Detective Story: Noir, or Not?
There are no rain-swept streets in Detective Story (1951). Most of the film’s action takes place on a single set, on a single day, in a New York City precinct. There are no blinking neon signs that intermittently illuminate darkened rooms. The film depicts no mercenary femme fatale who transforms a hapless everyman into a conscienceless killer. Furthermore, there are no flashbacks, no voiceover narrations, no cases of amnesia, no convoluted plot.
But I contend, nonetheless, that Detective Story is film noir.
At the heart of Detective Story’s “noirishness” is its characterizations, chiefly in its main character, Jim McLeod, a detective aptly played by Kirk Douglas. Early on in the film, we see that McLeod is not only a no-nonsense officer of the law, but he displays an inflexible moral stance that tends to circumvent the concept of justice. Here, we are offered a flawed noir character, one who is fanatically determined to uphold the law, but whose righteousness is exemplified by a violent, hair-trigger and an inability to view the world in terms that are not simply black and white. In a particularly illustrative exchange, McLeod instructs, “When you’re dealing with the criminal mind, softness is dangerous. It’s never a first offense – it’s just the first time they got caught.”
Unlike most noirs, which fail to provide a back story of how characters came to be what we see, Detective Story clearly lets us in on why its anti-hero, McLeod, possesses such an unyielding perspective. This, too, lends itself to the film’s noir pedigree. “Evil’s got a smell of its own – a child can spot it,” McLeod says in one scene. “I know . . . I lived with it. I learned it early and deep. My own father was one of them. Every day of my childhood, I saw that father of mine, with that criminal mind of his, abuse and torment my mother and drive her straight into a lunatic asylum.”
Ironically, McLeod is unaware that he embodies the very traits that he despises in his father, which is illustrated throughout the film – in his unsympathetic dealings with a war hero (Craig Hill) who embezzles from his company in a last-ditch effort to hold on to his would-be girl; in his violent beating of an abortionist (George Macready) when it appears the man will get away with his crimes; and, most significantly, in his inability to forgive his loving and long-suffering wife (Eleanor Parker) after learning that she’d had an intimate relationship years earlier that resulted in the termination of her pregnancy.
McLeod is not the only typically noir character. Another detective, Lou Brody (the always great William Bendix), demonstrates a gruff exterior – “Don’t get funny with me, son, I’ll knock you right through the floor,” he calmly announces in one scene – but he embodies a sense of compassion that is fostered by the loss of his son in the war, and deals with his inner demons through surreptitious nips from a bottle stashed in his desk. Yet another, albeit minor, noirish characterization is offered in the person of Miss Hatch (Gladys George), who visits the precinct ostensibly to provide an identification of the abortionist. Paid off by the man’s attorney with a dyed squirrel stole, however, she reneges on the deal and indignantly rages, “You cops are all alike – give you a badge and you try to push the world around!” In one form or another, nearly every character in the film is desperately grim, miserably angry, cynically hopeless.
An often-mentioned detraction of Detective Story as noir is its “stage play” feel. (It was based on a play by Sidney Kingsley that opened on Broadway in March 1949 with Ralph Bellamy in the starring role.) I maintain, however, that the film’s near-total confinement to the station house adds to its claustrophobic atmosphere and feeling of smothering dread. Detective Story’s palpable sensation of trepidation heightens to a fever pitch in the scene where McLeod attacks the abortionist. This is a scene that makes the viewer want to fairly cry out for McLeod to rein his behavior, to stop and think, to realize that no good can come of his action. But like a runaway train, the wheels are set in motion for McLeod’s tragic decline and ultimate demise. In characteristic noir fashion, there is a thread of unstoppable doom throughout the film. Early on, when McLeod prepares to leave the precinct to go home to his wife, his plans are halted by the arrival of the abortionist and his attorney. Later, after he has determined to forgive his wife and forget her past, he is needled by the attorney into an abrupt reversal of his resolve. It’s just like Al Roberts opined in Detour (1945): “Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.”
As McLeod descends further into his irrevocable destiny, a reporter offers a last-ditch effort to pull him back from the brink, warning him, “Don’t be so intolerant . . . you’re digging your own grave. It’s right there in front of you. One more steps and you’re in it.” Unfortunately for McLeod, he fails to heed the man’s words and, as a result, his fate is sealed.
And that’s noir.