Detective Story (1951): Sharply Written, Well-Acted Oscar Nominated Melodrama, Starring Kirk Douglas

Largely restricted to one set, a police station in New York, Detective Story, William Wyler’s sharply written, is well-acted drama by Kirk Douglas, Eleanor Powell, and especially Lee Grant.












Though it still feels like theater—the scenario is based on Sidney Kingsley’s noted play–the situations and the characters are sufficiently intriguing to make it an interesting, if not a great, movie.

As director, Wyler is greatly helped by the ace cinematographer Lee Garmes, whose fluid, restless camera keeps the story and parade of characters flowing.

The protagonist, James McLeod (Kirk Douglas), is a fanatic, obsessive detective, dedicated to the letter of the law, and known for his excessive brutal handling of criminals; he is not above belting his suspects.  We learn that a tragic event in his past, and love-hate relationship with his father-crook, have caused him to be particularly upset about abortionists, perceived by him as pathological.

In the film, the part of the abortionist Karl Schneider (George Macready) was expanded, turning him into a manipulator of an abortion ring and a farm of unmarried women.

When he finds out that his wife Mary (Eleanor Parker) was the subject of an abortion, illegally performed by Schneider, he can’t control his anger—or forgive her.

The film is stronger in characterization than in plot, and we get a parade of colorful characters and their psychological studies. Among them is the very young Lee Grant, only 22, as a juvenile thief.  Grant, who had played the role in the Broadway production, was singled out for her acting at the Cannes Film Fest.

Perfectly cast, Kirk Douglas renders a dramatically intense, swirling performance as the overzealous and tormented policeman, who ultimately loses his life in the line of fire, when a desperate hoodlum pulls a gun while trying to escape from the station.

Douglas had researched the part meticulously for months, observing the daily work at the 16th Precinct, and then playing it on stage at the Sombrero Playhouse (in Phoenix, Arizona) before shooting began.

For the record, there is only one sequence in which the tale goes outdoors, in a police wagon.

Oscar Nominations: 4

Director: William Wyler

Actress: Eleanor Parker

Supporting Actress: Lee Grant

Screenplay (Adapted): Philip Yordan and Robert Wyler

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

In 1951, “A Streetcar Named Desire” swept most of the acting Oscars, including Best Actress for Vivien Leigh, and Supporting Actress for Kim Hunter.  “A Place in the Sun” brought Oscars to director George Stevens and screenwriters Michael Wilson and Harry Brown.