Jim McLeod is unconcerned with grey areas. Or maybe he is just unable to see them. As a detective with the NYPD, he witnesses a nonstop procession of lowlifes, many who show little interest in or ability at rehabilitation. But there are also the first time offenders, those who commit petty thefts out of desperation or to get attention. McLeod's colleagues argue that such individuals deserve another chance, that a booking will stay on their records and possibly ruin their lives. McLeod is unrepentant, determined to hold up the law to the letter, even when a man who was embezzled by his employee wants to drop the charges.
Have the realities of the job hardened this man? "I'm drowning", McLeod (Kirk Douglas) admits late in 1951's DETECTIVE STORY. By that point, the reasons are more personal. But throughout the movie, he describes a lifelong hatred of his father who had a "criminal mind" that stokes his fire toward crime and those who perpetrate, regardless of the severity. Is this why he relentlessly torments shamed physician Karl Schneider (George Macready) for a year after arresting him? Enough to make the doctor, wanted for malpractice, turn himself in so the abuse will cease?
McLeod will learn how Schneider is connected to his loving wife Mary (Eleanor Parker) during the second half of DETECTIVE STORY. It is about that time that the film unfortunately stumbles, loses its surefootedness in portraying the realities of being a cop or a criminal in the Big City in the mid-twentieth century. The associated melodrama of the McLeods' story is powerful and involving but overwhelms the movie's previously steady observation of how folks view the law, or perhaps react to it.
Some are devil-may-care, like longtime criminal Charlie Gennini (Joseph Wiseman), who mocks the detectives with shrieks of hysteria. Others are small time thieves like Arthur (William Reynolds) who steals from his boss only so he can afford to take an old girlfriend out for a fancy dinner. Or a sad, unnamed shoplifter (Lee Grant, in her debut) who is scared of even being fingerprinted. A lonely woman who is so eager to get married her only apparent criteria is that the guy wears a pair of pants.
A majority of the story occurs on one set, the police precinct. This echoes the film's origins, a 1949 play of the same name. Director William Wyler uses that set in very creative ways, always finding another bit of business to keep it interesting: the way a cop uses his foot to keep a door from slamming, the dispatcher's use of his desk. The actors embody the space very naturally and believably. It feels lived in. Wyler establishes an atmosphere capturing what seem like real lawmen going about their business.
But punctuating it is some heart thumping drama, which include taboo-for-the-time elements like premarital sex, abortion, and even a cop killing. There will be an act of contrition that perhaps sufficiently resolves one character's awesome flaws. As you examine those, consider the attitudes of an American male in the time period. If screenwriters Robert Wyler and Philip Yordan had dispensed with the Big Revelations and just given us a slice of life, I would've been satisfied. But DETECTIVE STORY is a well acted, fine drama nonetheless.