Two men get on a bus in early morning San Francisco. It's still dark out. One seems to be following the other, and the first man appears to be aware of it but isn't concerned. There are five other passengers, among them an old man, a young woman going to work, a Chinese-American kid. The bus picks up another passenger. This man goes to the back of the bus, and while he's seated he quietly reaches into a bag and screws on a barrel to a machine gun. Then he stands and murders everyone on the bus. The bus crashes and he walks away. This is a taut, terrific opening to a police procedural that I wish I liked more than I do.
It turns out that the man on the bus who had been following the other is a policeman. Among the cops called to the scene is Jake Martin (Walter Matthau), who was the guy's partner. Martin is shocked at the discovery. He has no idea what his partner had been doing. With a massacre on his hands, the lieutenant in charge (Anthony Zerbe) tells Leo Larsen (Bruce Dern) to work with Jake. He makes it clear he wants all stops out to find the killer. What follows is a meticulous look at dogged police work, chasing down leads, searching for connections, trying to make sense of what appears to be a senseless act. Some of those killed had crime sheets or were drug users, and this sends Martin and Larsen into San Francisco's underbelly. Finally Martin realizes that there might be a connection to a two-year-old case that he had talked to his former partner about, a connection that may have triggered his partner's interest. If this turns out to be true, then Martin and Leo have a lead to a killer.
What is so good about this movie is, among other things, the set up. The machine gun shooting is a startling opening. It raises all kinds of questions. The look into police methods keeps your attention; you see how Martin and others put the pieces together. Matthau does a fine job as Martin, close to being burned out, laconic and not too interested at first in working with Larsen, who's a bit of a wise guy. The tension between the two of them works, I think, because Matthau and Dern are both good actors. There are three excellent set pieces that are very well handled: in the morgue during the autopsies of the victims, in the emergency room where staff tries to save the one survivor, and the lead-up to the bus shooting.
Where I wish it had been better concerns the casting of the smaller parts and the direction. Too many of the actors look like actors. Much of the movie is spent turning over stones and looking at San Francisco's lowlife...pimps, prostitutes, sleazy bar managers, porno theater ticket sellers, burlesque dancers, gay bar denizens in leather or makeup. Most of them look like they're acting sleaze. If you want a taste of real life, check out Mona Lisa, where the underage prostitutes have pimples on their faces and backsides. There's none of that reality here. There also is a tendency to create emotion-charged scenes that are marred by "acting"...the kind of slightly false intensity you can see on some television cops-and-robbers series.
This is one of three crime movies Matthau made in a three year period. The others were Charley Varrick, also in 1973, and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three in 1974. This one is interesting and worth a watch. Unless you really like Matthau, I'm not sure if you'd want to buy it. Varrick, if it had a better DVD presentation, and Pelham are both, in my view, keepers. The DVD presentation for this one is not great but not too bad. There are no extras.
If you want a treat, get a copy of the book this movie was made from. Same title, The Laughing Policeman, by Maj Sjowell and Per Wahloo. The detective is Martin Beck, not Jake Martin, and the bus massacre takes place in Stockholm. It's an excellent police procedural mystery.