I’ve been a faithful reader of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels for decades now, seeking out the original paperbacks going all the way back to the first one, Cop Hater, in 1956. Often there were as many as three or four of them per year, but they were far, far from hack work, just like John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books. In later years they were less frequent, but McBain was prolific all the way up to his death. There was not a stinker in the lot, and his wonderful cast of characters—Steve Carella and his deaf-mute wife, Teddy, Meyer Meyer, Art Brown, Eileen Burke, Bert Kling, Fat Ollie Weeks, and many others—are some of the most memorable in genre literature. There was a TV series which I never saw, and several TV movies, but this is the only major theatrical motion picture concerning the eight-seven, as they would call it.
It’s one of the best books of the series, and includes the only recurring character outside of the department: the sinister Deaf Man, an evil genius (played here by Yul Brenner) whose plots the guys of the eight-seven always foil, usually by accident. This is a good film but, like most films made from novels, can’t quite capture the magic of the book. Ed McBain has no cause to complain, however, as the screenplay was written by his close friend, Evan Hunter. (As you may know, they are the same person, born Salvatore Albert Lombino.) As shown here, they are more “inept,” as the Deaf Man calls them, than they come across in the books. It’s true, none of them is Columbo, or even Miss Marple. They are working stiffs, plodders, who run down all the evidence and usually get their man. But not always. That’s the whole point of the books, that everything is based on real police techniques, and in fact, the 87th Precinct was the very foundation of the “police procedural.” A lot of writers owe a great debt to McBain. This script goes more for the comic, sort-of-bumbling aspect of the stories, whose chief comic pleasure is the dialogue, the misunderstandings, the ordinary fuck-ups of working detectives. It’s mostly well-cast, and I must confess that after seeing this movie a long time ago, Burt Reynolds was forever impressed on my memory as Steve Carella. He’s pretty much exactly as McBain described him.
Must note once more the appearance of my old friend, the late Peter Brocco. He appears early on, as “Man With Garbage,” making a complaint about people tossing trash into his car. It’s quite a funny bit.