Monday, April 4, 2011

Movie Monday: The Laughing Policeman

This week's Movie Monday subject is the gritty cop thriller The Laughing Policeman!

If there are two things a movie can have that, to me, virtually guarantees its going to be good, or at the very least interesting, they are: Walter Matthau and being made in the 1970s.

Matthau, always one of my favorites, had an extraordinary hot streak in the 1970s: during the decade, he appeared in Plaza Suite, The Front Page,
Charley Varrick, The Taking of Pelham 123, The Sunshine Boys, The Bad News Bears, House Calls, and Hopscotch. Not only are all of these pretty good-to-pretty-great movies, but go from Neil Simon comedy to foul-mouthed kid flicks to gritty action thrillers, and Matthau is great in every single one of them.

I had vaguely heard of The Laughing Policeman before, but never realized what it was and who was in it. When I stumbled across the fact it was a cop thriller starring Walt Matthau and was made in 1973...well, I couldn't move it to the top of my Netflix queue fast enough!

The film opens sans titles, in a San Francisco bus station. A sweaty, nervous-looking guy is being followed, and he knows it:
The hunted tries to lose his pursuer by jumping on a bus at the last second, but the second guy manages to stop the bus before it takes off and climbs aboard, sitting a few rows back from his target.

The bus picks up some more people along its route, the last being someone whose face we don't see. This person sits all the way in the back, and quietly begins to assemble a high-powered rifle.

Before anyone else notices what's going on, the sweaty guy sees what's about to happen, and screams in panic. But its too late:
The gunman slaughters every single passenger on the bus, bullets flying in all directions in what makes for a particularly bloody sequence. The bus driver is killed, and the bus crashes into a nearby building. We hear police sirens, and eventually a crime scene is taped off.

Some plainclothes detectives arrive, including Sgt. Jake Martin:
The cops climb aboard the bus and examine the crime scene. They are shocked and stunned to see one of the victims--the one who was doing the tailing of the sweaty guy--was Martin's partner Dave Evans! What was he doing on this bus, at this time of night, in this part of town?

Protocol being what it is, the another detective, Insp. Leo Larsen (Bruce Dern), becomes the co-lead on the case. Larsen is kind of a weird guy, full of black humor, and Martin is less than thrilled to be paired up with him:
Various members of the SFPD investigate the backgrounds of the various victims, leading mostly to dead ends. Many of the leads involve some of seamier parts of city life, something the detectives are less than thrilled to be involved with.

Martin eventually discovers that the sweaty guy was named Gus Miles, who, years ago, provided the alibi for a man named Henry Camerero (Albert Paulsen), who murdered his wife years before. That case was the responsibility of Martin, who is still haunted over it.

Martin is generally cynical and sullen, and keeps trying to freeze Larsen out of his investigation. But Larsen refuses to give up, tagging along to Martin's constant annoyance. They do some further investigating on Camerero, trailing him throughout the city:
Turns out Camerero is a closeted homosexual, something the film treats with less than sensitivity. There's a scene in a gay bar that drips with condescension about its subject:
Despite Martin's boss (Anthony Zerbe, chewing the scenery) telling him to drop the Camerero angle, he refuses, convinced he's right. He and Larsen learn that Camerero is going to strike again, on another city bus, and are the only ones there to stop him:
The film ends on a...not so much downbeat note, but an absurdly anti-climactic one, kind of reflecting the mood of the whole movie. When it arrived, I had looked away from the screen for a moment, and when I went back I was shocked to see credits rolling! What the?!?

The Laughing Policeman is a strange film--it has that uber-cynical attitude so many 1970s crime thrillers had, and the general views of the filmmakers shine through a bit: director Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke, The Amityville Horror) was in his late 1940s when this movie was made, and gay equality was just start to emerge in mainstream American culture. The use of the word "fruit" is so rampant that, while probably completely realistic, made this viewer roll his eyes more than once.

Also, there are so many characters in this movie that Matthau as Jake Martin doesn't get enough to do; and when he's on the screen, he's generally sullen and crabby--its Bruce Dern as Larsen who gets most of the lighter stuff, constantly reacting to Matthau's taciturn lead.

There are some scenes that are classically 1970s, so much they made me laugh: Matthau questions a suspect, played by Cathy Lee Crosby, and he thinks nothing of slapping her around, repeatedly. Imagine a movie's hero doing something like that nowadays.

The Laughing Policeman definitely deserves to be considered part of Walter Matthau's solid streak of interesting 1970s films: while not a complete success (its not as delightfully Matthau-centric as Charley Varrick, and not nearly as action-packed as The Taking of Pelham 123), its nevertheless an interesting movie, and well worth the time of fans of 1970s cop films.

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