Kirk Douglas in Detective Story is all agonized twists and cramps--mixed with slanting satires of ease, his legs stretched like his grin, almost lanky and lithe--if he weren't so tightly wound. At times he even wears reading glasses, encasing his face in a weird grimace--or something like that; I’m not sure: he is mesmerizing and bizarre, confounding my best efforts to hold him still. His performance veers from coherence to incoherence to give his cop humor and fearful resolve, strength and little-boy-lost panic--and above all bitter madness as he makes his way through a dark day at his precinct house--alarming us with the spectacle of his fury, guilt, and disintegration, his iron-fast moral code swallowing whole his job, his marriage--and his life.
It is terrifying, but I have a rueful affection for this movie, for Douglas’ detective as its tight-fisted heart, and for its supporting cast--especially William Bendix as Douglas' counterpoint and conscience (a million years away from his brutal henchman in The Glass Key, in love with Alan Ladd but devoted to the rough stuff, sweetheart), and Joseph Wiseman in a surreal, unhinged performance--almost in a matchup duel with Douglas--and most of all for its finale: The fatally wounded Douglas, who has walked into Wiseman's four-time-loser hail of gunfire, grinds out half of an Act of Contrition before dying--so that Bendix can finish it for him.
That last scene stands for every lasting virtue of Douglas’ career so far: suave in Out of the Past and tightly clenched in Champion, and bound and determined in Young Man with a Horn and flaying at greed just a few months ago in Ace in the Hole--but I think Detective Story is the moment when he does not blink, and hits dead center.