By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
4-Word Review: This policeman isn’t laughing.
8 passengers on a San Francisco bus are slaughtered to death by a mysterious gunman for no apparent reason. When Police Sargent Jake Martin (Walter Matthau) investigates he finds that his patrol partner is one of the victims. He soon learns that his partner was working on another case during his off hours dealing with a murdered prostitute that Jake had also worked on, but couldn’t crack. He begins to believe the two cases are somehow connected, but his brash department head (Anthony Zebe) doesn’t agree and thinks it is a waste of time to pursue the possible connection while also sticking him with Leo (Bruce Dern) a younger cop who doesn’t always like to play within the rules and whose manner and methods conflicts with Jake’s.
The film, which is based on the novel by Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall who also did the book version for Man on the Roof, has a finely detailed gritty nature about it that looks at the methods of a police investigation in a realistic and unglamorous fashion, which significantly helps this one stand out from the usual cop dramas. I loved the way they searched for clues on the bus and the autopsies of the victims as well as pursuing leads that never pan out, which is a very common occurrence in most police investigations, but rarely is ever shown in movies. There is even a shot of a tow truck removing the disabled bus from the accident scene once the investigation is completed.
Although the novel’s setting was Stockholm the movie transplants the action to San Francisco making the Bay City almost like a third character. Director Stuart Rosenberg manages to nicely capture the eclectic vibe of the area and the disdain many people had for the police during that era. The movie also uses very little music, which is a major asset and helps accentuate the realism. Outside of the closing credits the only time there is really any other music is near the end when Jake and Leo start following a suspect, which comes off as jarring and should’ve been left out.
Matthau who’s mostly known for his comedic parts does well in an atypical role, which due to his casting and the film’s strange title may make some think it is a comedy though this is far from it. Dern is terrific in a role that takes full advantage of his edgy acting style and I liked how the two characters don’t get along at first, but eventually get past their differences and use each other’s unique strengths to their advantage. I was disappointed though that there is a side-story dealing with Jake’s tumultuous relationship with his teenage son that gets introduced early on, but then dropped and completely forgotten during the second half.
Louis Gossett Jr. gets a star making turn as a brash street cop and Zerbe is superb in support as the gruff police chief. Joanna Cassidy has a brief, but interesting bit as a witness and I liked the shot showing her and Dern sitting amidst a row of tables with table legs made to look like human ones. It’s also amusing to note that Albert Paulsen’s character who becomes the main suspect in the film never utters a single word of dialogue.
The film’s biggest downfall though is with its ending. It is very hard to believe that a character such as Paulsen’s that is portrayed as being rich and having a lot of connections would feel the need to shoot and kill the bus passengers himself as most if not all rich people simply hire someone else to their dirty work. I also didn’t think that someone who walks down the street surrounded by lawyers would crack as quickly as this one does when Matthau comes to question him about the case. A typical well-off businessman would simply ‘lawyer-up’ and trust that the minimum evidence that the police have would not hold up in court instead of jumping into his car and racing down the city streets in a panic such as he does here. The finale becomes too conveniently Hollywood-like and seems to sell out on the film’s original concept, which left this viewer with a flat and ambivalent feeling towards it when it was over.
End of Spoiler Alert!
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Released: December 20, 1973
Runtime: 1Hour 52Minutes
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Studio: 20th Century Fox