Detective Story (1951)

William Wyler | 1hr 43min

It takes a special kind of artistic flair for a stage play to be brought to cinematic life without expanding its story too far beyond the confined walls of a single location, and William Wyler is more than up to the task in his adaptation of Detective Story. To focus the scope of this narrative even further, it remains restricted to the sequence of events that unfold over the course of one day, where multiple plot threads emerge within a single police station and drive our short-tempered protagonist to his absolute limits. As Detective Jim McLeod’s personal and professional worlds collide and the walls close in, Wyler’s deep focus staging of his cast brings layers of both visual and subtextual significance to the film.

His emphasis on this sizeable ensemble may be somewhat surprising given the concentrated character study he is conducting here, though it is through the intricate construction of this police station where petty thieves and felons alike face the consequences of their sins that we see the fuel for McLeod’s inner fire. As the son of a criminal himself, it is his mission to bring down the hammer of justice upon those who maliciously destroy the lives of others, making sworn enemies out of lawbreakers who continue to elude his grasp. It is quite ironic then that it is also in this environment that his own cruelty and anger surfaces, as he gets caught up in his stringent obedience to his own rigid moral system and loses focus of the bigger picture – a picture which Wyler is sure to draw out in intricate detail, effectively putting us at a distance from McLeod to assess his character from the perspectives of others.

Organised chaos in the blocking and sound design, as several conversations overlap each other.

And beyond this one man, there is indeed a rich world of characters out there that he is all too happy to divide into good people and villains. As separate conversations overlap in multifaceted scenes that evoke those chaotic ensembles which Robert Altman would perfect twenty years later, Wyler staggers his actors across layers of his frames, developing them simultaneously or otherwise fluidly shifting his camera from one corner of the office to another. In the background we often find a shoplifter sitting on her own, watching other stories develop in horror and taking them as moral warnings. When McLeod himself isn’t dominating our attention, he is similarly often relegated to these positions as a consistent presence among the other narrative strands, which bounce around and off each other in the foreground. Wyler also continues his remarkable depth of field in his consistent low angles, often emphasising the hands of his characters in close-up whether they be cuffed to a chair or threateningly clutching at another’s face further back in the frame.

Powerful low angles accentuating the gravity of the drama.
Using each layer of the frame to tell a different story – Detective McLeod in the foreground, the embezzler and his sweetheart in the midground, and the shoplifter hanging out in the background, as she so often does.

With this handling of such a busy professional setting, one might almost hope that Wyler affords us some time to delve back into McLeod’s seemingly happy home life that we glimpsed at the start, and yet in this tight, cutting screenplay, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that even this comes back to bite us. As a man who takes each crime that falls within his purview as a personal insult, and who is at times even more passionate about seeking justice than the actual victims, the ultimate twist of fate is that his work actually does begin to edge into his private life in unexpected and horrific ways.

Such easy categorisations as good and bad become obsolete when loved ones get involved, and questions of potential compromise only further drive McLeod further into his stance of self-defensive moral purity, even as close friends and colleagues beg him to ease off. Though he abides by a strict code, he is not a man who possesses the ability to think situations through clearly, and so words that he throws out in fits of anger inevitably come back to haunt him as he sets in motion his own rotten downfall. At some point in Detective Story, this “cruel and vengeful man” may have been a redeemable figure, but in Kirk Douglas’ blazingly impassioned performance and Wyler’s magnificent direction, McLeod becomes an unsalvageable figure of stern resentment, encompassing those criminal qualities that he so loathes in the people he seeks to brings to justice.

Wyler directing our eye through the staging of his actors.
Complex staging with decent-sized ensembles, thoroughly filling out the world of this police station with rich characters.

Detective Story is available to stream on The Criterion Channel, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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