"This movie is so real it makes every other movie in this town look like a movie."
- The Laughing Policeman tag-line
San Francisco, early 70s. A sweaty, middle-aged man is in a bus station. He knows he’s being watched by a tall younger man. He makes a call at a pay phone, then boards a bus. He seems nervous. The tall watcher follows him onto the bus. Later, another man gets on the bus. We only see his gloved hands. He’s carrying a leather valise. He takes a seat in the back of the bus. Methodically, the gloved hands begin to take parts out of the valise and put together a submachine gun. While the bus tools its way past Chinatown, the glove-handed man stands up and raises the machine gun. The middle-aged guy screams out “No, not yet!”
BRAAAATTT ATAT TAT TAT!
The killer massacres everyone on the bus, the middle-aged guy first. He kills a young nurse, an Asian teenager, the bus driver, several others. He also kills the tall younger man. The bus rolls forward and crashes into a pole. The killer hastily makes his escape, not realizing that he left one victim, an old man, still alive.
For the next 15 minutes of the film, we’re a fly on the wall, treated to one of the most realistic depictions of police procedure you’re likely to see in a Hollywood movie. Along with all the crime scene techs and uniformed cops, a crew of SFPD homicide detectives are on the scene. One of them is jowly Sgt. Jake Martin (Walter Matthau). The cops discover that the tall younger man who was killed was actually a cop. In fact, he was Matthau’s partner, Det. Dale Evans. What was Evans doing on that bus? Why was he killed, and who was the killer? Lt. Steiner (Anthony Zerbe) assigns new transfer, Insp. Leo Larsen (Bruce Dern), to be Jake’s new partner. And the manhunt for the killer is on…
So begins The Laughing Policeman, an almost docudrama-like exercise in realistic police technique that gradually evolves into a character study of the taciturn, grumpy Jake and his more hot-headed, talkative new partner. There’s a lot of that fast cross-talking (of the kind common in Robert Altman films, for example), as people talk over each other, with several different conversations going on at once. The pace is slow, but there’s something about the true-life, deliberate procedure of it all that keeps you hooked.
In a few quick scenes, we get a clear sketch of the kind of man Jake is. His life is his work. He comes home mainly to sleep and eat. He barely speaks to his wife. His teenage son is a stranger to him. The rusted, broken heap of a long-disused barbecue on his back patio is emblematic of his relationship to his family: virtually nonexistent. Matthau is sober and sullen throughout the movie, the “laughing policeman” of the title obviously meant ironically. He never laughs, and we rarely catch him with so much as a smirk on his doughy face.
At first, he freezes the smart-aleck Leo out, but eventually opens up to him. It seems his dead partner was looking into one of Jake’s old unsolved cases when he was killed. Jake feels responsible. He has to solve this case, and he needs Leo’s help to do it.
Well established as a comedy star by this point in his career, Matthau was equally adept at playing straight dramatic parts. His hangdog, determined presence is compelling throughout. Even if we don't really warm to Jake, Matthau's innate likeability keeps us watching.
With Matthau in full-on grouchy mode, Dern gets all the funny lines. Well known for playing creepy, weirdo bad guys (he infamously gunned down John Wayne’s character in The Cowboys), Dern mostly dials things down a notch below his norm and creates an interesting, edgy character.
The other major character in the film is the city itself. San Francisco is shown in all its seamy, 70s-era glory. Most of the film centers around the strip clubs, porno theaters, pool halls, gay bars and other sleazy spots where the cops go to chase down leads. All this true-life location work adds to the movie’s authentic feel.
Louis Gossett Jr. and Val Avery are also good as fellow homicide detectives working the case. Paul Koslo (Dutch in The Omega Man) has a nice cameo bit as a drug dealer who imparts some crucial information later in the film. Cathy Lee Crosby (surprisingly good) and Joanna Cassidy make the most of small but key roles. The always-welcome Anthony Zerbe could play this sort of angry boss figure in his sleep (he would go on to play Lt. Trench in the David Janssen private eye series Harry-O a few years later).
While it’s mostly a slouchy character study, there are a few well-done action setpieces, including a SWAT take-down of a Vietnam vet gone psycho and shooting up a neighborhood (which turns out to be unconnected to the bus massacre). The film also opts for a brief but tense car chase and shoot-out finale. It’s the closest to generic Hollywood cop action this film gets, but it's still pretty muted.
The Laughing Policeman came right in the middle of a three film mini-marathon of gritty 70s crime thrillers starring Matthau, including Charley Varrick and The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3. If it’s not quite as entertaining as either of those films, its unusually realistic focus and flat depiction of what real police work might actually be like make it plenty noteworthy. The pace flags just a tad in the middle, and there are a few jarring moments that seem to come from out of nowhere. Jake slaps Evan's distraught girlfriend (Crosby) around when he suspects she’s holding back info from him, and Leo has a few nasty bits, one where he gives an informant a swirly in a urinal and another where he flashes a bit of a racist side. Some other scenes are interesting in and of themselves (such as a memorable scene where Gossett, Jr. runs a vicious pimp out of town) but don’t seem germane to the main plot as such.
However, the movie seems less interested in the mechanics of the whodunnit aspects of the story, than it is in what it means to a be a cop, the slow, inexorable nature of tracking down suspects and nailing them to the wall. The film also ruminates on the sorry lot of the police officer, the mind-numbing toll it takes on the people who serve a society that constantly beats them down every day with a never-ending flood of corruption, greed, senseless violence and cruelty.
The Laughing Policeman was adapted from an acclaimed novel by famous Swedish mystery-writing couple Maj Sajwoll and Per Walhoo. Matthau’s Jake is based on the authors’ main character, Det. Martin Beck. I’ve not read the novel, but I can see how the film version mines some of the terrain common to many Scandanavian crime novels, focused as they often are on the gruntwork and minutiae of day-to-day police procedure.
Stuart Rosenberg's direction is unfussy and straightforward, which suits Thomas Rickman's script to a tee. Rosenberg worked mostly in episodic television before breaking into films big-time with Cool Hand Luke (1967). He was most prolific in the 70s; after The Laughing Policeman, he'd go on to such interesting films as The Drowning Pool, The Amityville Horror and Brubaker.
If you’re a fan of this kind of early 70s, gritty cop fare, like The French Connection, Dirty Harry and Serpico, then you’ll likely enjoy The Laughing Policeman as a sort of lower-key cousin. And people only used to the comedic side of Walter Matthau should get a kick out of seeing him blowing away perps and roughing up street trash like a nebbishy Harry Callahan.
DVD Note: 20th Century Fox's widescreen DVD looks fine, a little grungy and washed out, which fits the material.
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