The Laughing Policeman (1973) 3.43/5 (1)


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Rating: The Good – 76.5
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Duration: 112 mins
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Stars: Walter Matthau, Bruce Dern, Louis Gossett Jr.

From the heyday of gritty crime cinema comes this forgotten gem full of slow burning tension and ambiguous sentiment. Water Matthau stars as a disenchanted San Francisco inspector, Sgt. Jake Martin, whose investigation into a multiple homicide on a city bus is made all the more complicated with the discovery of his off duty partner amongst the bodies. As Martin begins retracing his partner’s steps, he must contend with a brash new partner in the form of Bruce Dern, sleazy informants, a crazy city, not to mention an estranged family at home.

The Laughing Policeman attempts a rare blend of crime and introspective drama but director Stuart Rosenberg and writer Thomas Rickman just about pull it off albeit in a very unorthodox manner. The movie phases between the gritty realism of the edgier crime thrillers from the 1970’s and the more experimental dramas of the late 60’s. In fact, it walks a similar line to Bullitt but whereas Peter Yates’ film only coated the thriller element in contemplative drama, Rosenberg’s film steeps it in it. Thus, in between some rather impressive action set pieces like the bus shooting itself, the audience is made privy to the eroding disharmony in Martin’s life by showing us his forced and awkward conversations with his wife and his attempts to be a father to his son. This might make the film less accessible to those who respond best to the crime elements and there’s no denying that the tension generated by that side to the story is let slip from time to time as Rosenberg indulges the more abstract side. However, there’s equally no denying that it makes for some very original and peculiarly engaging cinema.

For his part, Walter Matthau gives us a character whose complex relationship with his partner echoes that of Spade and Archer’s and whose personal life is just as complicated. It’s a rich characterisation bravely written and insightfully acted as Matthau demonstrates yet again a level of intuition and maturity of understanding that few of his peers did. As his partner’s cocksure replacement, Bruce Dern is just terrific, full of attitude and abrasiveness and for a guy who specialised in constructing one intriguing character after another throughout the 1970s and 80s, it’s no small thing to say that this is one of the most intriguing. In fact, given the necessarily subdued turn of Matthau, one could easily argue this becomes his movie as he’s given most of the memorable lines and delivers them with oodles of sarcastic charisma.

What’s most impressive about this film, however, is that all this moody drama plays out against a flat realism that was decades ahead of its time, where the procedural tones of the police work become as important to the film as the plot. The sequences in which the protagonists (including Louis Gossett Jr.’s hard as nails/cool as ice fellow cop) are going about their investigations by interviewing stoolies, harassing pimps, and generally putting the pieces of the puzzle together are deliciously executed and shot with all the murky grace of the best neo-noirs. Moreover, they help authenticate the more subjective moments all the more and thus provide a valuable grounding for the movie. However, given the decision to favour a real depiction of police work over a dramatic one, the investigative sequences and even the larger scale set pieces only ever seem to nudge the plot forward – the point being that the majority of police work leads nowhere helpful. This adds to the realism but it gives the film a meandering quality that won’t suit everyone.

Nonetheless, The Laughing Policeman remains a unique slice of 70’s cinema that deserves a lot more attention than it has received even if it was only for the tremendous turns from Matthau and Dern. However, the rewards it offers are much richer thanks to the brave approach of Rosenberg and the delicate balancing act between reality and drama he performs.

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