Frank Sinatra shines in a story of police corruption that tries to say it like it is — or like it was in 1968, just before the ratings system came in. The well-intentioned, suspenseful story is burdened by odd censor choices, Sinatra’s conservative self-image, and rudely retrograde attitudes toward gays. In a sparkling new transfer with Jerry Goldsmith’s jazzy score isolated on its own track.
1968 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 114 min. / Ship Date December 8, 2015 / available through Twilight Time Movies / 29.95
Starring Frank Sinatra, Lee Remick, Ralph Meeker, Jacqueline Bisset, William Windom, Al Freeman Jr., Tony Musante, Lloyd Bochner, Robert Duvall, Horace McMahon
Cinematography Joseph F. Biroc
Art Direction William J. Creber, Jack Martin Smith
Film Editor Robert L. Simpson
Original Music Jerry Goldsmith
Written by Abby Mann from a novel by Roderick Thorpe
Produced by Aaron Rosenberg
Directed by Gordon Douglas
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Detective is a serious police drama noted for taking advantage of the open-season on film content that came just before the MPAA rating system was imposed in 1968. It’s a blend of liberal and conservative attitudes. Frank Sinatra’s good police detective finds that helping his community is made impossible by a welter of police corruption and intolerance. Sinatra embodies old-fashioned values going up against an inherently wicked system, and the film scores some interesting observations as it cheerfully reveals ‘shocking’ content in practically every scene. Sinatra clearly cares about his role, but too many dated attitudes crop up — the movie seems made by a staunch conservative, who wants to seem more liberal than liberals.
The story follows Detective Joe Leland (Frank Sinatra), an honest New York cop up with too many nagging problems. He’s left his wife, sociology professor Karen (Lee Remick) because she can’t stay faithful to him – she admits to being a nymphomaniac. His boss Captain Farrell (Horace McMahon) openly works to get Joe promoted but also covers up department misdeeds like officer-involved shootings. When the gay son of a prominent citizen is found murdered, Joe is troubled by the confession he obtains too easily from a psychotic drifter, Felix Tesla (Tony Musante). Joe also butts heads against the attitudes of his fellow detectives, who are either racist like Nestor (Robert Duvall) or on the take like Curran (Ralph Meeker). Ambitious new detective Robbie Laughlin (Al Freeman Jr.) tries out some new interrogation methods that verge on torture. When Norma McIver (Jacqueline Bisset), the widow of a suicide, asks Joe to help prove that her husband’s death was a conspiracy murder, Joe only has one cop he can trust, mild-mannered Dave Schoenstein (Jack Klugman).
The Detective is something of a transitional film leading into the genre-altering Dirty Harry. Don Siegel’s 1971 cop film tipped the political seesaw way to the right, making reasonable portrayals of Law and Order problems unfashionable. Combined with the slam-bang nihilism of William Friedkin’s gritty The French Connection, there began a five-year spate of violent cop shows that pretended that vigilante extremism is a desirable American Value.
Abby Mann’s screenplay talks tough from the very first scene, with description of a dead body’s mutilated genitals and references to things like semen. By the time we’re in the station house, we’ve heard a half- dozen ethnic slurs. What’s missing is any real grit. None of these hardboiled detectives use profanity, and the glossy photography makes the realistic sets look too comfortable. On the other hand, Sinatra’s character is presented as the soul of racial understanding. He honors the ranks of the department and treats all citizens with respect, as if following the ‘controversial’ tenets of his earlier Albert Maltz-written plea for ethnic understanding, The House I Live In. This movie applies a ’40s mindset to a ’60s reality.
Joe Leland’s twin investigations take him on a trip into a side of police work previously blocked from movie scrutiny. The Detective tries a little too hard to play catch-up with adult subject matter. A shakedown of the city’s gay hangouts uncovers a group of sleazy homosexual revelers in the back of a closed truck doing nothing more shocking than kissing. Robert Duvall and Ralph Meeker verbally abuse and rough up the gays so badly that Sinatra’s hero is sickened. Yet Leland doesn’t do much about it.
This inaction would be a halfway realistic touch if the Joe Leland character made any sense. He’s an experienced detective yet is surprised to discover the rampant homophobia in the police department, right down to the force’s forensic expert. At this time almost everybody in New York was aware of rampant police corruption, but Joe is shocked to learn that Ralph Meeker is on the take. The film’s one brief scene of violence is a double officer shooting that should be huge news in the media, but goes unnoticed. Joe knows Meeker is probably behind the attempt on his life, but he barely expresses an opinion about it.
Nobody should expect a real exposé as came in the later Sidney Lumet film Serpico, but The Detective pretends that police kickbacks in New York are an isolated problem. Homosexual lifestyles are a social / mental illness that always leads to criminal behavior, instead of ‘different’ behavior unfairly criminalized. Joe Leland’s do-nothing ‘tolerance’ is presented as a positive character trait.
In the film’s most laughable (or scary) scene, Al Freeman Jr. strips a suspected child killer before interrogating him. Asked why, he says that he’s read up on the Gestapo tactic of obtaining quick confessions by psychological intimidation. Sinatra walks in on the scene almost like it was a Monty Python sketch, and can’t think of anything to do but say a few sharp words and have the old geezer get his clothes back on. The idea of making a black character behave like a Nazi seems to be borrowed from Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor, in which a black asylum inmate becomes a spokesman for the Klan. If Abby Mann is trying to say that anything can happen in a police department that’s lost its hold on its values, that’s not the message that’s imparted. Joe Leland seems so alien to this world that it’s hard to believe that he’s really a cop, or that all these things he’s witnessing aren’t put-ons.
The Detective has the maturity to acknowledge serious social problems, but it is really a very conservative movie. Gays are sick vermin prone to go psycho and hurt themselves and others. Cop racism and homophobia are the status quo, understandable vices that go unchallenged. In the midst of all the bad attitudes, the movie almost downplays the fact that Joe Leland’s fellow lawmen are perfectly at ease with sending an innocent man to the electric chair. After all, what’s one less gay freak in the world?
Sinatra’s committed performance and the serious tone do score many positive points. Joe Leland is not a faultless Superman. His inability to stay married to an admitted nymphomaniac makes sense, in that he just hasn’t the time and energy to deal with yet another ego-crushing problem. Just the same, if he loved her… Another nice touch is that Lloyd Bochner’s LSD-promoting psychoanalyst doesn’t follow the usual crime film pattern, where any quack doctor or elitist intellectual turns out to the bad guy, if not the Mr. Big behind it all. We’re also surprised when Jacqueline Bisset’s beautiful damsel in distress does not run to Sinatra’s side at the fade out. That’s a revelation in itself.
Best of all, when all the controversies hit the fan The Detective doesn’t pretend that one civil servant like Joe can climb the hill and prevail over the darkness around him. But Abby Mann does revisit the old ‘star in the dust’ issue from High Noon and Dirty Harry. Being a faithful ‘company man’ at heart, Joe turns in his badge rather than fight his own department; if he has to combat the corruption, it’ll have to be from the outside, on his own. I’d have to say that Sinatra probably felt he was making a statement against liberal activism, saying that issue crusades and whistle-blowing are ‘not cool’.
The Detective has good playing from all concerned – Jack Klugman’s sidekick, Tony Musante’s freaked-out psycho. William Windom is yet another tortured gay-in-denial in a flashback sequence. Comedian-writer Renée Taylor has a nice bit as a doting Jewish wife. Third billed Ralph Meeker must have been desperate — the celebrated actor’s participation has been reduced to a glorified bit, and is out-shone by the quiet intensity of Robert Duvall, who has a fraction of his lines.
I saw The Detective new in 1968. I was sixteen, yet the film didn’t strike me as particularly shocking. What did surprise me were the intimate scenes with Lee Remick. Gordon Douglas and Sinatra give us more than one typically suggestive shot of Remick’s naked back in bed, but at one point cut to a frontal close-up of her chest, in a very light bra. I remember the audience laughing, and I think it was because the shot revealed the actress as comparatively flat-chested. The fixation on big breasts was such a given in the 1960s, that the shot seemed weirdly embarrassing.
Director Gordon Douglas worked with Sinatra several times. Considering the actor’s hatred of multiple takes and director perfectionism — anything that interfered with his ADD restlessness — I’d say that Sinatra hired Douglas because he moved quickly and kept him happy. This is perhaps why The Detective plays out in wide shots, without a lot of cutting or new angles to make visual points. Sinatra cruised through a lot of his movies but took some of them extremely seriously, and it’s possible that he thought The Detective might be another Manchurian Candidate or an opportunity for Oscar consideration. It’s reported that this was the movie that precipitated his divorce with his wife Mia Farrow; Rosemary’s Baby took too long and made her unavailable for a co-starring role in this picture. When she refused to quit the Polanski movie Frank served papers on her. Or at least that’s how the gossip goes. The Detective reflects Sinatra’s creative frustration… it’s a decent mystery and an adult cop drama that doesn’t rely on action scenes to stay interesting. But a director needs some freedom to shape a film story, and that’s difficult when an impatient, all-powerful star can override any directorial decision.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The Detective is another excellent new encoding, correcting most of the problems of the Fox DVD from 2005. Colors are vivid and the image sharp everywhere except optical sections — the film has a number of dreamy transitions and flashbacks that tend to be a little grainy and dull. But Sinatra, Remick and Bisset always look great. The added sharpness spurs our interest in many of the wide shots — there’s more detail to soak up.
The top extra for soundtrack buffs will be the Isolated Score Track for Jerry Goldsmith’s theme music, which plays in somewhat the same dreamy mode as his classic score for Chinatown six years later. Two trailers are included. A chatty audio commentary has host Nick Redman accompanied by writer Lem Dobbs and agent-personality David Del Valle. I only listened to about thirty minutes. Dobbs provides opinions about the personnel, slighting the highly professional Gordon Douglas for not being an auteur, even while directing a star known to fire anybody who doesn’t let him do exactly what he wants. Del Valle interjects star gossip on the great Sinatra, reminding us that fan worship is a big part of film enjoyment. We are told of the relationship of The Detective to the later Dirty Harry and even Die Hard; I’d think a main point of comparison would be with Don Siegel’s Coogan’s Bluff and Madigan, both 1968 pictures trying to cope with Law & Order issues — and the freedom of the new ratings system. In that year of assassinations and civic unrest, it’s no wonder that movies would fall back on conservative values.
Julie Kirgo’s liner notes also look at The Detective through the Sinatra performance, persona and aura, yielding some thoughtful insights. I never considered that Sinatra might be the kind of party animal that always seems to be having fun, yet might be incapable of really relaxing. I didn’t notice that Jacqueline Bisset’s hairstyle is made similar to that of Mia Farrow. I can well imagine that Sinatra might ask for that to send a message: “See, this role was supposed to be yours.”
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Detective Blu-ray rates:
Sound: Excellent English 1.0 DTS-HD MA
Supplements: Isolated Score Track, trailers, audio commentary with Nick Redman, Lem Dobbs, David Del Valle, Julie Kirgo liner notes
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 29, 2015
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson