Detective Story 1951
Virtue and abortion don't mix well--more like matter and antimatter than oil and water-- and in "Detective Story," virtue is as flexible and pretty as a cinder block, and abortion is as covert and murderous as, well, as an abortion at its worst, back when it was an illegal, horrifying ordeal. In this adapted theater piece, we expect the leading players to be scarred, or dead, and they are, though tender love does blossom and save one young couple. "Detective Story," it turns out, goes way beyond being a detective story.
Virtue? Kirk Douglas has more than a man can handle. At first this seems only to make him a terrific detective for a post-War New York Police Department, but he ends up being mostly terrifying. Yes, he is tireless and experienced and clever. He knows when to be ruthless and when to be kind, he has a nose for evil, and he is a good guy with the other detectives. We admire him. But the pieces start to fall askew. When he interferes with the kindness of a colleague (played with great sympathy by William Bendix), insisting on prosecuting a young man when even the victim doesn't want to, we see a heartless man, and a reckless one, with a damning instinct. And we know he has to either die or see the light and change. In the end he does both.
Abortion? Two decades before the 1970 repeal of abortion laws in New York State, it's an unsanctioned death, a criminal malpractice, and it is presented as a horrifying personal and social tragedy, a kind of sin. It appears from all angles--the abortion doctor with his canny lawyer, the detective's wife and her boyfriend from the past, the one who got her pregnant, and eventually the detective, who came after the fact but is the one most harmed by it, thanks to his blind stubbornness.
The woman, the detective's wife (played by Eleanor Parker) has buried the memory, almost, and in the scene where she has to finally tell her husband about it, the detective's world is too black and white to cope. Suddenly she's a tramp, and does he protest that he was a virgin when he married her? Hardly. (I'm sure he wasn't.) Does it even matter that she got pregnant with this earlier man (who at one point is in the room), and that she aborted the child (described as an induced stillbirth)? No, all that matters to Douglas is that she had sex with someone before him. Voila! In his eyes she is now mere filth.
But she is not filth, and we all know it. She begs him, explains to him, cries for him, but he doesn't see the virtue in her. She, in turn, sees the blackness in his brain and realizes, in a compact epiphany, that he will never change. And so when she says she's leaving him forever, he believes her. This final collision between his unbending rules of propriety--in crime and in love equally--with the pliable, reasonable realities around him, is his ruin.
This is all messy, deep, troubling stuff. Stir it up at a brisk pace, shoot it using sharp, stark camera-work, and you have a really tight, first rate, significant film. It has slipped under the radar as a masterpiece for several reasons, including, maybe, an excessive perfection that starts to feel slick--an odd trap for a filmmaker to need to avoid, but one often facing William Wyler, one of the slickest and most stylelessly perfect of directors. The shooting barely leaves the suite of offices--there is that brief ride in the paddy wagon--but it doesn't need to. Even the beautiful moment in the cab, where Douglas shows his most human side to his very human wife, they remain parked right outside the station. It's not an action film. In fact, it's not really a crime film, nor a film noir (despite the gloom, and the date on it). It's about man's inability to see beyond himself. His obsessive virtue, with no heart, is a capital offense, because he becomes stupid. He forgets to dodge the bullet.
This is also a movie about a justice higher than law. The detective's wife, who has broken the law, is herself broken by events, but she leaves the movie a free woman, resolved and strong. The abortion doctor is to be booked the next morning, and with luck he'll be jailed. Bendix, who shows the highest virtue of anyone in the movie, survives--he's the one who says a prayer over the dead detective's body, dead because Douglas cannot survive the blackness in his brain.
A key ongoing sideplot is resolved just after Douglas is shot. Bleeding and in mortal pain, he releases an unlikely first offender who he earlier wanted to prosecute. This feelgood last act is not left to the good Bendix, but to Douglas, who gets to see the light before the lights go out. The young criminal's real savior in the long run, however, is pure true love, and we buy into that more easily, especially in the form of Cathy O'Donnell, who sure knows how to be pure and in love, just see "They Live by Night" from three years earlier. So when the movie ends we are done with stark, fast penetration and desperation. The precinct is in emotional shambles. But a corner has been turned, and in the gorgeous parting shot, we are taken to the street at night, from above, and the young couple and their shadows meld back into the swarm of real world, our world.