1951 saw the release of two of Kirk Douglas' finest performances, for Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole and William Wyler's Detective Story. In Ace in the Hole Douglas deliberately pushed the limits of what audiences would accept in terms of an unsympathetic protagonist, which no doubt contributed to its ultimate failure at the box office. Thankfully, Ace in the Hole has since earned much overdue recognition as one of Billy Wilder's darkest and most uncompromising satires. In Detective Story, Douglas pursued a slightly different route with no less impressive results. Here the protagonist Jim McLeod starts out as a basically sympathetic, if troubled figure. As the film progresses, Douglas simultaneously reveals additional layers of psychological complexity and makes audience identification with him increasingly problematic. While the film's emotional power also depends on its taut direction, strong script--adapted from the Sidney Kingsley play--and vivid supporting cast, it is undeniably Kirk Douglas' performance that brings everything into focus.
Sidney Kingsley (1906-1995) was a member of the renowned Group Theatre, which included Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets and Lee J. Cobb. His play Men in White (1934) won the Pulitzer Prize; other notable works by him include Dead End (1935), The Patriots (1943), and an adaptation of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon (1951). Detective Story opened in New York in March of 1949 with Ralph Bellamy in the lead role, receiving largely positive notices and running for 581 performances. Paramount reportedly paid Kingsley $285,000 plus a share of the profits, making it one of the highest fees for a play up to that time. Kingsley, who had been pleased with Wyler's 1937 adaptation of Dead End, had Wyler in mind for the film version from the very beginning and even convinced Wyler to invest in the original Broadway production.
Kirk Douglas prepared for the role by accompanying actual police detectives on the beat and playing the part of McLeod for a week in a Phoenix-based production before shooting the film. Some of the play's original cast members reprised their roles for the film, including Lee Grant, Joseph Wiseman, Michael Strong and Horace McMahon. Wyler completed the shoot in an unusually quick 24 days--ahead of schedule. Not surprisingly, a number of changes had to be made to the play in order to placate Joseph Breen and the Production Code Administration. Breen's main objection was that Karl Schneider was an abortionist, something which the PCA would never have approved at that time. In the script as shot, Karl Schneider is supposedly a baby broker. However, the dialogue is deliberately ambiguous in places and it's likely that audiences would have understood that he was really supposed to be an abortionist. The Production Code also forbade the onscreen killing of law enforcement officials, but in this regard the PCA allowed an exception due to the moral thrust of the film.
William Wyler deserves credit for taking what is essentially a filmed play and turning it into surprisingly effective cinema thanks to his incisive mise-en-scene and his superb handling of actors. Sidney Kingsley even felt that Eleanor Parker's performance, which was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar®, was superior to that of the actress who originated the role on Broadway. Lee Grant received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her reprisal of the shoplifter role. Sidney Kingsley stated afterwards that "the impact of the film is greater than the play [...] simply because Wyler and Paramount have been able to get wonderful characterizations out of the cast."
At the same time, the impact of Wyler's film does not just depend on the acting. While Detective Story remains essentially a filmed play, Wyler manages to use the inherent constraints of such an approach as an artistic advantage. The confined set of the police precinct is not simply a space where various characters observe each other and interact; it also contributes to the underlying thematic thrust and ultimately to the film's emotional power. The staging of the individual scenes, which often plays on foreground-background relationships, is also augmented by Lee Garmes' deep focus photography. (Wyler, of course, used deep focus photography extensively in the films he shot with Gregg Toland.) Detective Story is virtuoso filmmaking that catches the viewer off guard with its seemingly prosaic and unassuming surface. It, along with better known projects such as Dodsworth (1936), The Little Foxes (1941), Jezebel (1938) and The Heiress (1949), demonstrates why Wyler was practically unequaled in adapting plays for the screen.
Producer and Director: William Wyler
Script: Philip Yordan and Robert Wyler, based on the play by Sidney Kingsley
Photography: Lee Garmes
Art Direction: Hal Pereira and Earl Hedrick
Editor: Robert Swink
Costumes: Edith Head
Cast: Kirk Douglas (Jim McLeod), Eleanor Parker (Mary McCleod), William Bendix (Lou Brody), Cathy O'Donnell (Susan Carmichael), George Macready (Karl Schneider), Horace McMahon (Lieutenant Monaghan), Gladys George (Miss Hatch), Joseph Wiseman (Charley Gennini), Lee Grant (Shoplifter), Gerald Mohr (Tami Giacoppetti), Frank Faylen (Gallagher), Craig Hill (Arthur Kindred).
by James Steffen