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.