Sep. 25, 2008
The Laughing Policeman (1973)
Grade: 55/100

Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Stars: Walter Matthau, Bruce Dern, Louis Gossett Jr.

What it's about. A gritty police drama based on a German novel but set in San Francisco. The passengers on a city bus are massacred with a machine gun. One of the victims, Anthony Costello, is a cop. The case is assigned to surly Walter Matthau and 'bad cop' Bruce Dern, with an assist from Louis Gossett Jr. The trail leads to Albert Paulsen, a nappy homosexual who Matthau suspects is responsible for the unsolved murder of Paulsen's ex-wife.

How others will see it. This is a competent but undistinguished entry in the long tradition of buddy cop films. Although in this case, the genre is misnamed, since Matthau and Dern generally dislike each other.

Also misnamed is the title. The Hostile Policeman would be more accurate. The ever-grumpy Matthau even slaps (four times) Costello's widow, Cathy Lee Crosby, apparently for allowing her own husband to snap a risque Polaroid to keep hidden in his own desk. Dern antagonizes every witness he meets, but he's tame compared to his boss, Anthony Zerbe, who bellows with impotent rage about Matthau's slow progress and his obsession with Paulsen.

The 'R' rating is fully merited. Besides the machine gun massacre, there is a hostage crisis where several men are shot and a woman jumps to her death from an office building. A strip dancer with enormous breasts has a cameo, a prostitute is assaulted by a pimp, and adult themes include a sodomy joke, female impersonators, and nearly naked gay dancers. The cops' language is laced with unconvincing street slang, epitomized by the dialogue between Gossett Jr. and two black criminals, David Moody and Ivan Bookman.

But those who like action and tough guy movies (which includes many if not most of us) will find this film entertaining instead of offensive. Matthau is of course miscast, fifteen years too old and far from intimidating, but Clint Eastwood can't be in every movie. Meanwhile, Bruce Dern confuses arguing and badgering with conversation, but this is the fault of director Rosenberg and writer Rickman. Dern has always projected psycho vibes, suitable for his role as the cop most likely to threaten a suspect or date avowed lesbians.

How I felt about it. The Laughing Policeman is undeniably watchable, but it tries too hard to be tough. Its condescending attitude toward gays (in San Francisco, of all places) has not dated well. It doesn't help that the mass murderer turns out to be a homosexual, and it is unclear why Paulsen killed his ex-wife, or felt the need to take out Costello, an act certain to provoke a large-scale police investigation. Perhaps Paulsen should have been given speaking lines, to help explain his character.