Judge George Hatch won't tell you to make his day or ask if you picked your toes in Poughkeepsie. But he does want to know what a certain cop found so funny.
"The closer they got to the truth, the less they wanted to
When a busload of passengers on a local San Francisco route are inexplicably machine-gunned to death, Lt. Jake Martin (Walter Matthau, Charley Varrick) is called in to investigate. Among the deceased is his partner, Dave Evans (Anthony Costello, Night Moves). Jake knew Evans had put in for vacation time, but Evans told his girlfriend he was going to work every day. So what was Evans really doing, and why was he on this particular bus? The autopsies and perp files of a few other victims imply a connection to a two-year-old case that Jake had failed to close.
Leo Larsen (Bruce Dern, The King of Marvin Gardens) is assigned as Jake's new partner, and this oil-and-water clash of personalities makes for a resentful and depersonalized relationship that may hinder the investigation. They're forced to prove their competence as detectives and their reliability and dedication to each other. Together, they probe San Francisco's underbelly of street-gang alliances, porno entrepreneurs, drug cartels, pushers and addicts, and illegal gun trading as they look for answers.
Based on the novel by Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall, the locales of The Laughing Policeman have been transported from the fringes of Stockholm to the back streets of San Francisco, with only minor damage to its convoluted plotline. Dirty Harry and The French Connection (both released in 1971) had already set a new precedent for aggressively violent cop-and-crime action flicks, but The Laughing Policeman takes a more somber and deliberate look at the downside of a police investigation. And it's probably one of the first films to introduce the "mismatched buddy-buddy" trope that would spawn dozens of imitations, such as 48 Hours and the Lethal Weapon franchise.
With a running time of close to two hours, The Laughing Policeman plays out like an overlong episode of any one of the three Law & Order TV shows. False leads, unreliable information, and a lot of legwork fall into the category of the original L&O. Deciphering and interpreting the MO of the killer is worthy of L&O: Criminal Intent. And Detectives Stabler and Benson from L&O: Special Victims Unit would feel right at home investigating the links to sordid and sleazy pimps, junkies, and other social outcasts.
What firmly plants The Laughing Policeman in the '70s is the un-PC script rife with ethnic slurs and derogatory references to the gay subculture. Leo refers to gays as "fruiters." "It used to be we could arrest him just for being one." Jake reminds him, "Homosexuals don't hide nowadays. They demonstrate." As a tough, streetwise, suspect-battering cop, Leo laments the institution of the Miranda Act, "Things have changed too much. Everything's too loose now, and it's not in our favor."
The screenplay by Thomas Rickman (Coal Miner's Daughter) has some sharp and precise police dialogue worthy of Ed McBain. "Teresa was raised in a convent, married into money twice her age. He turned her on to a lot of sick action. She liked it so much, she left him and invented some of her own tricks. But her husband was not a man you walk away from." There's also a lot of sarcastic humor. When Jake's one-word answers eventually frustrate Leo, he asks, "Have you ever thought of having your own radio talk show, Jake?" The black characters, however, sound clichéd with too much dated "jive talk." Even a film veteran like Lou Gossett (An Officer and a Gentleman) fails to make it sound believable.
The Laughing Policeman has several dynamic set pieces: the opening attack on the bus, a panicked emergency-room operation with a near-documentary edge, and the requisite car chase at the end. This chase, however, is nowhere near as exciting or nerve-wracking as those in Bullitt and The French Connection. There's also a violent shootout midway, but it is one of several scenes that leave the viewer with more questions than answers. When the police discover that the man just gunned down by the SWAT team is not their suspect, the Chief Detective says, "He'll do for now."
So who was this man, and what were the confrontation and gunfire about? Is this going to be a police cover-up for the press? With such a steadily paced scenario, detailing the sometimes tedious, unrelenting, and often unrewarding aspects of a true-to-life investigation, one suspects that this gruesome action scene (including an old woman jumping out of a five-story window) was employed simply to keep the audience awake.
Leo does laugh a hell of a lot, but I think the titular character of The Laughing Policeman ironically refers to Jake, who never even cracks a smile. A melancholy, bordering on depression, overwhelms him because he suspects he may have lost his partner as the result of the two-year-old case he failed to resolve. In retrospect, The Laughing Policeman plays out as a eulogy to San Francisco in the early '70s from a cop's point of view. "Too many things ain't the way they used to be, and we can't do our job anymore."
Former television director Stuart Rosenberg handles the material well, but The Laughing Policeman doesn't come close to his solo film debut, the visually stylish and politically trendy Cool Hand Luke (1967). He later tackled other genres as well, from comedy to horror, trying to find his niche. But even with recognized and talented actors, the films received mixed-to-negative reviews. The Laughing Policeman falls somewhere the Luke "fluke" and disasters such as The April Fools (1969) and The Amityville Horror (1979).
All around, the cast delivers fine performances, and the cinematography by David M. Walsh (Johnny Dangerously) is a major asset, capturing the look, feel, and near-insignificant details of San Francisco in the '70s. Fox's anamorphic transfer is sharp and color-saturated while maintaining the gritty look of the film so that it's almost an old postcard of a time gone by. Although Fox's keepcase claims the sound is "4.0 Dolby Surround" (a format not listed on Dolby's website), the film is presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, both of which sound excellent. The only extra is the original theatrical trailer.
The Laughing Policeman may test the patience of even the most ardent fans of police procedurals. And anyone expecting an action film—by today's standards—will, no doubt, be sorely disappointed. Other than viewing it as cinematic time capsule, and an interesting vehicle for both Walter Matthau and Bruce Dern, I found The Laughing Policeman worthy of a rental, but hardly worth a second viewing.
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• Original Theatrical Trailer
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