Mean Streets

film 3 of 7

Whistling Smith

Film Review by Dean Duncan Mar 28, 2015

This is a fine piece of inner city moral naturalism. Some things can’t be fixed, and what can you do? Sergeant Smith appears to be striking a difficult and very decent balance here. He upholds the law, and he upholds the dignity of his benighted, often erring constituents at the same time. He is remarkably sure-handed in the execution of his various duties, but as he does so the viewer is forced to consider some difficult, intractable moral quandaries. Some of these people are clearly, dramatically at fault. Guilty, in other words. But the burdens they carry! This isn’t moral relativism, mind you. We’re simply faced with a very difficult and important reality, something that we might not have realized before. What exactly did we think we would find when there was someone in prison, or maybe just out of prison, and as assigned we undertook to visit him?

The Film Board website affixes this warning: “This film deals with mature subject matter. Viewer discretion is advised.” Quite right, and don’t show it to your little children. But Whistling Smith makes me wonder if our won’t-watch-an-R-rated-movie scrupulousness doesn’t occasionally lapse into a kind of moral cowardice. Films are of secondary importance, of course, and nothing to jeopardize one’s soul over. But what of the realities that films reflect? Not only do we hold our noses, but we actually run away. Meanwhile, the disaster areas, often right around the corner from us, only become more disastrous. The French novelist Georges Bernanos (1936) wrote of the poor in spirit, and also of the great sinners as being “God’s tarnished image.” The poor folks in this film reflect that simultaneous besmirchment and divinity. It’s not quite like the wheat and the tares, is it? What does one do? Well, once in a while, one can watch and learn.

Smith is a superbly vivid character, firmly in the middle of every frame and situation. But everyone else comes across just as vividly, and they’re clearly just as central to the story, or the community. It makes you think, and take stock too! Note the sterling contributions of the great Donald Brittain, who wrote and spoke the narration.

This is perhaps a smallish issue, but one does wonder what effect the very present, even quite intrusive camera has on all of these proceedings, especially since the filmmakers don’t reference or even acknowledge its presence.

Right here: