Skillfully written and directed under circumstances that amounted to censorship, Detective Story is a superb ensemble piece. Kirk Douglas and Eleanor Parker, playing Detective Jim McLeod and his wife, Mary, are pictured at left with Horace McMahon, a character actor with more than 90 movies to his credit. Though Parker turns in one of her finest performances as a woman with a secret, and Kirk Douglas is a commanding presence, McMahon quietly and authoritatively steals every scene he’s in, and it’s a rather rare role for him in film— a good guy, the seasoned police captain (a cop role he continued on television for five years in Naked City). It’s also the first movie for Lee Grant, whose engaging and understated performance won her the best actress award at Cannes (also nominations for an Oscar and Golden Globe for supporting work). Grant had her own share of troubled circumstances during the filming, and after: her husband, Alan Manoff (Dinah‘s father), was blacklisted and she refused to testify against him before the House Unamerican Activities Committee. She wouldn’t get another film role for five years, and her career suffered for twelve.
Other actors in this ensemble stand out– indeed, nearly all of them deliver memorable performances. In only one scene, Gladys George, one of America’s most shamefully neglected actresses, is a brassy witness whose refusal to coöperate may have to do with her expensive fur coat, or her principles. She makes it impossible to tell. George Macready has a bit more screen time as the principal villain, and in his few scenes he manages to simultaneously create sympathy and disgust for Dr. Karl Schneider, whose crimes are equivocal, to say the very least. More about the plot below, but for a fuller analysis of the movie, I recommend this fine article by Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. Here, I’m writing mainly about the director, William Wyler, whose talents often escape me. Though I can’t resist a few more remarks about the superb ensemble cast he assembled here:
More substantial roles go to two actors in fine form. William Bendix, appearing a decade after his Oscar nomination for Wake Island. A cop with conscience enough for two men, he ultimately redeems his partner, McLeod. The other scene-stealer, Joseph Wiseman, was a stage actor in only his second movie. His performance as a low-level wise guy sent me straight to the internet, to learn more about him, and find more works of his. In the process, I found this fabulous quote: “Acting may begin out of vanity but you hope that it’s taken over by something else. I hope I’ve climbed over the vanity hurdle.” Continue reading