Detective Story

detect1.png2017.28: Detective Story (1951)

You know how in detective films and tv shows, they pin up clues on a wall, photos or other items, and use different-coloured pieces of string to connect them together? Like huge complex diagrams or charts, somehow the connections revealed by those webs of string solve the case. But the connections are the thing.

Sometimes it seems a little like that with films. You can watch films at random and suddenly be struck by odd coincidences or connections. As if hidden in the randomness there is some sort of pattern. Maybe there is a meaning to it.

Or maybe not. Why do I mention this?  Well, it was a little curious that only the other week on a whim triggered by TCM’s scheduling that I rewatched The Naked Jungle (1954) and now by sheer chance I was watching William Wyler’s 1951 film noir Detective Story, and it turns out they feature the same lead actress, Eleanor Parker. That coincidence of casting may not be a big deal, but its not the end of it though. The Naked Jungle starred Parker has a mail-order bride initially cast aside as “used goods” when her new husband learns of her previous marriage. In Detective Story, it turns out she again plays a wife with a rather shady past/secret. This time her husband, Det. Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas) is unaware that her past is linked to a criminal he is chasing; “Dutchman” Karl Schneider, a New Jersey doctor suspected of being an abortionist linked to the deaths of young women. It transpires that she had an affair with a married man a few years before she met her McLeod and went to Schneider for an abortion. The revelation threatens to shatter both their marriage and McLeod’s obsessive worldview/attitude to policing and crime.

Poor Eleanor. Was she being typecast as reputable-looking women with hidden secrets?

Detective Story is a great little film- I say ‘little’ as it’s based on a stage-play and hence has few locations and  pretty much functions as a one-set acting ensemble akin to 12 Angry Men. Its a great, dramatic character piece where action is secondary to the plot and character arcs. Rather the exact opposite of most films that are made today. In that respect, the film is a curio. There are no action scenes, no stunts, no visual effects, just a story, told with characters in a drama set over the course of one evening.

Based on a Broadway play it naturally has the feel of something being performed on a stage. There is a sort of unreality about it that, with its film noir sensibilities, gives the film a curious atmosphere of a police procedural via the Twilight Zone. KIrk Douglas is as intense as ever- perhaps too intense, but that is perhaps because his character is as much damaged goods as anyone else, his character crumbling as he rushes headlong towards his inevitable destruction.

Much like The Naked Jungle, the sexual undertones and sensibilities of the film betray its age and era. The McLeods are happily married, albeit struggling to conceive a baby, but this apparent idyl is on shaky foundations- when his wife admits to having had an abortion in her past, the social stigma and its impact on the detective’s black and white worldview of absolutes cannot cope. Suddenly she is a tramp, as if the knowledge she wasn’t a virgin on their wedding night invalidates the whole marriage- she was used goods, just as Charlton Heston’s character rages in The Naked Jungle. In that film, it is at least inferred that he too is a virgin (as unintentionally funny the idea of Heston playing a virgin might seem to viewers now). Detective Story rather skirts this, as McLeod is clearly a man of the world and hardly subject to the same restrictions/moral limitations as women are in that world. However, the inferred betrayal, and its impact, inevitably lead to Mcleod’s end. Right and wrong, good and evil, are absolutes for McLeod; all criminals must pay for their crimes, regardless of their circumstances- it is something he ‘learned’ from his own terrible father and how he treated McLeods mother.

detect3If McLeod ever ‘sees the light’ it is only in the face of his own destruction. His wife has left him, knowing he cannot shake his moral beliefs or give her a second chance. But seeing the love of a young woman for a young first-time offender that he was previously adamant had to be prosecuted, McLeod tells his colleagues to the criminal go. He gives the man the second chance he refused his own wife, and as he draws his last breath the two lovers flee the Precinct… love conquers all after all, for a precious few at least.

 

 

The Naked Jungle (1954)

naked1This is one of those films that made an impact on me when I was lad-  the threat of the relentless army of soldier ants was pretty scary and the experience of watching this film bugged me (sic) for years. An airing on TCM offered me an opportunity to revisit the film after those many years, and in HD to boot. In all honesty, its another one of those situations where a film hasn’t aged at all well, and I guess this was me saying farewell to it as I doubt I’ll ever watch it again- perhaps some films should stay in our childhood past, and we should revisit them with extreme caution.

While the ants no longer dominate the film quite as much as I thought they would according to my memories (they are actually regulated to the last half of the picture), what does rather dominate the film are the sexual undercurrents that quite completely passed me by as a young lad. For a young lad murderous ants are far more interesting than sexual frustrations and heaving bosoms, but with me older now and the ants relegated to the background…

The Naked Jungle betrays its era with a frankly offensive treatment of its native South Americans. It is 1901, and Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston) is the indomitable White Man who has spent 15 years carving his own plantation out of the wild jungle, bringing civilisation to the wild natives who work his land for him and serve him. Having been there since the age of 19, he realises he should be raising a family in this kingdom he has created, so he marries an American woman by proxy and has her sent down to him like some mail-order bride. The feisty redhead that has been selected for Leiningen (he has never met her) is Joanna (the beautiful Eleanor Parker), but he balks at the fact that she is actually a widow, declaring her to be ‘used goods’.  The sexual undercurrents are quite obvious; Parker pouts and sighs and Heston scowls and snarls with frustrated desires. There is some wonderful innuendo, as in the line when Parker snaps  “If you knew anything about music, you’d know that the best piano is one that’s been played!” 

naked2It’s a terrific potboiler really and the sexual tension is almost palpable. In spite of her protestations, since Leiningen is a virgin and Joanna does not reach his standards of propriety, Joanna must return from whence she came, but this is interrupted by the onslaught of an army of soldier ants that threatens the plantation and their very lives. Yeah, well, this is the part of the film that I remember from watching it as a lad. Again, the film betrays its age and ‘acceptable’ politics of its day, as the natives threaten to flee but are shamed into staying by Joanna who cries “Leiningen doesn’t run! Leiningen’s woman doesn’t run!” Yes, she gets her man, and he gets his woman, and again its up to the white man to save the day as he single-handedly races into the army of ants to blow the dam that will destroy the horde, sweeping the army aside in a torrent of water as the jungle reclaims the plantation.

Well, with me older and wiser now in more enlightened times, the film does leave a rather bitter taste in the mouth. Its a film of its time, I guess, but the vivid and rather blatant sexual intrigues that dominate the first half of the film made it a quite surprising watch after all these years. And it is rather curious to see such a young Charlton Heston so soon after having seen him in The Omega Man– he’s almost funny in this, a brooding man mountain wracked by sexual frustrations. Some would describe his performance as wooden, but of course its actually pure Heston.