Eight people know who the killer is... and they re all dead! It's tough beat for San Francisco police lieutenant Jake Martin (Walter Matthau, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) when he has to investigate a city bus massacre in which a madman opened machine gunfire on eight people. It's even worse when Martin discovers his former partner is one of the victims. But as he investigates the grisly murders, Martin not only discovers unsavory things about his partner, but he finds that many of the victims had shady lives, which shrouds the killer's identity even more. Veteran Hollywood filmmaker Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke) directed this action-packed thriller with an amazing cast that includes Bruce Dern (Coming Home), Louis Gossett Jr. (Finders Keepers), Cathy Lee Crosby (Wonder Woman), Anthony Zerbe (They Call Me Mister Tibbs!), Joanna Cassidy (The Package) Val Avery (The Wanderers), Mario Gallo (Revenge of the Ninja) and Paul Koslo (Mr. Majestyk).
The Police Procedural is a genre favorite for thrillers. Not only are they an interesting look at how the wheels of justice turn, they often provide a societal outlet for their dissatisfaction for current conditions. You root for the hero cop and the tough job they have ahead of them to capture a crime boss or a killer and hope they make it to the end. While the Police Procedural is a reliable genre, sometimes it's not handled well and gets bogged down by procedure. 1973's 'The Laughing Policeman' directed Stuart Rosenberg and starring Walter Matthau and Bruce Dern takes an incredible plot setup and lets it slip into boredom.
Eight people get on a bus. A little further down the line, another passenger gets on the bus. This person boarded the bus with a grease gun and took it upon themselves to open fire and murder everyone on the bus. One of the men on the bus was a San Francisco police detective - Detective Jake Martin's (Walter Matthau) partner. What was a man who was supposed to be on vacation doing on a public bus? How did he get caught in the middle of a mass shooting? Martin's captain Steiner (Anthony Zerbe) wants swift movement on this case. It's in the spotlight and the killer needs to be brought to justice ASAP. With his new cocky partner Larsen (Bruce Dern) assigned to work with him, Martin will have to delve the depths of San Francisco's underbelly to solve the case.
By my natural disposition and patience, I appreciate it when a movie takes its time. I hate it when characters feel rushed or hurried along. I hate it when in a police procedural where that magic bullet piece of evidence is uncovered without any genuine police work. I grew up knowing cops my whole life. I heard some of their frustrations but I also heard their jubilation when they catch a break and a witness is found or a piece of evidence leads to the culprit. I know the wheels of justice can turn excruciatingly slowly. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they have to turn that slowly in a movie.
'The Laughing Policeman' opens brilliantly. It features various characters, seemingly unrelated with to another going to a bus depot. One man apparently is following the other, but we don't know why or what for. When a mystery individual boards the bus with a brown satchel bag, these two apparently know who he is - but when the bullets fly, we don't know how anyone is connected or why they were killed. It's an amazing opening sequence and one would hope that it would set the tone for the rest of the film. Unfortunately, everything after that screeches to a dead halt. We have to watch as evidence is meticulously collected and the slimmest of leads is followed to a bitter, unsatisfactory end. it's not a process that keeps an audience interested.
While I appreciate that we're supposed to empathize with Walter Matthau's Detective Martin and his frustration over the pace of this case and the nagging feeling that it's related to one of his unsolved cases, but there needed to be more here. Most of the time Matthau stands off to the side, furiously chews gum like he's trying to work out a clue in his head, and occasionally grunts a response to Bruce Dern's slimy Larsen. Only, once Matthau does really get to go all out and state his frustrations with the case and the state of police work. By the time that comes, it's too little too late as the case hasn't progressed during that entire time. Once a genuine clue does fall into their laps and Martin and Larsen finally have a suspect with a name, it feels like an afterthought.
I was really looking forward to this one. Matthau was in incredible form during the 1970s, deftly bouncing from dramas to comedies to thrillers. I was hoping that 'The Laughing Policeman' was going to be another notch on that belt of great performances and good flicks. Sadly, it just doesn't engage the audience. It may do a great job of showcasing how slow and boring police work can be, but that doesn't necessarily make for great entertainment.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Laughing Policeman' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber and their Studio Classic's label. Pressed onto a Region A BD25 disc, the disc is housed in a standard Blu-ray case with reversible cover artwork. The disc loads directly to a static image main men
'The Laughing Policeman' arrives with a middling 1.85:1 1080p transfer. There really isn't much to say about this other than that if you've seen enough 70s era thrillers with the soft focus and grimy locations, then you know what to expect more or less. That isn't to completely excuse the look of this transfer entirely. Fine details never really come to life as one would expect. Things look fine in closeups and some middle shots, but especially during daylight scenes, the image appears too soft with blown contrast levels that keep the image looking hazy and without any depth to it. There are a number of night scenes that look genuinely great, full details, discernible film grain but not too noisy with natural color saturation and presence. If I had to peg this transfer, it was mastered some time ago. Not altogether terrible, but not amazing either.
'The Laughing Policeman' arrives with a decent English DTS-HD MA 2.0 audio track. The film itself isn't much to hear in all honesty. Aside from a few flourishes during the opening shooting, a visit to a strip club or two and the big final chase, this is a largely conversational affair. Sound effects have a natural quality to them, but they never really come to life as we're meant to focus on what's being said in the moment - or considering the slow nature of the film what's not being said. The track is free of any age-related issues like hiss or pops. It gets the job done.
Audio Commentary: Film Historians Lou Pfeiffer, Eddy, Friedfeld, and Paul Scrabo provide an interesting anecdotal look at the film. They've got some solid information about the production and other things. Worth a listen.
Paul Koslo Interview (HD 8:28) This is a solid interview as the actor talks about working on the film and what it was like shooting across San Francisco.
Animated Image Montage: (HD 2:00) This is a collection of publicity stills and press materials for the film.
Theatrical Trailer: (HD 3:35)
'Report to the Commissioner' Trailer: (HD 2:21)
'Fuzz' Trailer: (HD 2:58)
'Busting' Trailer: (HD 2:45)
'The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three' Trailer: (HD 2:32)
'The Laughing Policeman' could have been a great and gritty 70s thriller, unfortunately, it's primary story doesn't live up to the potential of the opening scene. While it's always great to see Walther Matthau and Bruce Dern, and they're great in this one, the film itself is a bit of a missed opportunity. Kino Lorber brings the film to Blur-ay with a workable transfer, a decent audio mix, and a nice assortment of bonus features. Fans will appreciate the effort and owning this on Blu-ray, but newcomers should consider making it a rental.