Detective Story Blu-ray Review

4.5 Stars Superb filmization of a hit Broadway drama
Detective Story Screenshot

One of the outstanding film noirs of its era with fascinating performances, engaging direction, and a slice-of-life narrative that never grows stale, William Wyler’s Detective Story makes a most welcome debut on Blu-ray disc.

Detective Story (1951)
Released: 19 May 1952
Rated: Approved
Runtime: 103 min
Director: William Wyler
Genre: Crime, Drama, Film-Noir
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Eleanor Parker, William Bendix
Writer(s): Philip Yordan, Robert Wyler, Sidney Kingsley
Plot: On one day in the 21st Precinct squad room, assorted characters form a backdrop for the troubles of hard-nosed Detective Jim McLeod.
IMDB rating: 7.5
MetaScore: 78

Disc Information
Studio: Paramount
Distributed By: Kino Lorber
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 43 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: keep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 11/29/2022
MSRP: $24.95

The Production: 4.5/5

You won’t find many better screen transcriptions of an acclaimed Broadway play than William Wyler’s masterful 1951 drama Detective Story. Based on the hit Broadway play by Sidney Kingsley, the movie captures the ambiance of its subject matter and enlarges on it with unforgettable ensemble acting, fluid, unobtrusive direction, and a handful of stories that never grow stale or predictable and engross with the intimacy that the camera can always bring to the best narratives.

A twelve-hour shift in the 21st Precinct in New York is enlivened by a true slice-of-police station life as four different cases occupy the work load of the squad’s lead detectives: a jittery shoplifter (Lee Grant) dreads the shame that will come when her brother-in-law must defend her in night court, a pair of burglars (Joseph Wiseman, Michael Strong) face the consequences of their heists and the realization that one of them has been duped by the other, desperate young embezzler Arthur Kindred (Craig Hill) can’t repay the $480 he stole from his boss though his girl friend’s adoring sister (Cathy O’Donnell) is willing to make full restitution, and, most importantly, a doctor (George Macready) who’s been illegally operating a “baby farm” operation out of his home faces serious punishment if Detective James McLeod (Kirk Douglas) can find a witness who is willing to bring charges against him. Little does he suspect that he and his wife (Eleanor Parker) are more deeply embroiled in the situation than he might have ever thought possible.

Philip Yordan and Robert Wyler have adapted Sidney Kingsley’s no-holds-barred stage play so economically and thoughtfully that Production Code violations were mostly avoided (the abortionist was turned into a “baby farmer,” brutal police tactics were played down in the script, and the profanity was eliminated) earning the duo an Oscar nomination for their efforts. Director William Wyler’s Oscar-nominated work respects the integrity of the play’s single stage set but manages to get us out of the squad room on occasion (the introduction of our loving central couple on the city street, a revealing ride in a paddy wagon to Bellevue, a scene or two in the precinct storage room and on the roof), but his real claim to fame is the fluidity with which he guides his actors around the squad room as all manner of humanity invades it from the outside intruding into the various cases as key moments for them arrive and filming expertly the overlapping dialogue that occasionally occurs when the precinct is really jumping (and you thought Robert Altman invented overlapping dialogue!). The mix of comedy and drama, pathos and murderous tension present in this “day in the life of” saga is amazingly captured on film making it one of those movies that’s enhanced by repeat visits so you can study the expert ensemble at work even when they aren’t the ones in the spotlight.

The role of Detective James McLeod, a hardline believer in right and wrong with no shades of gray, is a role tailor-made for Kirk Douglas, and he plays it with all of the power and driven conviction at his command. His forcefulness and unflinching belief in his total commitment to justice are sometimes at odds with his fellow detectives like tough but kinder Detective Lou Brody (William Bendix, brilliant as usual), overworked Detective Dakis (Bert Freed, quietly amusing), squad room supervisor Detective Gallagher (Frank Faylen, always enjoyable), and Precinct head Lieutenant Monaghan (Horace McMahon, authoritative in the best sense) who supports his detectives even when they’re making bad decisions. Eleanor Parker earned her second Oscar nomination in as many years as McLeod’s loving wife Mary, absent from a large chunk of the movie but riveting when the time comes for her confessions and realizations. Lee Grant as the frightened and befuddled shoplifter reacting wonderfully wide-eyed and aghast at the craziness around her reprised her stage performance earning an Oscar nomination and the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her memorable turn. Joseph Wiseman, also from Broadway, sometimes overplays his lunatic burglar Charley Gennini, but the remainder of the ensemble all turn in work that embraces the emotions of their characters with superb professional know-how: Cathy O’Donnell as the tender-hearted friend to doe-eyed, sorrowful Craig Hill, Luis Van Rooten’s concerned station house reporter, George Macready’s smug doctor, Gerald Mohr as a sleazy gambler from Mary’s past, and Gladys George as a stoolie who has second thoughts about testifying once a fur piece comes her way.

Video: 4.5/5

3D Rating: NA

The film’s 1.37:1 original theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully executed in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Only a couple of minor scratches and a few brief shots which appear to be from sources that are not the camera negative (the liner notes denote a 4K scan of the camera negative as the source of this remaster) mar an otherwise outstanding transfer. The transfer boasts a lovely film-like appearance with solid grayscale which has good black levels and crisp whites. The movie has been divided into 8 chapters.

Audio: 5/5

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is solid and professional. Being adapted from a play, the dialogue is the audio transfer’s most important aspect, and it comes through loudly and clearly here. The only music cues have been sourced from earlier Paramount productions, but the sound effects are crisp and efficient. There are no problems at all with age-related anomalies like hiss, crackle, pops, and flutter.

Special Features: 2/5

Audio Commentary: film historian Alan K. Rode provides his usual excellent track offering background information on the original stage production, the film’s problems and eventual successful execution, and much information about many key players both before and behind the camera. Once again, he exhausts his information before the film ends, so he becomes an entertaining viewing companion in the latter third of the movie commenting on well-crafted scenes and performances.

Theatrical Trailer (2:21, SD)

Kino Trailers: Paths of Glory, Lonely Are the Brave, A Lovely Way to Die, The Web, Cry of the City, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, The Turning Point, Deadline U.S.A., 99 River Street.

Overall: 4.5/5

One of the outstanding film noirs of its era with fascinating performances, engaging direction, and a slice-of-life narrative that never grows stale, William Wyler’s Detective Story makes a most welcome debut on Blu-ray disc. Highly recommended!

Matt has been reviewing films and television professionally since 1974 and has been a member of Home Theater Forum’s reviewing staff since 2007, his reviews now numbering close to three thousand. During those years, he has also been a junior and senior high school English teacher earning numerous entries into Who’s Who Among America’s Educators and spent many years treading the community theater boards as an actor in everything from Agatha Christie mysteries to Stephen Sondheim musicals.

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