Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The Laughing Policeman

Best known as a comedic character actor (he won an Oscar for THE FORTUNE COOKIE), Walter Matthau’s gruff, hangdog stage demeanor were perfectly suited to the tough, gritty milieu of urban cops and criminals, particularly when dark humor was involved. THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE and CHARLEY VARRICK are ‘70s crime classics, but THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN is no slouch. It’s an absorbing mystery directed by Stuart Rosenberg (COOL HAND LUKE) that offers an outstanding supporting cast for Matthau to play with. Robert Altman seems to have been an influence on Rosenberg, who amps the realism by casting actors who don’t look like movie stars and having them talk over each other.

Eight people are slaughtered on a San Francisco city bus by a black-gloved individual using a “grease gun.” Leading the investigation is Lieutenant Jake Martin (Matthau), who is nonplussed to discover one of the victims is his partner, Dave Evans, who was supposed to have been on vacation. A visit to Dave’s girlfriend Kay (Cathy Lee Crosby) reveals that Evans was secretly working one of Jake’s cold cases. Jake, who’s having problems at home (he and his wife sleep in separate rooms, and his 15-year-old son goes to porn theaters), is teamed up with a loquacious new partner, Leo Larsen, played charismatically by Bruce Dern (THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS).

Also in the cast are Lou Gossett Jr. (AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN), Val Avery (BLACK CAESAR), Anthony Zerbe (HARRY O), Joanna Cassidy (BLADE RUNNER), Albert Paulsen (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE), Matt Clark (WHITE LIGHTNING), Gregory Sierra (BARNEY MILLER), Clifton James (Sgt. Pepper in the 007 films), Paul Koslo (MR. MAJESTYK), and Leigh French (THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS COMEDY HOUR). The performances are quite good, particularly Gossett’s black sharpie, cool as a cucumber on the streets. Matthau’s taciturn mumbling and Dern’s motormouth charm is a winning combination.

Tom Rickman, later to write COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER and DEAD POETS SOCIETY, adapted one of Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall’s Swedish police procedurals about detective Martin Beck. Rickman’s dialogue is very good, and he and Rosenberg do a decent job constructing a complicated plot without over-explaining it to the audience. The bus massacre that opens the picture is marvelously suspenseful, and Rosenberg’s handling of the other action sequences is equally tactful.

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