Billed as “an adult look at a police detective”, director Gordon Douglas’ The Detective (1968) is a paired down and not altogether successful reworking of Roderick Thorp’s weighty pulp n’ trashy novel. The picture comes at an interesting juncture in the career of its star, Frank Sinatra – crossed over to the seedy side as the embittered, downtrodden and socially inept antihero – but one who cannot help himself – after nearly two decades playing the amiable, if anemic fop in some truly iconic and frothy musicals made at MGM and elsewhere. Like so many stars from this golden epoch, Sinatra was to suddenly see his professional and private reputation, as well as his fortunes greatly suffer. A fallow period followed. It is not overstating the obvious: Sinatra could not even get bit parts in movies or (choke!) a record deal (ole blue eyes without a mic?!? Surely, we jest!), haunting the byways and nightclubs in an alcoholic binge soon to erode (or perhaps reform) the youthfully angular looks that had sent scores of bobbysoxers swooning; caught in a disintegrating and highly volatile powder keg of a marriage to then sultry Eva Gardner. Aside: Sinatra and Gardner ought to have been a winning team. They were, after all, two of a pair – hot-blooded, hot-headed and just plain sexy as hell. Alas, too much of a good thing is still too much; the partnership turned from romantic to rancid in just a few short years, before dissolving for good in 1957. Curiously, Eva and Frank remained lifelong friends; a testament, perhaps to their unerring belief in their abilities to bring out the very best and worst in each other.
The eponymous hero of our story, police detective, Joe Leland (a private dick cum insurance investigator in the novel) is a lot like Sinatra, or rather, the Sinatra who rose from these ashes of near self-destruction, only to ride roughshod over those he both respected and despised with equal aplomb. In some ways, we really should not hold it against Frank that, in these later years, he adopted that plutocratic stance eventually to nickname him ‘chairman of the board’. And Sinatra, despite being described by even some of his closest confidantes as “a real pain in the ass” was nevertheless almost universally respected for doing things ‘his way’, and, not the least for his oft unseen charitable works; hidden kindnesses to those he truly revered in private. Case in point: his personal telegram – along with $1500 – sent to a then ailing Bela Lugosi; kind words and a helping hand extended to a fellow thespian down on his luck. Sinatra could certainly relate to hard luck, having far too much of his own – some, self-inflicted – but most of it, the result of a quiet blackballing within two industries converged in the ole boy’s club to which he had once held the privileged key. In the interim, however, people Sinatra thought were his friends suddenly refused to answer his phone calls. They avoided him at social gatherings if, in fact, he was invited to attend any at all. To some extent, Joe Leland is exactly where Sinatra was by the end of the 1950’s; alone and foundering.
It is to Sinatra’s credit that he plays this alter ego right down the middle – a guy’s guy who is not afraid to let us in on his pain, but does not allow it to muddle his thinking or get the best of him for too long. Joe is the straight arrow in a precinct overrun by bigots, racists and homophobes – you know, society at large, or rather, society suffering from one hell of a steely-eyed nervous breakdown. Joe’s ex-wife, Karen (the luminous Lee Remick) is a compulsive nymphomaniac. She loves Joe. Too bad for Joe’s ego, she likes everybody else much too well to make him feel anything more than anguished disgust towards her now. Abby Mann’s screenplay is loaded with incendiary dialogue; Sinatra, the uber-cool and methodical and buttoned down Sherlock Holmes of this piece, using a vivid array of four-letter explicatives that only a year or so earlier would have landed both him and the movie in some very hot water. But this was the new Hollywood – then; making reality grittier, more salacious – more ‘real’?!? Regardless, it is a little difficult to swallow this alternative universe as it exists in the movie – New York’s finest, herein luridly illustrated as a pack of win-at-all-costs social deviants who treat their significant others with the proverbially placating pat on the head or ass (whichever propriety demands), not above planting evidence and/or brow-beating potential suspects stripped naked in their presence because, what the hell – it worked for the Nazis in their concentration camps (oh, now there is a social model that every law-abiding nation ought to emulate…not!).
No, New York’s finest are actually some of the scariest people we meet in The Detective – Sinatra’s level-headed crusader standing apart, though curiously not up to his brethren, even after he is given the authority to do so; made Lieutenant by his superior, Farrell (Horace McMahon) and on the fast track to becoming Chief of the whole shebang. As Chief, Joe might have been able to thoroughly clean house, ridding the department of its less than desirable loose cannons like, Curran (toothy Ralph Meeker, whose head looks like a football, and, gets a good pummeling by Joe on a rooftop for having sent his goon squad to take care of business with Joe earlier). There is also Nestor – a real pig, who gets off by terrorizing twinks and older queens with testosterone-inflicting noblesse oblige. If anything, it’s Abby Mann’s heavy-handed approach to the homosexual community and its flip side - venomous homophobia - that really dates The Detective as a cultural artifact from another place and time. Difficult to count the number of times the word ‘fag’ gets casually bandied about; the ‘gay scene’ whitewashed; its participants collectively lumped together as sexually depraved deviants suffering from a doomed compulsion to destroy themselves. Indeed, the two most clearly delineated gays in the piece, closeted businessman, Colin MacIver (William Windom) and the psychotic, Felix Tesla (Tony Musante) both meet with a terrible end; the former, lying naked and dead with his eyes gouged out and his penis cut off; the latter, innocent, disturbed, but framed for his murder and put to death in the electric chair.
If all of this sounds more than a tad sordid – it is; Roderick Thorp’s mammoth narrative distilled by Abby Mann to the nitty-gritty, reveling in the particulars of a contemporary society feeding upon itself; the fall of the Roman Empire, if you will, updated and transplanted to the modern metropolis with urbane Manhattanites subbing in for the toga and laurel-leafed aristocrats of yore. Here is a world where life is cheap; sex, cheaper still, and, where everybody’s fingernails and consciences are decidedly dirtier than either appears at a glance. Despite the unflattering views from these terraces, Joe Leland remains an almost romantic figure; tart-mouthed, uncompromising, tough with or without his gun, and, exceptionally steadfast to his principles as his conscience dictates. Sinatra is ideally cast as the moral guy’s guy gradually despised by the men in his precinct. He can’t win this fight – not without losing himself to the cause. So Joe bows out in the end, presumably with nice girl, Norma (Jacqueline Bisset in a part originally envisioned for Sinatra’s then wife, Mia Farrow). Interesting, Farrow’s withdrawal from the project (to make Rosemary’s Baby no less) became the cause célèbre for their divorce, at least, according to producer and Paramount CEO, Robert Evans who had already offered Farrow the part in Roman Polanski’s horror classic, well aware its’ shooting schedule conflicted with startup on The Detective. Reportedly, Sinatra angrily telephoned Evans to lay down the law; then, with equal resolve, forbade Farrow to even consider doing Rosemary’s Baby – the standoff ending with the then virtually unknown Mia Farrow calling Sinatra’s bluff, and, let us not forget, becoming a huge star because of it.
The Detective opens with another iconic Jerry Goldsmith score; disparate chords and a flash of brass to set the tone for this grittier than thou police procedural melodrama. We are introduced to Joe Leland and his new partner, Robbie (Al Freeman Jr.); assigned to a lurid homicide on the upper east side; a potted palm strategically placed in the foreground to prevent the audience from witnessing the more hellacious details of this mutilation crime. No matter, Joe gives us the rundown, dictating the particulars they should remember; excoriating marks all over the body of one Teddy Leikman (James Inman); heir apparent to a department store franchise; the victim’s penis Ginsu-ed and left like a bit of kibble to rot in the corner of the room. Yep, it’s a sex crime and judging from the vigorous phallic dismemberment, a same-sex crime of passion at that. Returning to the precinct, Joe interrupts Nestor’s interrogation of fellow officer, Harmon (Tom Atkins), who is in some very hot water, having only just shot and killed a defenseless juvie on a joyride; unable to recall the particulars of what actually transpired in those fateful moments, though nevertheless lying about being faultless. Let’s not be fooled. Joe is not. Harmon is just one bad apple in this very rotten bushel.
Nestor is another, and proves it shortly thereafter when, during a sting operation on the docks he nets a truckload of homosexuals engaging in…hmmm. I suppose it is 1968, so there is not a lot happening in the backs of these abandoned semis; all of the usual suspects clean and fully dressed and seemingly frightened as hell their parents will find out what they have been up to after hours. Nestor browbeats one of the more affluent young men – a dead ringer, even with his obviously peroxided hair, for Alain Delon; spat upon by the more abusive old queen (Frank Raiter) in their midst. Nestor roughs both men up – but good – pulled aside from going all the way by Joe, who sucker-punches him to prove a point: bullies do not belong on the force. A short while later, Joe is made Lieutenant by Farrell with the veiled promise there are more good things to come. It would all make for a rosy picture, except Joe Leland is really just a shell of a human being.
Herein, we regress into a lengthy and not particularly exciting flashback; Joe meets his ex, Karen, for the first time. He knows what she is but cannot help himself. She love him…well, sort of…enough to make it stick for a while. But before long, Karen retreats to her old haunts and ways – picking up multiple lovers to pad out her extracurricular activities while her husband is off catching the bad guys. A lesser man would have stuck it out because Karen really is unable to suppress these latent urges for very long. She needs variety in her partnerships to make their marriage work. Too bad for Karen, Joe is a one-gal guy; the faithful as a birddog type who cannot and will not be devious or allow anyone else that proclivity. For certain, he won’t be entertaining dames who sweat up the bedsheets when he is not there. Oh, so Joe’s a man of integrity…is he? Hmmm. Because when push comes to shove, Joe is not above manipulating the system to get his name in the papers, helping in a frame-up of the decidedly mad as a hatter, Felix Tesla who confesses to the sex murder under duress. Wiping the Teddy Leikman case off his books is the primary reason Joe was made Lieutenant. Since then, he has run a very clean and equally as tight ship. And, in truth, Joe firmly believed Tesla’s confession to the crime He even attended Tesla’s electric-chair execution.
Ah, but then Karen McIver enters the picture – pixie-haired and bright-eyed; a real looker come to Joe for help after her own husband, Colin has seemingly killed himself by leaping from the rooftop grandstand during a horserace in plain view of a crowd of several hundred people. Gruesome to think of her stalwart hubby this way, plummeting like a stone for the onlookers; and as disgusting to consider how little the police came to be involved thereafter – the coroner signing off on Colin’s death as a suicide. But something about McIver’s story does not gel. Taking Dave Schoenstein (Jack Klugman), his most trusted second in command to his bosom, Joe discovers a link between both McIvers and his ex, Karen; their associations with a noted psychiatrist, Dr. Roberts (Lloyd Bochner). Joe doesn’t think much of psychiatry – even less of Roberts, whom he openly confronts as a liar in Karen’s presence. Roberts is hiding something. Too bad it’s not what Joe thinks. Meanwhile, Dave unearths some damning evidence from the ledgers recovered inside Colin’s private office; payouts made under a dummy corporation, basically linking New York’s upper crust in a scheme to maintain the status quo in their slum tenancies, reaping the benefits and fattening their own checkbooks while publicly pretending to be at the forefront of a campaign for social reform and rebirth of the city. Joe cannot wait to expose their corruption. He fervently believes Roberts is at the head of this moneyed consortium. To get the necessary proof to make his case Joe even uses Norma to distract the good doctor while he breaks into his private office to skulk around for clues.
What Joe does find out shakes his very faith to its core: McIver’s taped confession to the Teddy Leikman sex murder told in confidence to his shrink - Roberts; McIver, a closeted queen, unable to come to terms with his own homoerotic fantasies, married to Norma, but periodically indulging in casual trysts to satisfy his lust; sickened by what he perceives as his ‘weakness’ and determined to bury the truth forever. McIver killed Teddy Leikman, the john he picked up earlier at a ‘men’s nightclub’; his crime of buggery concealed by the even more soul-stealing felony of cold-blooded murder. Unable to live with the consequences of his act of passion, much less with the realization his silence has allowed the police to try, convict and execute an innocent man for his crime, McIver did, in fact, take his own life with a very high profile leap off the roof at the racetrack. Roberts now suggests Joe remain silent about the whole sordid affair. To expose the truth would only serve to cast a pall on the police department’s handling of the case and certainly force Joe’s resignation. But Joe is exactly the upstanding sort; the kind who cannot live with himself unless the truth comes out. Beating the press to the punch, Joe offers his resignation to Farrell. He will remain a cop, but an honest one at that – traversing the seedy back alleys in his squad car – the best place he knows where he is certain the work he does will make all the difference in the world.
The Detective is a fairly straight forward police procedural melodrama, slightly complicated by Abby Mann’s overly simplified reworking of Roderick Thorp’s original prose. The novel is a far more complex thriller, its diversions into other narrative threads running parallel to the main plot, serving to enrich the crucial back story about who Joe Leland is and what he is all about. We get something of this in the extended flashback, but not enough to really make an impact on the character; Mann’s telescoped Cole’s Notes version of the book doing little to fatten the story, even as it elongates the overall run-time with some passable filler. Instead, Mann staves off ‘the big reveal’ – beginning the movie with the discovery of Teddy’s mutilated corpse; a character we have yet to meet and really never get to see outside of a few moments remembered via Colin McIver’s flashback – imagined in Joe’s mind as he listens to Robert’s session tapes of McIver’s confession. By contrast, the novel begins with Norma McIver’s visit to Joe’s office, imploring him to dig deeper and get to the bottom of her husband’s mysterious death. What holds the picture together now – and, I suspect, made it a colossal hit back in ’68 – is Sinatra’s riveting tough guy performance.
Sinatra loved working with Gordon Douglas, a director he appreciated less for his story-telling prowess and very much more because he could pretty much call the shots and make Douglas see things his way. One wonders why Sinatra never bothered to simply direct himself. Together with cinematographer, Joseph F. Biroc, Douglas has conspired on a rather workaday approach to this material, filling the vast Panavision screen with competent compositions. These undeniably look good, but altogether fall short of our expectations for stylish film-making; instead, a fairly heavy-handed compendium of location work and stock process shots photographed on studio-bound sets. I think it a little harsh to call Douglas, Sinatra’s favorite stooge, but there is little to deny Douglas’ lack of personal imprint on this material. Sinatra, however, has given a perversely mesmeric act – his Joe, a weary cock-of-the-walk, smart-mouthing and brow-beating his more corrupt colleagues into submission, treating authority with a rigorous disdain (for which he is at least revered by Farrell with a wink and a nudge) and haughtily refusing to offer a helping hand to any of his junkie contacts from this seedy underworld, unless, of course, their intel can advance his career. Sinatra is compelling to say the least. If only he had entrusted the directorial reigns to a flashier director – a Fred Zinnemann or John Huston, per say – we might have had a superb framework on which to mount his peerless recital. Instead, Sinatra’s Joe comes across as the only guy who knows the score – the one man capable of cutting through all the horsepucky, seemingly without stepping too deep into the manure.
There is not much to sniff about here. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray release of The Detective is about a gorgeous as vintage catalog via 2oth Century-Fox gets. The image is almost perfect, ever so slightly marred by the occasional orangey flesh tone or softer than anticipated insert involving matte process work. These are very minor quibbles, however, as the bulk of this 1080p transfer really delivers the ‘wow factor’; fully saturated colors that pop as they should, expertly balanced with superb contrast, some excellent fine grain factored in and virtually no signs of age-related damage or digital manipulations to artificially sharpen the image: overall, a very thorough and satisfying presentation that will surely not disappoint. I am often startled by the mileage available in a 1.0 DTS audio, and The Detective is no exception, sporting perfect crispness in dialogue, effects and Jerry Goldsmith’s music cues. This is a fantastic effort. I just wish the movie were a better one or that Fox would take such care with its more high profile catalog (eg. the previously reviewed Anastasia – not their finest hour in remastering…not by a long shot – and on a movie infinitely more deserving of such treatment on home video). Extras are pretty sparse on The Detective – an audio commentary with the always fascinating Lem Dobbs, David DelValle making his TT debut, and flanked by TT’s own, Nick Redman. Good stuff – a lot of history shared. We also get an isolated score – not as much of a selling feature since The Detective is very sparse on music. Bottom line: top notch effort on a B-grade cop movie at best. Preferred for Sinatra aficionados only, as I remain of the opinion impeccable video mastering alone does not a great movie make. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)