Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Movie Review: The Laughing Policeman (1973) Dir. Stuart Rosenberg

The Laughing Policeman by Stuart Rosenberg
Rating 4 out of 5 Stars

Blurb: A policeman is among the victims when the passengers of a late-night bus are machine-gunned. With only one semi- conscious survivor and no other witnesses, the detectives try to learn from the identities of the dead why this happened and who the killer could be.

Thoughts: One of the best police procedural films ever made, based on one the best police procedural novels ever written.

Until very recently The Laughing Policeman was the only Swedish crime novel to be adapted by American studios, it's quite fitting that it was David Fincher who changed that as it is his film Zodiac that comes closest to matching this one for style and tone. Yes they are both set at around the same time and are both San Francisco movies, but if he didn't watch this film during pre-production/planning stages I'd be one very surprised cinephile.

This is the story of a murder, of mass murder, of the murder of a cop and the investigation undertaken by his colleagues. There's none of the usual badge thumping, gun waving, avenge our brother cop nonsense at work here, this movie is so real it makes every other movie look like a movie. It is a sullen, violent police drama and is as detailed an investigation as you will find on film.

This is the type of movies they just don't or can't make anymore, there is no formulaic silliness, no overbearing superiors hanging over the detectives, no goofing off in the office downtown to lighten things up, no romance or hot sex. This is reality, harsh and complicated. The police in this film are portrayed as real human beings, with real foibles and weaknesses and prejudices.

Walter Matthau is superb in the lead role, serious and angry and determined to get his man and he is helped by a series of great performances from the supporting cast including a standout showing from Bruce Dern.

It's not all roses and flowers in the acting department though, there's some great dialogue but there's also some dross. The scenes with any of the female cast members are sub-student movie level in terms of dialogue and delivery, making even Walter Matthau look bad.

It was only on a second watch through in which I focussed on watching Dern that I became mesmerised by his facial expressions, his ticks, his subtle choices in the face of Matthau's stern lead that work as a perfect counterpoint. And now I'm wondering why I don't recall watching Bruce Dern in more movies.
The pair of them make this movie what it is but again on the second watch I realised just how much I loved the way this movie looked. It wasn't just the downbeat tone Rosenberg chose or the slice of life style, a lot of the flavour of this forgotten gem comes from the cinematography of David M. Walsh (Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask, Sleeper)

As an adaptation it had many faults and lacks a lot of the subtleties of the source material, I love that there's no explanation at all for the title as it too was excised from the script for example, but the slice of life approach of director Stuart Rosenberg makes up for it and manages to maintain the feeling of the novel.

It's a crime that this one isn't more known.


  1. Nice review. This looks like a film I'd love. Adding it to my watchlist.

    1. You've definitely got to be in the right mood for this type of movie but if you are you're in for a real treat. Few films have inspired such enthusiasm in recent months (another reason for lack of blogging) so I hope you enjoy it when you finally get through your watchlist.

      (see other comment for apology for being an absent blogging friend)