I don’t know how this became a controversial issue, but uniformed police are the backbone of our safe, orderly society.
Cops on patrol keep us from driving like maniacs. Beat Cops help us when we are broken down on the side of the road. Beat Cops make sure that auto accidents don’t end up in fist fights or worse. Most uniformed police can sleep well at night knowing that they do, indeed, protect and serve.
Detectives are a different story. I am open to the possibility that we need them … perhaps to fight burglary and organized crime. But their day-to-day job is not to serve us; it is to convict and imprison us.
“It is important,” detectives evidently think, “that this fellow human being with feelings like mine be put into a cage. And there he will remain for years after he did that one illegal act.”
To me, this is unthinkable. To a detective, this is a successful day at the office. How do they do it? Arrogance? Self-righteousness? The melodrama “Detective Story” explores how detectives are able to justify their job to themselves, and how it can corrode their soul.
Kirk Douglas is upsettingly believable as Jim McLeod: the hardest working detective in New York City, with the highest conviction rate. In the heart of every criminal, McLeod sees his abusive hoodlum father. So he keeps locking his dad up over and over hoping that it will make his anger and pain go away.
When he has an unrepentant career criminal in his custody, McLeod’s attitude seems reasonable and justified.
When a young man is arrested for embezzling a few bucks to pay for a date, McLeod’s lack of perspective seems heartless and insane. Even after the employer drops all charges, Detective McLeod insists on sending the terrified teenager to prison.
“You’re getting superior, McLeod,” his caring Lieutenant observes. “A one-man army against crime. What’s eatin’ you?” “I hate criminals,” McLeod states. “I don’t believe in coddling them.”
Fair enough. I think most people agree with that. But McLeod goes from zealous detective to bad detective when it comes to his obsession with abortionist Karl Schneider. In McLeod’s self-righteous mind, abortion is the exact opposite of wholesome, law-abiding behavior. And it’s driving him nuts.
When McLeod’s latest attempt to convict Schneider fails, the detective beats the abortionist up in frustration. When Schneider and his lawyer announce that they have secrets about Detective McLeod, the drama really gets juicy.
Legendary director William Wyler subtly attacks the foundations of our ever-expanding prison-industrial complex. People who justify locking people in cages dismiss them as mere criminals who deserve to be punished.
“Detective Story” exposes how simplistic this attitude is. We are all flawed. People on both sides of the badge make mistakes. A police force is necessary for an orderly society, however; a prison system is not. Our country was about as safe in 1951 when there were 200,000 people behind bars compared to today when 2 million are locked up.
“Detective Story” is a good film, and Jim McLeod is Kirk Douglas’s most interesting character. He gets to the heart of the contradiction of a hard-nosed detective. He’s 100% good and 100% bad, he’s a savior and a bully. Kirk Douglas helped me understand why I admire and fear Beat Cops; while I only fear detectives.