A man is hurrying through the San Francisco streets late at night, having noticed he is being followed by another man. He walks through the bus depot and boards one of the vehicles, but his pursuer does the same, although they pretend to be unaware of one another. However, someone else jumps on just as the bus draws away from the kerb and goes up to the back, where he sits with a leather bag in his lap. A bag containing a machine gun which he pieces together. A machine gun with which he opens fire, slaughtering all the passengers. The bus crashes and the killer escapes, but the police are soon on the scene...
Where the detective in charge has a nasty surprise waiting for him. If you are British, then the title The Laughing Policeman means a novelty record from the nineteen-twenties and settling down to watch this film might make you anticipate a lighthearted comedy along the lines of Carry On Constable or The Boys in Blue. Yet you could not be more wrong as this police procedural went out of its way to be dour, unexciting and as realistic to the life of a San Francisco cop as it possibly could, even taking into account the unlikely crime at the beginning.
Walter Matthau is well cast as grumps, and he is in his element here as Sergeant Jake Martin, but with a comic talent like his it wouldn't have hurt to give him a few funny lines, would it? Anything to relieve the relentlessly miserable tone which might offer up an authentic experience of what a murder case in the mid-seventies in that particular city might well have been like, but falls far short of being entertaining. In fact, the scene-stealer was Matthau's screen partner Bruce Dern as the bigoted but go-getting Inspector Leo Larsen.
Dern provides a much needed spark of electricity in a film that is so sombre that you feel as if you've attended the funerals of all the characters who die by the end. What the surprise on the bus was is that one of the victims is Martin's ex-partner, a cop who had gone off on his own to investigate what was considered a case whose trail had gone cold. And as Martin does more digging, he uncovers not so much a conspiracy, which would have made this as seventies as it was possible to be, but links between shady characters among various parts of the San Franciscan underworld.
Not only the criminal underworld but the cultural underworld as well, as because of the setting we have to see the cops move through the areas where the minorities stay, whether they be African-Americans, homosexuals, junkies, hippies or bikers, which could be accused of resorting to cliché. The point of this is that the police are not welcome anywhere now, times have changed and you all be careful out there. The plot, taken from a novel of the same name by Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall, is not so much convoluted - it does make sense if you can be bothered to pay attention - as obscure, as if the filmmakers were reluctant to explain themselves and keen to throw the audience off the scent. Let's not be too commercial, now! By the time it has ended with some much needed action, a car chase, then you may have lost interest. Music by Charles Fox.