Detective Story, the film, is William Wyler’s “production” of Sidney Kingsley’s play of the same title. Philip Yordan and Robert Wyler adapted the play. Wyler directed and produced the film. It is a stage adaptation and proud of it. The phrasing above is directly adapted from how the film opens and credits Wyler and Kingsley in the opening titles. One card: Wyler, Kingsley, Detective Story. Only it comes after the headlining cast title card: Kirk Douglas, Eleanor Parker, William Bendix. Detective Story is an extremely controlled viewing experience from the start.
Most of the film takes place inside the detective’s office of a police station. There are a handful of locations around the station, but Wyler sticks with the detective’s office. He and cinematographers Lee Garmes and John F. Seitz give the room some impossibly high ceilings–Detective Story’s audience isn’t looking up at it, Wyler wants the audience to be able to examine the film, to examine its pieces.
The best scenes in the film involve Eleanor Parker. She’s Kirk Douglas’s wife. He’s a puritanical cop, she’s got a secret. Wyler opens the film with Bert Freed and Lee Grant–they provide a frame–she’s a shoplifter who’s got to go to night court. Freed’s got to wait with her. Wyler makes the audience wait for Douglas. Then he makes them wait a little longer for Parker. He’s already established the harsh realities of Detective Story; when Parker arrives, she’s a ray of light.
Detective Story is very disillusioned, very noir, only Wyler doesn’t shoot it noir. He’s not making noir, he’s staging a play. Detective Story’s two biggest problems are Robert Swink’s editing, which can’t keep up with the actors, and Yordan and Wyler’s generic cop talk. It might work on stage, with the audience looking up, but not when they’re examining everything. Wyler invites the audience to examine the reality of Detective Story and he even appears to rush through the bad cop talk to far better sequences as though embarrassed.
There are a lot of characters, there’s a lot going on. Wyler has to get through it; he’s rarely subtle about the pace. There’s one lovely transition sequence from day to night but otherwise, Wyler’s just trying to get from one great scene for an actor to the next. It’s a play, after all.
Parker gets the best stuff. She gets spun around and has to right herself. She has to dominate her scenes, which is incredibly difficult considering the whole movie is about Kirk Douglas’s whirlwind. Sometimes he’s still, but he’s still a whirlwind. He has to be the hero the audience hates themselves for ever loving. Only it’s not a last minute revelation, it’s late second act plot development. Wyler and Douglas (and Parker) then have to take it all even further. Detective Story, as innocuous as it sounds, means to stomp out all the hopes and dreams it can.
Great performances all over. Freed, Grant, Michael Strong, Gerald Mohr, Joseph Wiseman–especially Joseph Wiseman, whose maniac career criminal ends up being Douglas’s alter ego–George Macready, Cathy O’Donnell. Wyler makes sure every performance is good, but not every actor can get enough of a part. It’s all Douglas and Parker’s show, after all. Even Bendix, who’s Douglas’s far more humane partner and gets a subplot all his own, eventually has to move further aside.
Detective Story isn’t a perfect film, but it’s a most perfect staging of a play on film. Wyler’s pacing is precise, his direction of the actors is flawless, his narrative distance is fantastic, ably assisted by his cinematographers and art directors and set decorator. Sure, Swink’s editing is occasionally messy but it’s all for the best of the actors. And they’re what’s essential. Parker, Douglas, Bendix, Horace McMahon (forgot about him earlier). They do startling work and Wyler knows it and wants to best showcase it. Detective Story’s an achievement for everyone involved.
Except Swink, of course.