Sandwiched between Don Siegel’s CHARLEY VARRICK (1973) and Joseph Sargent’s THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE, TWO, THREE (1974), THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN is yet another Walter Matthau gem. Adapted by Thomas Rickman (HOOPER), the film is based on the book Den Skrattande Polisen by prolific Swedish husband and wife authors Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall. Their recurring character, Martin Beck, has been brought to the screen a dozen times. Additionally, he was the main character of a television series in Sweden. Despite his native popularity, Beck hasn’t made much of an impact on the United States. Apart from THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN, only one other Beck film was readily available in the U.S. on VHS—Bo Widerberg’s THE MAN ON THE ROOF (1976).
Inexplicably, in THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN Martin Beck’s name is “Jake Martin.” Apart from the name change, however, Martin is the same hang-dog cop of the Wahlöö and Sjöwall books. Martin’s kids don’t appreciate him. His wife (Shirley Ballard) doesn’t even notice when he’s out all night on a case (could be because he’s sleeping on the couch). His kind of burned-out detective was making a comeback in the ‘70s in films such as Arthur Penn’s NIGHT MOVES (1975), Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE (1973), and Jeremy Kagan’s THE BIG FIX (1978).
The film begins with a massacre on a city bus in San Francisco. An unseen assailant boards and mows down the passengers with a machine gun. Among the victims is Dave Evans (Anthony Costello), Martin’s partner. Along with Martin, the other detectives on the case are a veritable who’s who of ‘70s stars such as Bruce Dern, Lou Gossett Jr., Val Avery, and Anthony Zerbe. As Martin’s new partner, Leo Larsen, Dern is particularly memorable. He’s a boorish cop who finishes his more offensive sentences with, “Know what I mean?”
Far removed from anything resembling a slick action film, THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN chronicles the nitty gritty of police work. We follow the investigation as Martin and his fellow detectives interview countless dead end leads, trying to connect anyone to the crime. Their journey takes them through the San Francisco underworld of pimps, hookers, strip clubs, Hell’s Angels, dopers, mad gunmen, hare krishnas, and other unsavory characters. Martin slowly unravels the mystery, tying it in to an old cold case—the murder of Teresa Camerero—that might also involve his partner’s girlfriend, Kay Butler (Cathy Lee Crosby in her feature film debut).
THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN over-flows with great character actors like Paul Koslo, Clifton James, and Gregory Sierra. This undervalued policier should have been the start of a long string of Matthau as Martin movies. Unfortunately, audiences would only have a few more chances to see Matthau in action before he was sucked back into the quagmire of Jack Lemon and/or Neil Simon films.