The Laughing Policeman (1973)

Likely a film you have never heard of; but should. After Bullitt (1968), police films became grittier and more stylish. Dirty Harry followed Bullitt and The Laughing Policeman followed Dirty Harry. Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood and Walter Matthau. Walter Matthau? Yep. In the early 1970s, Matthau was hot, and he starred in a group of hip, top list crime films (Charley Varrick, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three).

The early-mid 1970s was a treasure-trove of gutsy and gritty crime films.  Here are some other memorable crime films: The Mechanic, Mr. Majestyk, The Stone Killer, Death Wish, the Dirty Harry sequels, The Anderson Tapes, The French Connection, Get Carter, Klute, Play Misty For Me, Across 110th Street, Shaft, The Getaway, The Godfather, Superfly, The Hot Rock, Badlands, Mean Streets, Coffy, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, McQ, Serpico, Foxy Brown, The Sugarland Express, Thieves Like Us, Dog Day Afternoon, The Yazuka, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Fun With Dick and Jane, A Piece of the Action, The Sting, The Driver, The Silent Partner, Busting, Blue Collar, Vanishing Point, The Valachi Papers, The Day of the Jackal, The Seven-Ups, Chinatown, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, Murder on the Orient Express, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Brannigan, Farewell, My Lovely, The Long Goodbye, The Late Show, Hustle, Night Moves, The Conversation, Rolling Thunder.

The Laughing Policeman is an old school film. The premise is a massacre on a San Francisco bus, with one of the victims an undercover police detective. In 1973, mass shootings were a big deal and the weapon being a machine gun; who the hell possessed a machine gun back then. The crime was a sensational one, assigned to a team of detectives headed by Sgt. Jake Martin (Matthau), the typical burnt-out cop. This was before every cop was burnt-out.

The killer is waiting for the bus, drives ahead and parks, then boards the bus. You don’t see the killers face, just she him put on his gloves and zip them, push the magazine into the gun, cock it, drawing the attention of bus passengers with the metallic sounds, and then firing, killing everyone including the driver. The bus runs off the road into a tree, stopping. The killer puts away his gun and Cooley exits the bus before anyone arrives. That’s the opening of the film.

The film tries to be so realistic, it is almost a documentary. It has bullet hits, nudity, transvestites, strip clubs and various other visuals to get an R rating. San Francisco was a hip locale for filmmaking, it showed you what you couldn’t see in Dayton or Wichita.

It’s interesting to see how primitive the forensic and medical examiner procedures were 50 years ago. As the victims and evidence is examined in the bus, you saw a fairly detailed investigation. There is a very realistic scene in the hospital emergency room with a survivor from the bus, and the autopsy scene is very detailed.

As an old school film, the music is minimal and adds an eerie, atmospheric quality, the camera does not move much, but the camera position is carefully chosen, and the editing allows the action in the scenes to develop.  The city is a character in the film, much like it was in Dirty Harry.  From the strip clubs and gay bars of the Tenderloin District to the swinging, mod gathering points to the grimy inner city locations to the swank professional offices.  The film locations show the grit and gloss.

Stuart Rosenberg directed, based on a screenplay adapted from a Swedish novel.  The mood of the film is very somber, including Matthau’s character who is unhappy at home and is fixated on solving an other case that now seems somehow tied into the bus murders.  The only upbeat character is Matthau’s new partner, played by Inspector Leo Larson (Bruce Dern), who is constantly irritating Matthau’s character.

As in police work the film travels several dead ends in search of leads. The film does not give up clues easily. It almost feels episodic because you aren’t sure how the pieces fit together.

Top: Anthony Zerbe; middle: Cathy Lee Crosby; above: Joanna Cassidy

The supporting cast is impressive: Anthony Zerbe, Joanna Cassidy, Louis Gossett, Jr., Cathy Lee Crosby, Val Avery, Matt Clark, Gregory Sierra, Clifton James, Paul Koslo and Albert Paulsen.

One of the strengths of the film are the quirky supporting characters. They are not written to be likable or pure, they reflect what you find in the human gene pool. What they lack in likability, they make up for in interest. Dern’s character seems more interested in scoring with the ladies than doing police work. He’s a homophobe and racist on top of that, and a bit badge-heavy.

Lou Gossett, Jr. plays the most normal character, free from obvious character flaws; he functions as the moral compass of the detectives.  Cathy Lee Crosby and Joanna Cassidy are very good in small roles.

Late in the film, the killer is revealed and the tie to dormant murder case that haunted Martin and his dead partner. The revelation results in a cat and mouse pursuit and then a chase, with the killer stocking Martin.

The Laughing Policeman is a strange title and is never revealed in the film.  The Swedish novel provides an explanation, it is linked to the old song, “The Laughing Song” which later was adapted to “The Laughing Policeman” about a jolly policeman who cannot stop laughing.  In the novel, the Swedish detective is given a recording with that name as a Christmas present, but fails to see the correlation between the song and himself.  Supposedly, at the end of the book when he has solved the crime, he laughs.  In the film, Martin never laughs, he is dour and edgy the entire film.

It failed to succeed at the box office, my guess is that potential moviegoers had no idea what it was about.  It is a good thriller with a lot of entertaining elements.  It is a creation of the time period.


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