The Detective drops an ethical, tough-as-nails film noir antihero into a mystery story designed to tackle every conceivable issue plaguing late-’60s New York City: police/political corruption, corporate greed, racism, sexism, homophobia, divorce, psychiatry, hippies, casual sex, and even-more-casual drug use. It’s a good but not great film that earns some bonus points for not biting off more than it can chew, despite its expansive social agenda.

Frank Sinatra stars as Joe Leland, an NYPD detective who pretty much hates everything and everyone around him. Of course, he has reason to: everything surrounding him is in moral and ethical decay, starting with the alarming killing that opens the film. They find the victim, a wealthy homosexual, splayed on the floor of his posh apartment. The killer has bashed in the man’s face and removed his penis and a few fingers. A cursory investigation leads them to a mostly harmless nutjob (Tony Musante) whose coerced confession gets him the electric chair (in record time, it would seem). Needless to say, Leland never quite believes the confession, even though he’s the one who coerces it, and his success lands him an unwanted promotion to lieutenant.

Some time later, beautiful Norma MacIver (Jacqueline Bisset) asks Leland for help. Her husband’s recent death was ruled a suicide, but she refuses to believe it. Leland investigates, and if you think this case has no relation to the film’s opening murder, you’ve never seen a detective movie.

The script by Abby Mann balances the mysteries with frequently depressing dalliances into Leland’s personal life. He tries to reconnect with his estranged ex-wife, Karen (Lee Remick), a sex-addicted hippie whose constant cheating led to their divorce. His efforts work about as well as you might expect, but I appreciated this glimpse into the hoary aftermath of a relationship gone south. Usually hardboiled detective fiction revolves around femme fatales — the detectives fall for them and get betrayed, so the relationship doesn’t last long enough collapse naturally. Leland’s relationship with Karen hints at a vulnerability rarely explored in this sort of character.

Frank Sinatra gives what should have been considered a career-defining performance, if not for the fact that he made only a few more films after The Detective. Aside from his deserved Oscar-winning turn in The Manchurian Candidate, Sinatra rarely showed much range as an actor, capitalizing more on charisma and his built-in popularity as a singer than commitment to character and trying to deliver the best possible performance. The Detective came at a strange time in his career, though: after the explosion of Beatlemania, he found both his singing and acting careers waning. Supporting my personal theory that adversity breeds real art, in the late ’60s Sinatra dared to star in a wild, gritty detective movie (which makes Dragnet the series look like Dragnet the movie) and record a great, depressing concept album about divorce (1970’s Watertown).

Sinatra plays Joe Leland as the consummate hardboiled detective: a cynic who follows his own internal set of rules and doesn’t much care what anyone else does — so long as it doesn’t interfere with his investigation. The film presents him as a man both out of touch with the modern age but ultimately more progressive than those around him: he’s not interested in the race or sexual preference of suspects, leading him to clash with other detectives (notably a young Robert Duvall). Still, he can’t understand things like psychiatry and sexual addiction, and he really doesn’t want to. Such things don’t fit with the way he sees the world. He’s less angry and frustrated than disenchanted and world-weary.

Though the film is driven by Sinatra’s remarkable performance, a terrific supporting cast surrounds him. Remick does some of her best work as Leland’s conflicted yet resentful ex-wife. The film depicts their relationship (from beginning to end) through sometimes awkward flashbacks that present an unusually balanced portrait of a relationship that was doomed from the start. Jack Klugman gives an alternately funny and tragic performance as the only cop Leland trusts, Lloyd Bochner chews scenery as perhaps the world’s sleaziest psychiatrist, and Duvall manages to play a dirty cop with an intensity that makes his over-the-top dialogue believable. Bisset doesn’t have much to do besides look pretty, but she’s quite good at that.

Although it has some unfortunate choices typical of late-’60s cinema (particularly the trippy focus effects used to take us into and out of flashbacks), the film’s frank, bordering-on-disinterested handling of the shocking crimes and the gritty, vérité-style production is a precursor to bona fide classics like The French Connection and Serpico. Although a hit when it came out in 1968, The Detective has not endured like those films. That’s a real shame.

Random Movie-Nerd Trivia: In The Detective, Lloyd Bochner played sleazy Dr. Wendell. Twenty years later, Bochner’s son, Hart, played sleazy Harry Ellis in Die Hard. You remember him — the coke-snorting yuppie who famously declared, “Hans, bubi, I’m your white knight”? Well, it gets weirder: Roderick Thorp wrote the novel on which The Detective was based. In 1979, he wrote a direct sequel called Nothing Lasts Forever. This novel became the source for Die Hard.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

Comments (1)

On February 5, 2015 at 9:35 PM, Gabriel M. wrote...

His Oscar winning turn in “The Manchurian Candidate”? Whoa, you’re way off base. He won for “From Here to Eternity”.

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