The Laughing Policeman – 1973

Director Stuart Rosenberg
Screenplay Thomas Rickman based on the book by Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö 
Starring Walter Matthau, Bruce Dern, Louis Gossett Jr., Anthony Zerbe, Cathy Lee Crosby, Joanna Cassidy, Albert Paulsen

The Laughing Policeman begins with a police investigator being gunned down in the process of following someone else. The shooter also happens to shoot up a whole busload of people, including the driver, resulting in a crash. The scene is investigated by other police officers in the aftermath. The methods used to investigate are shockingly open to the prospect of tampering, even by standards of the day. Investigators smoke at the scene, fail to use gloves while poking at wounds, and even walk casually through blood splattered floors. The film spends much of the agonizing first act just meanering through the carnage.

Look ma, no gloves.

Even more shocking, the film gives credit to a couple of sources in regards the veracity of what we are seeing. It is to give the impression everything we see has been checked for accuracy by professional “Technical Advisors.” While this is a common practice today as it was in 1973, one finds hard to believe the givers of such assurance of authenticity would have viewed that first act and given any sort of free pass. In the era of the Zodiac, several films, including the original Dirty Harry, take the habit of resting their laurels on these experts (especially in the San Francisco area) to give a stamp of approval.

Credit to the Technical Advisors?

Just as one might do with Blue Ribbon Committees and Special Prosecutors, we have learned to take these swings at authenticity with a grain of salt. Ultimately the first act of this film, like many others, is about establishing the character of those who would pursue the mass killer. We know he must ultimately be caught, because it is better than the reality of the early seventies, when killers, especially the Zodiac, were still roaming free.

That The Laughing Policeman takes until the start of act three to give viewers any real insight into Sgt. Jake Martin (Mathau) and Insp. Leo Larsen (Dern) is to the detriment of the story. Until this point we get a litany of shouting matches and solitary sojurns without explanation. This makes moments like Martin’s inexplicably harsh slapping (four times) of his deceased former partner’s girlfriend Kay (Crosby) just a painful reminder a time where a man frustrated for a lack of answers could take it out on a person less powerful.

What we understand from the first two acts is there is an astounding lack of communication between partners Martin, Larsen nd their boss, Lt. Steiner (Zerbe). Zerbe, yells at Martin, telling him to use his partner. Martin then puts his partner to the side until the story demands that they work together to stake out the prime suspect. The process is intended to give us more a feel of Martin’s drive to solve this mystery “his way,” without making him so incredibly confrontational as Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan. Matthau in the early 70’s is still a major headliner, so producers needed to get him out there, looking driven. It’s just the same celebrated Type A American today as then.

Another weird aspect of The Laughing Policeman is the irony intended by the name is not explored. The book gives us background by explaining Martin, ill and in a strained marriage, is given a record of the 1922 British song of the same name by his daughter for Christmas. Martin fails to find it funny until his prospects have changed by the end of the story. That only the elements of his difficult marriage (he sleeps on the couch and keeps horrible hours) come through in the film does not help the viewer. One might go into the film knowing Matthau’s earlier work and the title might derive a few laughs. They will get none. Implied irony in this case is more of a guess by ducated viewers than anything else.

The last act goes some way to redeeming the film. We get the requisite car chase (nod to The French Connection) and another awkward shootout. This takes place in a time of renewal of the working relationship of Martin and Larsen. And we’ve seen some pretty sick things (for the time), it goes farther than most to show the seedy side of San Francisco. Most of what we see is pretty tame compared to today, one can be assured.

As for Matthau, this is one of his more limited performances. Any amount of dimension for his Jake Martin must have been left on the cutting room floor. He is sullen and angry much of the time. Bruce Dern is similarly wasted until late in the film when the partners finally open up to one another and move the plot forward. If they would have done this in the first act and eschewed the meandering around the evidence, the film might have approached greatness instead of passable.

There are attempts at humor to show the incompetence of other investigators in the department. It’s a common tactic, of course, which makes movies like Fincher’s classic Zodiac decades later feel like mannah from heaven. Most people in law enforcement come together while doing great and very precise work. And even then, sometimes they don’t get the bad guy. In movies of the 70’s and even now, that fact is rarely a selling point. Police “procedurals” then and now spend much of their time ignoring rules, then thanking those who advised them on police work. The need to shoehorn mavericks that fight the system while searching for the bad guy is for a lazy form of brevity. As long as we can accept it’s a trope and largely bullshit, I suppose that’s fine. If the film makers did not waste the first half of your film walking blindly through evidence and disrepecting those weaker than them, it’s something that might even pass as entertainment.

(*** out of *****)

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