Long on atmosphere but short on coherence, this ultra-American thriller was, oddly, based on a Swedish novel. Despite its foreign origins, The Laughing Policeman is one of the most persuasive police procedurals made for the big screen in the ’70s, putting across a palpable sense of realism as it depicts badge-wielding working stiffs trying to sort out the mess of a complex murder investigation. The story ultimately spirals into confusion—an argument could be made that the filmmakers tried to achieve verisimilitude, leaving the audience as confounded as the characters—but even if the destination isn’t particularly worthwhile, the journey is engrossing.
Set in San Francisco, the picture begins with a horrific assault, when a mysterious assailant whips out a grease gun on a crowded city bus and annihilates all the passengers, including an off-duty cop. The dead policeman’s partner, taciturn detective Jake Martin (Walter Matthau), takes the lead on the investigation but shares very few of his discoveries with his replacement partner, hotshot Leo Larsen (Bruce Dern), or his irritable commanding officer, Lt. Steiner (Anthony Zerbe). Part of the reason Martin plays his cards so close to the vest is that he learns unsavory facts about his late partner, like the kinky aspects of the dead cop’s romance with a young woman (Cathy Lee Crosby), and part of the reason is because Martin senses a connection between the current crime and an unsolved case from the past.
Director Stuart Rosenberg, a TV-trained helmer whose eclectic résumé includes the macho melodrama Cool Hand Luke (1967), shoots the hell out of scenes featuring Martin and his fellow cops pounding the San Fran pavement to shake underworld sources for clues. Rosenberg and cinematographer David M. Walsh use long lenses to surround characters with evocative details, and they drape nighttime sequences in a soft haze that suggests salty air drifting off the Bay. Every scene feels like it’s happening in a genuine place, and Rosenberg lets his actors perform in a loose style that feels improvisational; this method generates fantastic moments between motor-mouthed Dern and tight-lipped Matthau, like a vivid throwaway scene in which they rest after ascending an epic flight of stairs.
Matthau is memorably belligerent and terse, while Dern, seizing the opportunity of his first above-the-title role in a studio picture, loads every line with energy and meaning. In addition to the colorful actors playing the cops (Louis Gossett Jr. rounds out the principal cast with an intense performance as a hot-headed detective), The Laughing Policeman showcases a cavalcade of eclectic bit players, essaying the various gamblers and informants and pimps who permeate the underworld the cops must troll for leads.
The Laughing Policeman: GROOVY