In this police procedural, hailed for its realistic portrayal of detective work, Walter Matthau plays Jake Martin, a Detective Sergeant looking for the person who murdered not just his partner, but also every other passenger on a San Francisco bus. Now Martin has to join forces with a new colleague (played by Bruce Dern) to catch the killer, with the work ahead of them looking more like a maze than a murder investigation. The Laughing Policeman got good reviews not just due to its fantastic depiction of detective work, but also because it trusts the viewer with putting the puzzle pieces together, meaning that there proved to be no need for extra scenes that would have served the purpose of interpreting the evidence. And for that we have director Stuart Rosenberg to thank. This film was, in a way, his return to greatness, after first achieving recognition for helming Cool Hand Luke and then following that success with more misses than hits.

The screenplay was written by Thomas Rickman, and based on the book The Laughing Policeman by Swedish authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö—and while the novel takes place in Stockholm, its cinematic adaptions is set in San Francisco. Character actor Bruce Dern shared top billing with his co-star, with the former later on proclaiming that the idea was Matthau's, making Dern eternally indebted to his fellow thespian. On the other hand, Dern's performance complements Matthau’s perfectly, allowing the latter to show off his drama skills, after all the comedic roles he got accustomed to in prior years.