Monday, May 5, 2008

Truth in advertising

Many years ago, when we were doing a lesson in elementary school on advertising, and the misleading claims advertisers make. One of my friends complained about the movie his parents had taken him to see, Chariots of Fire, on the grounds that there was almost no fire (the Olympic flame notwithstanding), and certainly no chariots! Back then, we certainly needed a lesson in metaphor. Today, however, there's a movie coming up that might even fall short in the metaphor category: The Laughing Policeman, airing at 4:00 AM ET on May 6 (that's overnight tonight).

Walter Matthau stars as San Francisco police detective Jake Martin, who's faced with the task of solving the baffling murder of a busful of passengers. Worse, it turns out that one of the passengers is his police partner, who also seems to have a bit of a shady background.

The rest of the movie turns out to fall in the police procedural category, looking more at the meticulousness of the police and less at the people who did the crime, much in the vein of The Naked City, although updated for 1970s sensibilities and a straight-up drama, as opposed to Naked City's docudrama look at police work. And that's where the misleading title comes in. The Laughing Policeman is not only in no way a comedy, Walter Matthau is exceptionally grim as the jaded police detective who not only has lost his partner, but has a seemingly unsatisfying life at home.

The rest of the movie takes its lead from Matthau. Whereas in The Naked City, we get jewel thieves and a doctor who arranges for people to be robbed while they're out at society parties, in The Laughing Policeman we get the seedy side of San Francisco; the pimps, whores, drugs culture, and peep shows, as well as exceptionally crude language, show up in abundance. In fact, that "crude language" mention should also serve as a warning to readers. Not only is this a movie unsuitable for the family; it may be offensive to some as well. One of the two detectives Matthau works most closely with is played by Bruce Dern, and is a casual bigot (so naturally, the other is black, played by a young Louis Gossett Jr.). Not only does Dern nearly get himself and Gossett set upon by an angry black mob; he's deeply derisive of San Francisco's burgeoning gay culture, refering to the man they're stalking as a "closet fruiter".

The Laughing Policeman isn't a bad movie, although its rampant use of bad language, in an era what that was just beginning to become commonplace on the silver screen thanks to the demise of the Production Code, makes it feel like it's dated itself more rapidly than The Naked City. On the other hand, it's more realistic, and, having been filmed on location, has lovely cinematography. If you're interested in any of three things: Walter Matthau, police work, or San Francisco on film, I can favorably recommend The Laughing Policeman -- but only with the caveat that you'd have to be comfortable with the strong adult themes.

IMDb lists The Laughing Policeman as being available on DVD, too.

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