For most of his later career, Walter Matthau played Neil Simon comedy grouches – whether written by Simon or not – but he had a remarkable early 1970s patch where he starred in three terrific, understated, modish crime movies in a row – Charley Varrick, The Laughing Policeman, The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three. It says something about the general level of film quality in those years that these seemed to be just pretty decent pictures – worth a night out, but not the Oscars heaped on, say, The French Connection – but would be on every critic’s top ten of the year list if they were new releases today.
Adapted by Thomas Rickman (Kansas City Bomber, Hooper) from a Stockholm-set novel by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (the founding authors of Scandi-noir) and directed by the undervalued Stuart Rosenberg (best remembered for Cool Hand Luke), it has a kicker of an opening sequence as a bunch of people – including an edgy undercover cop (Anthony Costello) and a middle-aged junkie (Louis Gass) – get on a San Francisco night bus and are gunned down by an apparent maniac. Jake Martin (Matthau), the Americanised form of S-W’s Martin Beck, is on the case because the dead cop – who was supposed to be on sick leave, but was actually working a cold case he had a kinky interest in – was his partner. Martin’s boss (Anthony Zerbe) assigns him a new partner, Larsen (Bruce Dern), who is casually racist, sexist and sadistic in a way the film subtly doesn’t endorse – a more straight-ahead heroic actor might play these aspects as jokily endearing, but casting Dern rather than Frank Sinatra or Michael Douglas makes his every misjudged comment sting … but he’s not an obvious bad cop either, and in a tiny, affecting moment admits to Martin that he doesn’t want to be thrown off the case because he likes working on a whodunit where he has to use his brains for a change.
Coming a few years into the rogue cop cycle of Dirty Harry and The French Connection, the film tries hard to depict police work in a more realistic manner – though there’s still room for a SWAT assault on a mad sniper who claims to be ‘the bus freak’ – as several teams of officers (Lou Gossett is spot on as a black cop cringing at his white partner hassling brothers) go at the case from several angles, following leads that don’t pan out and ranging through the city to bring in various locales and cameo players. Things narrow down, as it becomes plain to Martin that his unsolved hooker-slaying case is behind the killings – and the cops begin to tail (and harrass) a businessman (Albert Paulsen) who was the prime suspect then, and is acting erratically now. It shows shady practices without needing to draw attention to them – these cops habitually eat in restaurant kitchens, presumably for free – and is especially good in the seamier sequences, with visits to a bike gang ‘in a residential area’, a decaying old theatre that’s become a strip club, and a packed, unglamorous gay bar. In boiling down the novel, a few bits of deep motivation and explanation get skipped over, but the actual mystery eventually makes sense – though there’s an early instance of that weird middle-aged cop melancholy now familiar from every Scandinavian crime movie as Martin essentially takes on a fresh burden of guilt when he solves the crime.
With Cathy Lee Crosby, Joanna Cassidy (as a lesbian nurse), Paul Koslo (splendid as a spacey drug dealer/informant) and Matt Clark (coroner). It’s evenly-paced, and takes time to show the hard grind – the crashed bus being towed out of the way, an ER team working on the sole survivor while a cop clutters up the operating room hoping the guy will regain consciousness and speak, informers being hassled, cops arguing in a parking lot, Beck’s quietly awful home life (while trawling the sleaze area, he spots his teenage son in the strip club – he doesn’t haul the kid home for a talking-to, but does use the fact that he knows the boy is fifteen to threaten an uncooperative manager into talking to him), resentful civilians glowering as a ‘pig’ hoves in view. Most American reviewers were puzzled by the title – in the novel, the dour Beck is given the British novelty record as an ironic present but this opts not to pick up that plot and instead has the detective listen to 1940s music as he cruises through a very 1970s San Francisco until the home stretch when some jazzy-cool cues from Charles Fox up the tension. Like Pelham One-Two-Three, it has a freeze-frame punchline that pays off a running joke.