Cinema: Saturday Night Special

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The Orson Welles Memorial Prize for the most self-conscious camera work of 1973 is hereby presented to Stuart Rosenberg for The Laughing Policeman.

The award is made for the work as a whole, which, in order to accommodate the director's self-indulgences, is at least a half-hour longer than good narrative sense dictates; and for one shot in par ticular, in which, having used every silly setup imaginable, Rosenberg finally resorts to photographing some action reflected on the side of a toaster.

Otherwise, The Laughing Policeman is no laughing matter. Adapted from one of the intricately plotted, well-characterized Martin Beck policiers by the Swedish team of Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall, it loses a great deal in the translation from Stockholm to San Francisco's Dirty Harry country. Gloomy authenticity, for one thing; pace and a genuine sense of puzzlement, for others.

Theoretically, the search for a cop killer who takes along with his victim a busload of innocent witnesses (by machine-gunning them) ought to have the makings of what Rosenberg claims that he wanted to create: "a Saturday night movie." Unfortunately, however, Rosenberg seems determined to explore all the current cliches of violence −blood spattering picturesquely in the murder sequence, revolting emergency-room and autopsy routines, the inevitable car-chase climax, which makes one almost sorry, in retrospect, that Bullitt and The French Connection were ever made.

The redoubtable Walter Matthau is present and well accounted for in the Martin Beck role (though he is unaccountably renamed Jake Martin), and Bruce Dern is expertly exasperated as the inspector's new partner, trying to get the hang of the older man's methods and eccentricities. They give the film what ever humanity and fitful vitality it enjoys.