Saturday, February 20, 2021

Wyler and a Virtuoso Cast Elevate a Gripping Detective Story

Release in a banner year for dramas which also included A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun, 1951’s Detective Story remains an engrossing, first-rate entertainment seventy years after its acclaimed screen debut. Helmed by ace director William Wyler, who deserves much credit for adroitly maintaining an apropos seedy atmosphere while keeping the action moving in a constricted space. As Wyler and screenwriters Philip Yokan and Robert Wyler (based on Sidney Kingsley’s New York success) artfully delineate the myriad of crossover storylines in compelling fashion, the film details the wealth of activity unfolding in a New York City precinct and how it changes the lives of those therein. With truly stellar work turned in by an incredible cast meeting every demand their meaty roles provide, the movie balances comic and tragic elements in a highly entertaining manner, and belies the confining set and stage origins to achieve merit as a top-flight classic cinematic offering.

Wyler has a reputation for being tough on actors, requiring many takes without clear direction outside of “do it better,” but his unorthodox method allowed stars to gain an awesome measure of plaudits (including many Oscars) and in Detective the ace director’s receptive cast clearly responded to Wyler’s sure hand. Star Kirk Douglas is firmly at home as Jim McLeod, the intense, hardboiled detective unwilling to cut slack with any suspect, in and outside of his personal life. Douglas conveys an immovable, fierce presence, but you sense the inner turmoil driving some of Jim’s misguided decisions, even if the character and Douglas’ honest playing is firmly front-and-center in a dynamic manner. Douglas is especially fantastic and convincing during Jim’s menacing outbursts, specifically when confronting the slimy “Dr.” Karl Schneider (played with perfectly composed sinister intent by ace screen villain George McCready); as was the norm in his screen outings, Douglas is a mega life force, and you can see why he lived long and prospered, both onscreen and off.

As Mary, Jim’s gentle, devoted wife, Eleanor Parker brings a stunning emotional charge to her key dramatic scenes; I’ve never forgotten the moment Parker suddenly collapses in sobs as Mary’s secret life prior to Jim is disclosed, in awe at the histrionic ability allowing Parker to switch Mary’s demeanor from composed to shattered in the space of a couple seconds. Although some of this subject manner is taboo for 1951 screens, and therefore watered-down, Parker digs deep to get to the core of the character’s despair in a transfixing manner. In her later scenes with Douglas, Parker matches her imposing co-star strength-for-strength as Jim and Mary’s conflict reaches its conclusion, adding credence to the idea that Mary is a lot stronger than her soft-spoken demeanor indicates. With very little screen time Parker scored her second Best Actress nomination (an Oscar record for the shortest nominated role, according to a recent Gold Derby piece) after her terrific work in the previous year’s Caged, and she’s so impactful it’s easy to see how her work couldn’t be overlooked, regardless of its length. Parker was a beautiful, competent leading lady before and after Story, starring among and matching many of the top male stars of the era (check out her fiery work in Scaramouche or Parker taking on Charlton Heston in The Naked Jungle and Robert Mitchum in Home From the Hill) and gaining yet another Oscar nod for 1955’s Interrupted Melody and screen immortality as The Sound of Music’s Baroness/bitch, but her work as Mary possible stands as a career apex, in a dead heat with her more substantial (in terms of screen time) work in Caged.

In addition to the stars, the superior roster of players provide many memorable moments and richly add to the overall flavor of the piece. Making her impressive film debut (and unfortunate exit for years due to the destructive, asinine Blacklist), Lee Grant manages to balance amusing theatrical gestures clearly tied to her work in the original Broadway cast with moments of subtleness more in the wheelhouse of an instinctive, skillful screen performer. As a wary, inexperienced (and unnamed) shoplifter Grant is funny and touching, endearingly offering a lightness and freshness that helps lift the film past a strict adherence to the “Crime Drama” genre into a more unique comedy/drama classification.  It’s a shame Grant’s gifts were given short-shrift during many of her prime playing years, and it’s nice she at least had one golden opportunity to show her adept talents early on (winning an Oscar nom and a Cannes Best Actress award for Story), before her career renaissance during the late 1960’s and beyond put her firmly back in the spotlight, this time with an Oscar to show for it, via her sly comic turn in 1975’s Shampoo.

Horace McMahon does great, spot-on work as Lieutenant Monaghan, who sagely oversees precinct operations while trying to keep Jim’s fireball tendencies under control. McMahon illustrates Monaghan is Jim’s equal via distinctive, reserved playing that showcases the maturity and experience allowing the Lieutenant to be (when needed) a capable adversary to Jim; McMahon does the kind of intelligent, nuanced work that often gets overlooked in favor of more opulent playing, but is integral to keeping a movie grounded in reality (check out Monaghan’s scenes questioning Mary for an example of McMahon’s superior, controlled acting). William Bendix also turns in one of his best performances as Lou Brody, the tough-yet-benevolent counter to Jim’s harsher approach to detective work. Bendix helps humanize a subplot involving Arthur, a young man (a properly somber Craig Hill) who has stolen from his employer and Susan (the warm, gentle Cathy O’Donnell, a Wyler favorite who made a career of such roles) the loyal girl trying to help Arthur make amends; Bendix adeptly shows Lou’s world-weariness and compassion during his interactions with the young couple, and you buy Lou’s earnestness in attempting to get the wayward Arthur back on the right track.

             Joseph Wiseman offer’s perhaps the most florid emoting in the film as Charley Gennini, a highly-excitable con man, but he craftily manages to come across as both frighteningly aggressive (even more so than Douglas at times) and comically buffoonish, and is believably manic and spontaneous, as opposed to being impossibly hammy in an overly studied, phony way, and Wiseman appears to be having a good time in the process. Michael Strong offers an ideal low-key contrast as Charley’s partner-in-crime, while Frank Faylen and Gladys George also get a chance to briefly demonstrate their pro character actor credentials, as wry Det. Gallagher and Miss Hatch, a witness who knows her way around the block, and a mink coat or two.

                Although the critical hosannas coming the way of Streetcar and Place in the Sun cancelled out Story’s bid for most major awards after its initial release, the exceptional direction by Wyler and colorful, insightful work by a cross-section of some of the finest actors of the era places Story alongside the best stage-to-screen adaptations of its or any period, with a host of indelible performances that fully seize an audience’s attention in the same manner Grant’s shoplifter might latch onto a department store handbag. Recently released on Blu-ray via Australia’s Imprint Films in a fine rendering that includes a commentary by Film Noir expert Alan K. Rode (Story is included in a Film Noir box set; I’ve always thought of it more as a drama with comedy elements, but I guess due to the movie’s criminal aspects and New York precinct setting, it might fall into Noir territory), Story is a caustic, enduring classic worth any movie lover’s booking.