The Laughing Policeman (1973)   Leave a comment

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An unknown man wielding an automatic weapon massacres the passengers on a city bus. San Francisco detectives Walter Matthau, Bruce Dern, Louis Gossett, Jr., and Val Avery must use their expertise and the crime scene evidence to find the killer. Complicating the investigation is the fact that one of the victims is Walter Matthau’s partner. The detectives, led by Matthau hit strip clubs, stoolies, and drug dealers in search of the elusive spree killer. Along the way they butt heads with their lieutenant, the always impressive Anthony Zerbe, and the criminal low-lifes they see every day. The film focuses on Matthau and his new partner, Dern, who has a talent for rubbing people the wrong way. From the beginning the two clash as Matthau refuses to communicate and Dern, new to the unit, wants to jump into the fray.

We see the differences in the styles of the two men as the story progresses. Matthau’s ranking officer leads and instructs naturally while Dern’s aggressive nature puts him at odds with the rest of the squad. They find common ground in their desire to close the case and even though they have different reasons for doing so, it works. Dern wants to solve the murders to prove himself to his new partner and squad and check another case off the list. Matthau has a gut feeling these murders relate to an old unsolved case and feels guilty because his obsession with it may have led his partner to risk his life to solve it. Never close to his partner, Matthau’s feelings made me think of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade toward Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon.
“When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”

Since they’re cops and this is the 70s, Matthau and Dern disobey orders and follow their own instincts. While the case serves as the central point of the film, it’s the people we want to watch. Chock full of talented character actors, The Laughing Policeman has that cool 70s vibe that says these actors look like they do because of DNA, not teeth whitening and plastic surgery. Along with those I’ve mentioned the cast includes Cathy Lee Crosby, Albert Paulsen, Joanna Cassidy, Clifton James, and Gregory Sierra. The seedy joints and their back room denizens give the film a realistic look and the acting let’s you relax and ease into the story.

Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke, The Pope of Greenwich Village) directed The Laughing Policeman by standing back and letting his stellar cast go to work. As American as the story seems, it comes from the Swedish novel Den skrattande polisen by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. The Laughing Policeman made me smile. It starred Bruce Dern and Walter Matthau, had a compelling story, complex characters, and some great lines. At one point Bruce Dern comments on a suspect’s influence by saying “…probably got enough juice to get a sodomy beef reduced to following too close.”

How can you not like a movie like that?

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