An embittered cop, Det. Jim McLeod (Douglas), leads a precinct of characters in their grim daily battle with the city's lowlife. Little does he realize that his obsessive pursuit of an abortionist (Macready) is leading him to discover his wife had an abortion. The characters who pass through the precinct over the course of the day include a young petty embezzler, a pair of burglars, and a naive shoplifter.
McLeod then encounters Endicott Sims (Warner Anderson), a lawyer representing Karl Schneider (George Macready), who's a New Jersey doctor with a revoked license and now wanted on murder charges. Sims informs the precinct's lieutenant, Monahan (Horace McMahon), that Schneider wants to turn himself in without being beaten by McLeod. McLeod expresses his hatred of Schneider and other criminals saying the law "coddles them."
When Schneider arrives with Sims, McLeod informs him that his partner, Miss Hatch (Gladys George), has implicated him and will pick him out of a line-up. To McLeod's disgust, Schneider has bribed Hatch with a fur coat, and she fails to identify him in the line-up. Jim explodes and calls Hatch a liar. He admits to reporter Joe Feinson (Luis Van Rooten) that his hatred for his father and "his criminal mind" (who drove his wife to a lunatic asylum) made him crusade against evil-doers.
McLeod then takes Schneider to Bellevue Hospital where a young victim of Schneider's work is being treated. However, McLeod learns that the woman has died, and without her identification, there is no case against Schneider. As they head back to the precinct, he slaps Schneider until he collapses.
Meanwhile, Arthur's boss, Albert R. Pritchett (James Maloney), comes to the precinct to file charges against Arthur. His friend Susan arrives and gives Pritchett $120 she scraped together hoping no charges are filed against her friend. McLeod calls Arthur a thief and tries to dissuade Susan from helping him, but she pleads with Pritchett, swearing that the funds will be repaid the next day.
Mary McLeod arrives at the station and talks with Lt. Monahan about knowing Giacoppetti (a racketeer, who used to date Mary) and Schneider. She denies knowing them, but when Giacoppetti walks in and greets her, she runs out, crying. Giacoppetti then tells Lt. Monahan that Mary had gotten pregnant while they dated and gone to Dr. Schneider for an abortion.
Mary confesses to her husband, and once alone with him she asks his forgiveness, but he says he'd rather die than find out his wife is "a tramp" and asks if her infertility is Schneider's fault. Stunned by Jim's reaction, Mary leaves in tears.
Mary comes to the station to say goodbye to McLeod and he pleads with her to stay. Mary relents, but after a snide comment made by Sims (Warner Anderson) about Mary's love life, McLeod asks how many men there were before he met her and admits that he cannot wash away the "dirty pictures" in his mind. Calling him cruel and vengeful she leaves McLeod for good not wanting be "driven to a lunatic asylum." She vows never to see him again.
Gennini, taking advantage of the commotion started when a victim runs into the station yelling she's been robbed, grabs a gun from a holster and shoots McLeod several times. McLeod, in his dying words, asks that his wife forgive him and requests police colleagues to go easy on Arthur Kindred. McLeod then begins a confessional prayer, Act of Contrition. Brody finishes the prayer as McLeod lies dead. A distressed Brody then releases Arthur Kindred while admonishing him "not to make a monkey out of me."
Critic James Steffen appreciated the direction of the film and the cinematography of Lee Garmes, writing "While Detective Story remains essentially a filmed play, Wyler manages to use the inherent constraints of such an approach as an artistic advantage. The confined set of the police precinct is not simply a space where various characters observe each other and interact; it also contributes to the underlying thematic thrust and ultimately to the film’s emotional power. The staging of the individual scenes, which often plays on foreground-background relationships, is also augmented by Lee Garmes’ deep focus photography. (Wyler, of course, used deep focus photography extensively in the films he shot with Gregg Toland.)
|1951||Best Actress in a Leading Role||Eleanor Parker|
|1951||Best Actress in a Supporting Role||Lee Grant||Nominated|
|1951||Best Director||William Wyler||Nominated|
|1951||Best Writing, Screenplay||Philip Yordan, Robert Wyler||Nominated|
|British Academy of Film and Television Arts|
|1952||BAFTA Film Award||Best Film from any Source USA||Nominated|
|Cannes Film Festival|
|1952||Best Actress||Lee Grant||Won|
|1952||Grand Prize of the Festival||William Wyler||Nominated|
|Directors Guild of America|
|1952||DGA Award||Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures - William Wyler||Nominated|
|1952||Best Motion Picture Screenplay||Sidney Kingsley, Robert Wyler, Philip Yordan||Won|
|1952||Best Motion Picture - Drama||Nominated|
|1952||Best Motion Picture Actor - Drama||Kirk Douglas||Nominated|
|1952||Best Supporting Actress||Lee Grant||Nominated|
|Writers Guild of America|
|1952||WGA Award (Screen) Best Written American Drama||Philip Yordan, Robert Wyler||Nominated|