Beck #4: Roll Call

The fourth book in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series, The Laughing Policeman, not only became the first non-American winner of the Edgar Award for crime fiction, it became the first modern Swedish novel to become a Hollywood movie. Since it was the seventies by the time that happened, Stuart Rosenberg’s film can leave out the double meaning of the book’s title, and just leave it as an ironic dangler. (See also STRAW DOGS and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, but note that Roman Polanski felt compelled to add a scene to CHINATOWN that made the title literal.)

Screenwriter Thomas Rickman (THE COAL-MINER’S DAUGHTER) has changed lots of other stuff too, and I would say that practically all his changes make things worse, though a good many of them probably couldn’t have been avoided. And, since the cast is great and enough of the intriguing story remains, what we have is actually a really pretty good policier. Watching the films around it that got everything wrong, I can appreciate this one much more in spite of the cliches and reactionary stuff.

Walter Matthau is Martin Beck — only here he’s a San Francisco detective called Jake Martin. Like Beck, though, he sleeps on the couch, though the movie has no convenient way to make it clear that this is his choice, part of the policeman’s long, slow, voluntary break-up with Mrs. Beck. As in the books, Martin is surrounded by a variety of other cops of varying degrees of competence, but none of them really resembles the characters in the novel. The always-welcome Anthony Zerbe is required to play a shouty boss character that surely felt somewhat tired even then, but the addition of Bruce Dern and Louis Gossett Jr adds welcome flavour.

Someone has massacred all the passengers on a bus, then gotten clean away. One of them turns out to be a young detective. Is it a random homicide (of the kind far more common in the US than Sweden) or is some more secret motivation at work. Dern uses an authentic cop word to describe mass shooters: “they’re kronky,” he says, meaning crazy. But I believe, from my reading of John D. MacDonald, that kronky really signifies someone who’s twitchy, suspicious, clearly hiding something. The word has now been superseded by the similar hinky.

Cinematographer David M. Walsh’s (MONTE WALSH, SLEEPER) visuals take advantage of fluorescent strip lighting’s tendency to turn green when photographed on film, giving the film a hazy, ghostly pallor that’s somehow very pleasing. Rosenberg, who made COOL HAND LUKE and THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, has a deft way with a long lens, so the film has both a slight documentary grit and a Hollywood sheen. The TransAm Building becomes a major supporting character of the Frisco scenes.

The most unfortunate and dated change from the book is Rickman’s rewrite of the villain character. In the book, he killed an ex-lover who was threatening to derail his upcoming prosperous marriage. Now, years later, he enacts a massacre to take care of a dangerous witness and the cop who, on his own time, has been investigating the cold case. Rickman makes it a sex killing, but also makes that nonsensical by typing the character as gay. “A fruiter,” insists Dern’s character, about nine times too often. Complete with Van Dyke beard, a tonsilar aberration which has haunted Beck films since ROSEANNA.

And here, at last, are Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and he’s GOT THAT BEARD.

Showing homophobia in the police force is just realistic, even commendable, but the film in no way distances itself from Dern’s attitude. Even about ten years earlier, in THE BOSTON STRANGLER, the filmmakers understood that gay men were unlikely to become sex-killers of women. If Dern’s character, a part-time asshole, fixated on this sex angle and were proved wrong, that would be one thing. But the nonsensical homophobic theory proves to be correct in the film. The bad guy killed a woman because he’s queer.

Martin/Beck is given a bit of an explosive temper, too, which is different from the novels but not really a bad thing per se. It’s just that Matthau’s rages seem triggered by sexual matters, strip shows and gay bars and prostitution. The audience is encouraged, I think, to see sexual liberation as part of a general moral slide that ends in murder. Even though there’s a suggestion that the murderer committed his first killing to cover up his homosexuality, since “things were different just a few years ago.” So sexual repression is, it would seem, more dangerous than even the sleaziest commercial exploitation.

The final big change is the most destructive — Rickman adds the inevitable car chase, with the killer ending up on a bus so that we’re back to square one. DIRTY HARRY was just two years previous, so Rosenberg has a hard time making this seem fresh or exciting. The dated cliches have a certain nostalgic value, it’s true, but they basically represent a failure of imagination. Returning to the opening crisis is technically sort of a good idea, in principle. But it plays out as boring. It’s to the credit of Rickman’s dialogue and what’s left of Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s plot and all the good acting and filmmaking choices elsewhere that this is only a moderate blemish.

Rewriting all the minor characters — removing incompetent kops Kristiansen and Kvant, for instance, tends to soften the novel’s criticism of the police. We do get Anthony Zerbe as one of those perpetually furious, exploding police chiefs, but the books’ exposure of the way the police force is politicised and the bosses are more concerned with covering their own asses is missing.

The “Swedish nympho” — actually just a highly-sexed and pragmatic young woman in the book — is absent, but we get Joanna Cassidy as a lesbian nurse. She’s kind of a positive portrayal — the movie wants her to be titillating, and Cassidy is suitably glamorous, but it’s a very rare example of a lesbian in a mainstream Hollywood film who isn’t either a murderer or a murder victim. Some kind of weird flirtation with Dern confuses the issue. What we see quite clearly in the movie is that Hollywood finds lesbians titillating and gay men disgusting and frightening. It’s not as bad as FREEBIE AND THE BEAN in this respect, but then, nothing is.

Lou Gossett Jr is on hand, too, looking very cool. I was impressed by him telling off Dern for provoking some Black guys — “You’re making it harder for the next cop.” Dern pays no heed. On this viewing, the line struck me a little differently. Faced with a clear example of a white cop being unprofessional and kind of racist, Gossett’s character’s first loyalty is to the force. This seems somewhat true to reality, even if it’s not specifically what the filmmakers intended: some African-American cops do see to see themselves as cops first, and can be as racist as many white cops. Sjöwall & Wahlöö repeatedly talk about the culture in the police force that insists on group unity and an us-against-them attitude, where the “them” is the whole of the rest of the population.

The book’s ending could have worked really well on screen, I think — relying on a character reaction, it could have played a little like the end of THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123, the other entry in Walter Matthau’s public transport duology, making excellent use of that amazing fizzog. In the book, Beck’s teenage daughter presents him with a record of the title song, by Charles Penrose. Beck’s family find it hilarious, but the constitutionally glum Beck doesn’t crack a smile. But at the end of the book, he gets a phone call that cracks the case — the murdered cop had come up with the right answer. Ironically, however, this piece of the puzzle shows up after the case has already been resolved, so it’s a black joke by fate of the kind the books are full of. And Beck, at last, gets the joke.

But, instead, we get an ironic pay-off as a forgotten plot point reemerges as a laughable dead end (it may have inspired the grim gag at the end of Mamet’s HOMICIDE), a reminder that even if you follow every clue in the most professional manner, the universe is likely to have the last laugh. In that sense, it feels absolutely in keeping with the original authors’ sardonic view of the world.

THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN stars Charley Varrick; Freeman Lowell; Sgt. Emil Foley; Zilkov; Prof. Nelson Schwartzkopf; Zelmo Swift; Wonder Woman; Dr. Ernie Lombardi; Zhora; and Sherrif J.W. Pepper.

12 Responses to “Beck #4: Roll Call”

  1. Zhora has a quick way with detectives, I’d have liked to see her apply it to Dern.

  2. I liked this film, haven’t seen it since 1974. Matthau, who’d done comedies for years, decided to take three serious roles in a row – CHARLEY VARRICK, this, and THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1-2-3 – and they all worked out pretty well.

  3. The three thrillers are indeed great. Pelham strikes me as the highest achievement, and a very Sjowall-Wahloo film, since it exposes the workings of an entire society (New York) from bottom to top.

    Don Siegel is obviously the most important of these three filmmakers and Charley Varrick one of his best films. I just happen to prefer Perham.

    Laughing Policeman is the least of the three but still very enjoyable and one of the best Beck adaptations (but definitely not THE best…) we’re coming to that…

  4. Let’s show Joseph Sargent some love!

  5. Intermittently — in The Forbin Project and Pelham and a few other projects (The UFO Incident_ — an American master and an heir to Fritz Lang!

  6. Also AMBER WAVES, and SUNSHINE, and the uncut version of GOLDENGIRL…

  7. Sargent’s “The Marcus-Nelson Murders” (the de facto pilot for “Kojak,” written by Abby Mann) is excellent and surprisingly graphic for a TV movie of its era.

  8. Sargent’s “The Marcus-Nelson Murders” (the de facto pilot for “Kojak,” written by Abby Mann) is excellent and surprisingly graphic for a TV movie of its era.

  9. Yes, it’s good, even if it gave us Kojak. I liked his later atom bomb TV thing, which reintroduced his Langian scene-linking device.

  10. There were so many good filmmakers working in U.S. network TV movies, and those films are now pretty much lost to film history – even if some ambitious programmer wanted to show them, rights issues would be a deterrent.

  11. A lot of stuff is available grey-market/dark web. But the same thing applies in Britain, where there are lots of important Mike Hodges, Stephen Frears, Ken Russell films that aren’t commercially available or ever likely to be.

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