Saturday, December 5, 2015

At the (old) movies: 'Detective Story'

It’s been a while since I last wrote about the get-togethers of the local cinephile society, and this is mostly because my full-time job kept me too busy or tired – or both – to attend them.

The good news is that now that I’m semiretired, I have the time to go again.

The bad news is that the group’s current fall season is almost over. Aside from the film I’m about to write about, there is one more, scheduled next week, with the spring season set to begin in March.

For now, let’s look at William Wyler’s version of “Detective Story” (Paramount, 1951), based on the play by Sidney Kingsley. In the late 1930s, another Kingsley play, “Dead End,” was also filmed by Wyler.

I suppose some audiences might find “Detective Story” a little too familiar, especially if they’ve watched such TV shows as “Barney Miller,” “Hill Street Blues” and “Homicide: Life on the Street.” But “Detective Story” set the mold for this kind of thing. Most of it takes place in a squad room, with police officers and suspects who behave like real people. It’s a slice of life, but with a savage twist at the end.

Kirk Douglas – or, given his style of acting, maybe I should say KIRK DOUGLAS – stars as Detective Jim McLeod. McLeod is as easygoing as a triple dose of milk of magnesia; he is such a hardass that, were you to drop him from the roof of the Empire State Building butt first, he wouldn’t get so much as a hemorrhoid.

(And I don’t mean to knock Douglas’ acting – no one else could play a Kirk Douglas role as well as Kirk Douglas.)

For most of the movie, the story plays out like a typical day in a police precinct. A hapless shoplifter is brought in, played by Lee Grant in her movie debut (she originated the role on stage). Grant, who is excellent, provides the comedy relief.

A young man (Craig Hill) who is also a war veteran is accused of embezzling from his employer. His ex-girlfriend’s sister, who really loves him, stands by his side. She is played by Cathy O’Donnell, who throughout her career seemed to specialize in playing The Pretty But Sad Girl Who If She’s Really Lucky Might Make It to the Last Reel Alive.

Add to this mix two burglars (played by Michael Strong and Joseph “Dr. No” Wiseman, also re-creating their stage roles) and an abortionist (George Macready), whom McLeod has a particular dislike for, to put it in the mildest of terms.

And we also meet Mary McLeod, the detective’s wife, who is played by Eleanor Parker, who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar – for a performance that, according to the Internet Movie Database, is the shortest ever to be nominated for a leading acting Oscar (20 minutes and 10 seconds). Another Oscar contender was Lee Grant, for Best Supporting Actress.

The film’s ending is still powerful – afterward, the audience stuck around and discussed it instead of dashing out to their cars as usual – but instead of discussing it myself, I’d like to pay tribute to the fine character actors who help make this a top-notch piece of ensemble acting, including Horace McMahon (the squad’s leader, who later played a similar role on TV’s “Naked City”); Bert Freed; Frank “Herbert T. Gillis” Faylen and especially William Bendix.

Bendix is probably best known for his years of playing the title role in “The Life of Riley,” and thus becoming the quintessential bungling TV husband and father.

But Bendix is another one of those actors whom I’ve come to appreciate more as I get older. For when he wasn’t playing America’s Favorite Idiot Dad, and playing it well, he could play other kinds of roles – such as Alan Ladd’s brutal, bestial enemy in “The Glass Key” or Alan Ladd’s tough but pathetic injured war comrade in “The Blue Dahlia.”

In “Detective Story,” Bendix’s character, who lost a son in the war, wants to give the embezzling veteran a break because his sense of right and wrong is not nearly as monochromatic as McLeod’s. Bendix is able to put this across without chewing any scenery – he doesn’t seem to play the part as much as he embodies it, and I can’t help thinking that as popular as he was, Bendix and his talents were still taken for granted.

Before the main feature: “How to Be a Detective,” a 1936 Robert Benchley short.

I am sure of increasingly few things in this world, but there’s one thing I can state with unqualified confidence: If it weren’t for Robert Benchley, I wouldn’t be writing these words. Or practically anything.

When I was a kid and had decided to be a writer, I discovered Benchley’s work, and from there on there was no stopping me. (Please don’t hate Benchley because of this.) I wanted to write funny things for newspapers, just like Benchley. Eventually I did, for a little while, anyway. And now I’m doing this.

For years I was unable to see Benchley’s movie shorts because they weren’t on TV, and it took a long time for someone to get around to inventing videocassettes and DVDs. I now have almost all his short films on DVD.

Unfortunately, to some extent they don’t wear well, for the same reason that “Detective Story” might seem familiar to modern audiences. Benchley was really the first person to do what he did, and is it his fault that so many people copied him?

Even so, when I watch a Benchley short by myself, I wish I could enjoy it more; I wish I could forget all the people who came after and copied The Master. Then again, no one could duplicate Benchley’s charm, and I doubt anyone ever will.

Then again (yet again), I am very happy to say that “How to Be a Detective” elicited a lot of loud, heartwarming laughs from the audience.

Maybe Benchley, like the Marx Brothers, needs to be seen with an audience to be truly enjoyed.

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