The Laughing Policeman (1973) poster

The Laughing Policeman (1973)


USA. 1973.


Director/Producer – Stuart Rosenberg, Screenplay – Thomas Rickman, Based on the Novel The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo, Photography – David M. Walsh, Music – Charles Fox. Production Company – 20th Century Fox.


Walter Matthau (Sergeant Jake Martin), Bruce Dern (Leo Larsen), Lou Gossett (Larrimore), Anthony Zerbe (Lieutenant Ned Steiner), Albert Paulsen (Henry Camerero), Cathy Lee Crosby (Kay Evans), Mario Gallo (Bobby Mow), Paul Koslo (Dwayne Haygood), Ivan Bookman (Rodney Davis)


A man on a San Francisco bus suddenly opens up with a machine-gun, wiping out everybody except one survivor. Police sergeant Jake Martin takes it badly after he learns that one of the victims is his partner Dave Evans. However, when Martin goes to console Evans’ widow, he learns that she did not even know that he had the week off. Further investigations uncover a web of hidden secrets about Evans’ life. Meanwhile, as the police start an investigation of every victim on the bus, they find several had shady connections. One of the victims was found to have purchased a machine-gun several days before the murder and is found to be connected to a prostitute that Evans was involved with.

This US-made film is adapted from The Laughing Policeman (1968), the fourth in a series of ten novels by former crime reporter Per Wahlöö and his wife Maj Sjowall concerning the Swedish detective Martin Beck. The Laughing Policeman has been uprooted in setting from Stockholm to San Francisco but essentially remains the same story. The rest of the Martin Beck novels have also been filmed, mostly in the 1990s starring Gosta Ekman, as well as the character being spun off in a tv series Beck in twenty-seven feature-length episodes between 1997 and 2007. Elsewhere, Per Wahlöö’s novels formed the basis of the German film Kamikaze 1989 (1982) about a detective operating in a dystopian future.

Exactly what the title means is unclear. The plot is terribly patchy, seemingly too deliberately constructed to show cutaway vignettes of the criminal underbelly of society, with investigations into 1970s gay subculture, street gangs, pimps, junkies and so on. Once the film gets into revelations about the victims on the bus it starts to become interesting.

As a wholly kinetic flight from one twist revelation to the next, the film has its minor entertainment value. The dialogue is neat and snappy – at one point, Bruce Dern cynically observes of one suspect, “He’s probably got enough beef to get a sodomy bust reduced to following too close.” The gunplay is nicely brutal and hard-hitting with no punches pulled during the fight scenes, to considerable effect.

Detectives Walter Matthau and Bruce Dern in The Laughing Policeman (1973)
(front to back) Detectives Walter Matthau and Bruce Dern

Where The Laughing Policeman does disappoint is in the portrayal of the film’s psycho who is characterised as yet another gay psycho. We get to understand nothing at all about why he feels the need to let his frustrations out at people on a bus with a machine-gun. Playing it tough, Bruce Dern almost succeeds in giving a normal performance for once, although Walter Matthau doggedly sleepwalks his way through.

Director Stuart Rosenberg was probably best known for classics such as Cool Hand Luke (1967), Voyage of the Damned (1976) and Brubaker (1980). Rosenberg’s one other venture into genre material was as director of the original The Amityville Horror (1979).

Trailer here

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