Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Laughing Policeman: Matthau Without Laughter

you ever thought of having your own radio talk-show?"

- Leo Larsen (Bruce Dern) to Jake Martin (Walter Matthau), The Laughing Policeman

The Laughing Policeman
is a 1973 police-procedural, based on the Swedish crime novel by husband and wife writing partners Maj Sjöwal and Per Wahlöö. Director Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke, The Drowning Pool) transplanted the action to gritty 1970s San Francisco.

A gunman opens fire on a city bus and vanishes without a trace. Detective Jake Martin (Walter Matthau) arrives at the crime scene, and discovers that one of the eight murder victims is his own partner. Martin is subsequently partnered with smarmy, mustachioed Inspector Leo Larsen (Bruce Dern). Larsen's arrogance and lack of street-sense have made him unpopular with his fellow officers, and Martin is not at all pleased with this pairing. The two detectives form a wary alliance in their
search for the elusive shooter.

Matthau's gruff, hang-dog persona is a perfect fit for the role of Detective Jake Martin. A man estranged from his family, isolated from the men he works with, and seemingly at odds with the society he's protecting. In one scene we witness Martin physically assault a man in the hopes of obtaining information on one of the victims. When he comes up short and begins to walk away, an onlooker calls him a "pig." Martin pauses, for just a moment, then continues walking. One senses that he has paused just long enough to internalize the epithet.

In some ways, the film can be seen as an inversion of the revered 1968 thriller Bullitt: hunched, acerbic Walter Matthau in place of sober, virile Steve McQueen. (Real-life San Francisco homicide detective Dave Toschi, an inspiration for Bullitt, is quoted in the book Zodiac Unmasked as saying, "Walter Matthau was wonderful, Bruce Dern terrific in that film.") Hollywood produced a number of outstanding crime dramas in the 1970s, notable for their realism and reliance on character actors, and The Laughing Policeman is a superb example.

Find it in the catalog!