Monday, 3 September 2007

The Discount Bin Film Club #2: The Laughing Policeman

Welcome back to my new, semi-irregular feature, the Discount Bin Movie Club.

Today's picture is a long lost film of the 1970s Stuart Rosenberg's police procedural THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN starring Walter Matthau and Bruce Dern.

First thing, is the title is a tad odd. I don't think a policeman laughs at any point in the film. But it's based on a novel from Sweden, so that probably explains that.

The film begins with a nervous, sweaty man talking at a pay phone at the San Francisco train station, in fact, he's more than nervous, he's terrified, and he's literally sweating rivers. He's being watched by a young man with curly hair.

The sweaty man hangs up and gets on a city bus. The younger man follows.

It's late, so there are only a few people on the bus, at a stop a man in a trench coat and brown leather gloves gets on. He sits in the back seat and starts assembling something from parts taken from his pockets.

It's a submachine gun.

To be more specific it's this gun.

I know it may sound trivial, but it's a major clue in the mystery.

The sweaty guy sees the man in back has a gun, screams, but is gunned down.

So is everyone else on the bus, in a scene that is unforgettable even though it has none of the usual flash and visual trickery so common in today's films. It is fast and it is savage.

The gunman then disappears into the night.

The cops arrive and the investigation is headed up by Walter Matthau and his new partner played by Bruce Dern. Matthau needs his new partner because the young man who was following the sweaty guy was his old partner.

What follows is a detailed portrait of a police investigation. They go down blind alleys, wild goose chases, and one bogus tip almost starts a race riot. The case threatens to tear the city apart, until Matthau's character follows a hunch about this case's connection to an unsolved murder from his past.

I won't spoil the plot anymore for you.

Detail is king in this film, and Rosenberg shows a mastery of developing character not through speeches but through what is not said. As you watch the film you learn the Matthau's character has recently quit smoking, has a troubled marriage, and a complicated relationship with his kids, but none of that is actually talked about by anyone. It's all done through gestures and looks.

This being a police procedural mystery, we see everything from the POV of the cops in the case. Especially the killer. He is a mystery himself, seen only from a distance, his motives for becoming a mass murderer are never revealed, because he never explains them, nor can the cops read his mind.

Now it's a very, and I mean very 1970's movie. The clothes, hairstyles, and attitudes of the characters (especially towards different races & homosexuals) are all very much of their time, and will seem strange to anyone born after that tasteless, decadent, yet reactionary decade.

The DVD itself is a bare bones affair. The film is presented in widescreen with a nice clear print that is way better than the pan & scan letter-box VHS version I saw 20 years ago, the only extra is the theatrical trailer, which really doesn't do the film justice.

All in all it makes a very well made little time capsule of big city life in the 1970s, and an enjoyable, and unjustly overlooked little crime film.

So I'll leave you with the immortal words spoken by Louis Gossett jr. as his character, a detective working with Matthau, puts the beat down on a pimp who reaches for a knife: "That better be a sandwich, because you're gonna eat it."

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