
McLeod lives for two things – his beautiful wife Mary and putting away crooks. There’s no flexibility to his interpretation of the law, you’re either a crook or your not, and if you are you should be punished. When a case he’s working on ties in with his wife’s past his black and white world is shattered.
William Wyler really knows how to get the most from a confined location (most of the film takes place inside the Precinct house) and it’s something he’d do again with The Desperate Hours a few years down the line. Not that he couldn’t do big pictures, you can’t get much bigger than Big Country and Ben-Hur. In fact if there’s a complaint that can be levelled at him, it’s that he didn’t make enough films. Rather than try and open the film up, he embraces its set bound, stage origins and by doing so focuses the viewer’s attention where it belongs – on the actors.
Kirk Douglas is at his best as McLeod, whose ideals are so ingrained that, unable to relax his principles even when his wife is involved, he breaks down. It’s not a flattering character, not a heroic movie star kind of role, and it says a lot about Douglas that he was willing to take on such a portrayal. Never an actor overly worried about his onscreen image he attacks the role with gusto, painting a picture of a man haunted by childhood memories of his abusive father.
The films far from a one man show though, there are fine turns from William Bendix as McLeod’s partner and Lee Grant as a timid shoplifter. And if Eleanor Parker’s performance seems a little melodramatic, that has more to do with changing views than any failing in the performance.
With its ensemble cast and examination of the minutia of a policeman’s life (even the janitor is heard from) this could be a forbear of Hill Street Blues. Like that show it mixes black comedy with high drama with powerful results.