A Movie A Day #17: The Laughing Policeman (1973, directed by Stuart Rosenberg)


San Francisco in the 1970s.  Revolution is in the air.  Hippies are on every street corner.  A man named Gus Niles knows that he’s being tailed by an off-duty cop, Dave Evans.  Gus boards a city bus, knowing that Evans will follow him.  On the bus, an unseen gunman suddenly opens fire with an M3 submachine gun, not only killing both Evans and Gus but six other people as well.  After the bus crashes, the gunman calmly departs.  At first, it is assumed that the massacre was another random mass shooting, like Charles Whitman in Austin or Mark Essex in New Orleans.  But one San Francisco detective is convinced that it wasn’t random at all.

The Laughing Policeman was one of the many police procedurals to be released after the box office success of Dirty Harry and The French Connection and, despite the name, it’s also one of the grimmest.  While the complex mystery behind why Evans was following Gus and who killed everyone on the bus is intriguing, The Laughing Policeman‘s main focus is on the often frustrating nitty gritty of the investigation, complete with false leads, uncooperative witnesses, unanswerable questions, and detectives who frequently make stupid mistakes.  The movie’s first fifteen minutes are devoted to the police processing the bus, with Stuart Rosenberg (best known for directing Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke) using overlapping dialogue to give the entire scene a documentary feel.  As Detective Jake Martin, Walter Matthau is even more cynical and downbeat than usual while Bruce Dern provides good support as a younger, more volatile detective.  The supporting cast is full of 70s character actors, like Lou Gossett, Anthony Zerbe, Gregory Sierra,and playing perhaps the sleaziest drug dealer ever seen in an American movie, Paul Koslo.

The Laughing Policeman was based on a Swedish novel that took place in Stockholm but, for the movie, Swedish Detective Martin Beck became world-weary Sgt. Jake Martin and Stockholm became San Francisco.  Rosenberg directed the entire film on location, giving The Laughing Policeman the type of realistic feeling that would later be duplicated by TV shows like Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and Law & Order.  Though it may not be as well-known as either Dirty Harry or The French Connection, The Laughing Policeman is a dark and tough police procedural, an underrated classic of the genre.

Incidentally, The Laughing Policeman was one of the first films for which character actor Bruce Dern shared top billing.  According to Dern’s autobiography, Matthau generously insisted that Dern be credited, with him, above the title.


Star Vehicle: Burt Reynolds in WHITE LIGHTNING (United Artists 1973)

cracked rear viewer


Burt Reynolds labored for years in the Hollywood mines, starring in some ill-fated TV series (his biggest success on the small screen was a three-year run in a supporting role on GUNSMOKE) and movies (nonsense like SHARK! and SKULLDUGGERY) before hitting it big in John Boorman’s DELIVERANCE. Suddenly, the journeyman actor was a hot property (posing butt-naked as a centerfold for COSMOPOLITAN didn’t hurt, either!), and studios were scurrying to sign him on to their projects. WHITE LIGHTNING was geared to the Southern drive-in crowd, but Reynolds’ new-found popularity, along with the film’s anti-authority stance, made it a success across the nation.


WHITE LIGHTNING takes place in rural Arkansas, and Gator McKluskey (Burt) is doing a stretch in Federal prison for running moonshine. His cousin visits and tells Gator his younger brother Donnie was murdered by Sheriff J.C. Connors, the crooked boss of Bogan County. A raging Gator tries to escape, but is immediately caught, so he…

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Music Video of the Day: Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush (1985, dir. David Garfath)

Diane Grey choreographed the video and Michael Hervieu is the other dancer. It’s pretty self-explanatory. It has do with relationships, exchanging places with your lover, etc. There are other blog entries out there that do good jobs talking about it–even in Kate’s own words. I will make special mention that it is not about exchanging places with God regardless of the crucifixion bit. Hopefully this blog entry is still up because it does a good job summarizing it.

I love it because it is simple, beautiful, and does a nice Twilight Zone type thing to have the lovers pulled apart near the end. Also, it stands out among other videos of the time. I’m not saying that it makes it any better, but sometimes it is nice to do something different, and I think that fits very well with Kate Bush.

The blog I linked to above says that MTV didn’t want to air this back then. That kind of surprises me. I get that it’s no Babooshka or Army Dreamers. However, Kate Bush is the first artist I’ve come across where when I recently bought two of her albums, I felt like I was only getting half the picture. The song Cloudbusting isn’t the same on its own. I would think that from MTV’s perspective, they would want something that people would come back to see rather than simply watch, buy the record, and move on. I know there are other circumstances, but I find it a little difficult to wrap my head around the idea that a lack of lip-syncing would be so much of an issue that they preferred to air a live performance of this song.

Director David Garfath has done camerawork on some notable films such as The Empire Strikes Back (1980), An American Werewolf In London (1981), and Brazil (1985).