Sidney Kingsley's Broadway play Detective Story was praised for its realistic view of an event-filled day in a single police precinct station. The film, directed by meticulous taskmaster William Wyler, manages to retain this realism, even allowing for the star-turn performance of Kirk Douglas. A stickler for the letter of the law, Detective James McLeod (Douglas) is not averse to using strong-arm methods on criminals and witnesses alike in bringing lawbreakers to justice. He is particularly rough on a first-time offender (Craig Hill), on whom the rest of the force is willing to go easy because of the anguish of his girlfriend (Cathy O'Donnell). But McLeod's strongest invective is reserved for shady abortion doctor Karl Schneider (George MacReady); McLeod all but ruins the case against Schneider by beating him up in the patrol wagon. When McLeod discovers that his own wife (Eleanor Parker) had many years earlier lost a baby in one of Schneider's operations, and that the baby's father was gangster Tami Giacoppetti (Gerald Mohr), it is too much for the detective to bear. Punctuating the grim proceedings with brief moments of humor is future Oscar winner Lee Grant, reprising her stage role as a timorous shoplifter; it would be her last Hollywood assignment until the early 1960s, thanks to the iniquities of the blacklist. Despite small concessions to Hollywood censorship, Detective Story largely upheld the power of its theatrical original, and it forms a clear precursor to such latter-day urban police dramas as NYPD Blue.
by Hal Erickson synopsis