Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Rotten Business

Stuart Rosenberg’s THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN isn’t one of the best seventies cop movies but it is consistently interesting and it has Walter Matthau, which makes it even more interesting. Possibly the most notable things about it is how ultra-serious it is, which is a little surprising. The title, which is never uttered in the film, couldn’t be more ironic and I’m not sure there was ever a Walter Matthau vehicle where the actor was so unrelentingly serious the whole way through—no TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE wisecracks to be found here. The unrelenting grimness is felt after a while—frankly, BULLITT and DIRTY HARRY are like BEVERLY HILLS COP in comparison—but it ultimately is an effective look at a cop who is feeling the futility of everything he does. The story feels like it begins to lose its way during the second half but it’s still an intriguing artifact of the time and place it is set in.

When all the passengers but one on a San Francisco city bus are gunned down by a mystery individual late one night, Sgt. Jake Martin (Walter Matthau) shows up on the scene only to discover that his partner Dave Evans is one of the victims. With the younger, more outgoing Inspector Leo Larsen (Bruce Dern) assigned as his partner, Martin, who is already depressed and disgusted by everything in his world around him, tries to figure out why his friend and partner was on the bus to begin with, which could lead him to the person responsible.

Released in 1973, it’s at times very well done, but it’s also a fairly depressing experience with lots of attention paid to the messiness of the crime scenes and the bodies being loaded away. It’s hard not to wish that Matthau would at some point let out a crack that would provide some relief, but that’s not really fair to what the film is trying to do. Ultimately, THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN is about Matthau’s character and how much he despairs at everything in his life and world. This extends to his character’s family—he’s able to work up a smile at the refreshing normalcy of his pre-teen daughter but when he discovers his teenage son doing something he shouldn’t he gets upset but still avoids confronting him, maybe because after everything he sees all day he can’t think of what to say anymore. Without making a big thing out of it, the movie shows that Matthau’s character and his wife, while on speaking terms, are clearly living in other parts of the house with him sleeping on a couch somewhere. It seems like the only thing he has is his constantly listening to muzak versions of old standards, which also isn’t commented on, but is presumably the only respite he has to everything around him. There’s nothing comical about how beaten down his character is and there’s also nothing noble about the hunt for his friend’s killer, only the guilt he has over what he thinks led him to getting on that bus. In the middle of all this wee also get the unexpected sight of Walter Matthau slapping around Cathy Lee Crosby, something I’m pretty sure never expected to see. Plotwise, it’s more of a procedural than an action movie and even when some action is brought into the mix, with a hostage situation at the midway point, things turn out so bad in the scene that I felt like I had to shut the disc off for a while just to get a little relief from things. It’s not thrills the movie is after, but showing us the nasty result of some very unpleasant situations. Filmed in San Francisco, there’s some excellent location work and, with the exception of a few glimpses of the Transamerica tower, next to no use of the typical landmarks you’d expect from a movie set there. Frankly, I’ve never seen the city look as grimy or as unwelcoming as it does here. The film makes use of the “colorful” people of the place, from hippies to Hare Krishnas, but it all seems to be part of the reasons why Matthau’s character hates this world so much. This becomes more problematic in the latter section of the film when the investigation zeros in on a well-dressed Fernando Rey type (some of that FRENCH CONNECTION influence) who also happens to be part of the city’s homosexual community, with lots of dialogue spoken that is definitely un-P.C. these days. Yes, it’s offensive and yes, it dates the film but it also feels sensationalistic in the wrong way. At least THE DETECTIVE with Frank Sinatra seemed to pretend to take this expose angle seriously but here it just feels like more stuff to show how sleazy this world is. I’m not sure it even effects how the plot turns out anyway to any great extent. That’s one of the problems--there are actually a few scenes and leads that ultimately don’t fell like they go anywhere and I felt the movie losing its grip during the second half. For a while I was impressed at how there was no score in the film, adding to the hard-nosed realism but then score does pop up later on and I felt like the movie was copping out slightly, especially because the use seemed unnecessary. The movie does regain its footing with an action-suspense climax that is fairly exciting and well done. It’s not great or anything, but it is fairly well done. I feel compelled to point out that the shot of Matthau firing a gun with the Bay Bridge behind him that I would see on the old Key Video box in video stores all through the years turns out not to even be in the film. This definitely isn’t a movie about Walter Matthau walking around with his gun drawn.

Matthau is very good in this unusual role, underplaying things by chewing gum nonstop and sometimes saying little more than “Good” in some conversations with Bruce Dern, leading the other actor at one point to ask, “You ever think of getting your own talk show?” Of course, even Matthau can’t do anything about how, in all honesty, he just looks funny whenever he walks and runs but fortunately when it happens it manages to not kill the mood. Dern, the more excitable of the pair, is very good and the movie wisely never makes their pairing a simplistic “one’s by the book, one’s a loose cannon” kind of thing, continually bringing unexpected shadings to the characters. Anthony Zerbe plays their Lieutenant who yells at them a lot (I don’t know if there’s such a thing as an “Anthony Zerbe role” but maybe this is it) and Lou Gossett is pretty good as another cop who unfortunately disappears at a certain point. Joanna Cassidy has a small role as a nurse, giving us what has to be one of the earliest examples of that great cackle of hers on record. A few other familiar faces pop up, but I was most surprised to find that the small part of a prostitute in a giant afro wig turned out to be played by Frances Lee McCain (credited as Lee McCain), famous from her role in GREMLINS.

The seventiesness of the movie is both a good and bad thing. It’s a pleasure to see a film like this that is so adult and serious but at times its style feels like it could stand to be as loose as Bruce Dern’s character is. It all feels more staged and rehearsed than THE FRENCH CONNECTION does. It’s not that big a deal but it does mean that the deficiencies in the story aren’t ever really disguised. I think I follow the entire plot and what is revealed in the end, but I can’t be fully certain. The ending feels a little weak as well. Of course, no one’s ever been able to follow the plot of BULLITT either and I know that I’ve never really cared. There’s a lot of sleaze in THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN and maybe it is an artifact of another time, but it’s still a surprisingly potent police drama with a Walter Matthau performance different from what is usually expected from him. It was worth catching up with.


Unknown said...

Nice review! I taped this film off of digital cable a while ago and haven't gotten around to watching it yet but your article certainly has me intrigued. I love flawed little gems like this from the 1970s - it's the kind of film you'd be hard-pressed to find being made nowadays... Maybe independently. I'll have to check this film out now.

Anonymous said...

That poster at the bottom is freaking AWESOME - what a great tagline!

Arbogast said...

Yeah, this didn't work for me despite having a lot going for it. I had read the Maj Sjowall/Per Wahloo "Martin Beck" source novels - all of them - and Beck's slow estrangement from his wife is one of the series' continuing storylines. In the book, "The Laughing Policeman" is a comedy LP that Beck's teenage daughter gives him, which serves as an ironic counterpoint to his grim vocation.

A few years ago, I was at Harvey Keitel's place (did you heart that thump?) and he had a copy of another book in the series - I forget which one - and a note from a producer telling him to look at one of the characters for himself. Never happened, obviously.

I also recommend (bigly) Bo Widerberg's The Man on the Roof, based on The Abominable Man, the seventh book in the series.

Anonymous said...

Favorite line from the film, "Rod-uh-nee." Nice write up, this is a personal favorite of mine and, for the most part, a film no one has ever heard of. I don't think it's a great movie, but it is a superior tough '70's cop film and well work a look.

- Bob

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Yeah, it may not be one of the best of the genre from the decade. I can understand that maybe it doesn't completely work, but at least it's consistently interesting and I'm glad I saw it. Learning about the series it's based on is particularly enlightening, thanks for passing that along, Det. Arbogast! And thanks to you all for the comments.