Rewind: Films of the 60s, 70s, 80s – The Detective (1968)

by RICHARD WINTERS

Many people would probably be surprised to learn that Frank Sinatra was the original choice to play Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry. Due to various reasons he turned down the part despite the fact that he was interested. You can’t help but wonder what that film might have been like had he accepted. A good indication may be the character of Detective Joe Leland that he plays in the film The Detective. The film has the similar theme of a tough cop tired of ‘the system’ and breaking off on his own to solve a bizarre case.

The case itself in The Detective is particularly gruesome and ahead of its time in its subject, as it involves the killing of a gay man found lying nude on the floor of his apartment with his genitals cut off. The actual shot of the victim is conveniently framed so that a fern, yes a fern, is strategically placed over the offending area, which is a little corny. Yet the dialogue and description of the case seems incredibly graphic for the time. Ol’ Blue Eyes even says the word penis, which I think has to be a movie history first.

The way the movie deals with the topic of homosexuality is surprisingly enlightened. Gays are not labeled as ‘sick’ and ‘perverse,’ at least not by the Leland character. In one good bit the Sinatra character even slugs another officer, played by Robert Duvall, in retaliation for his getting rough with a gay man that he was questioning for no apparent reason except that he was gay.

There is another electrifying sequence involving Leland questioning the victim’s live-in lover and chief suspect. The part is well played by actor Tony Musante who gives his character all sorts of weird body gestures and nervous ticks, which makes the viewer feel uneasy, but compelled to keep watching until it becomes a completely fascinating experience. The Leland character again shows an amazing amount of compassion for the gay lifestyle during the interrogation, which should be enough to give this film a bit of a landmark status.

However, for all its apparent sophistication, there are also things that hold the film back and make it dated. One is reverting to what was a trend in the ‘40s and ‘50s, which was to film a person driving his car while sitting in front of a blue screen and holding onto a steering wheel that is not connected to any dashboard. It was considered an ‘ingenious’ way to stay under budget and not go through the ordeal of mounting a camera onto an actual car, but for today’s audiences it comes off looking obvious and cheesy.

The casting of Sinatra is another drawback. He was already 53 at the time and he looked it. The part seems to be screaming out for a younger, more rugged Method type of actor like Steve McQueen or Paul Newman. Sinatra overplays the tough guy thing too much until it becomes one-dimensional and boring. The character needed more personal quirks and odd habits in order to make him more filled out and interesting. He also wears outfits worn by the ‘old school’ investigators of yesteryear even though the character is one looking to break from tradition and fighting the mainstream.

I also wasn’t quite sure why Lee Remick’s role as Sinatra’s love interest was necessary. I usually dislike it when crime dramas feel the need to work in a romance angle as a side story because it usually ends up just bogging everything down and in this case it was no different. Now Remick is always reliable and her character was interestingly flawed, but how that was supposed to connect with everything else was not clear.

The story is divided into three different parts. The first deals with the murder and the homosexual community of the period. The second deals with the politics of the police department while the third involves a very mysterious suicide of a successful businessman. The third part, which doesn’t start until the second hour of the film, was the most intriguing for me. The suicide is shown from the point-of-view of the victim. They literally took a camera and heaved it over the edge of a building until it crashes directly onto the pavement below, which actually made me flinch. It is not until the very end where you see how all three of these parts come together, but the twist is excellent and made viewing this film well worth while.

Overall the cinematography, editing, writing, directing, and supporting acting are all first-rate. There are a lot of familiar faces in supporting roles including: Jack Klugman, William Windom, Lloyd Bochner, Jacqueline Bisset, Horace McMahon and Al Freeman Jr. They all do splendidly. The subject matter and the way it is handled easily elevates this from other melodramas of the period. All this plus the resolution should make this entertaining even for today’s viewers and enough to overlook a few dated elements.

Note: The Detective is available on DVD as well as on the ‘watch now’ feature for Netflix subscribers.

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Possibly related posts: (Commentary Track generated)

The Detective is the first Frank Sinatra movie to be reviewed on Commentary Track, but I found another movie with a hard-bitten, hard-driving detective in The Driver.

One response to “Rewind: Films of the 60s, 70s, 80s – The Detective (1968)

  1. Dang! I’m eventually going to review “The Man With the Golden Arm” and IT was going to be the first Sinatra film reviewed on CT. Good on you!

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