DVD: First Deadly Sin, The (1980)

February 12, 2016 | By

FirstDeadlySinFilm: Good

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: n/a

Label:  Warner Home Video

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  May 18, 1999

Genre:  Crime / Detective / Serial Killer

Synopsis: A retiring detective is pushed to his limits when he must solve a serial killing no one cares about, and comfort his dying wife.

Special Features:  (none)




The earliest effort by Hollywood to film the first novel in Lawrence Sanders’ Deadly Sin series was reportedly in the works in the 1970s, and at one time the project was being developed by Columbia for Roman Polanski, but when the director was charged with statutory rape in 1977, The First Deadly Sin was put on pause again.

When Sanders’ story finally hit cinema screens in 1980, it was a less than satisfactory production that suffered from bland direction by replacement director Brian G. Hutton, a banal script by prolific TV scribe Mann Rubin, flat albeit nicely composed location photography by TV cinematographer Jack Priestley, and a variable score by Gordon Jenkins, a former Frank Sinatra collaborator whose peak film scoring period was the 1950s – the first 3D feature film Bwana Devil (1952) and Any Given Minute (1958) – plus a smattering of episodic TV.

Jenkins hadn’t scored a feature film since 1958 (and nothing this grim); Hutton hadn’t directed a film in 7 years, and star Sinatra (who also executive produced) hadn’t made a feature film since Dirty Dingus Magee (1970), although he did star in the TV movie Contract on Cherry Street (1977), based on the detective novel by Philip Rosenberg. The teleplay was by Edward Anhalt, a veteran screenwriter (Panic in the Streets, The Young Lions, The Satan Bug) who also wrote an original script for Stanley Kramer’s The Pride and the Passion (1957) and co-wrote the classic B-flick The Sniper (1952), both of which co-starred Sinatra.

Sinatra’s interest in the project perhaps lay in playing the aging and soon-to-retire detective Edward X. Delaney, and his dogged determination to close one last case while his wife (Faye Dunaway) lies in critical condition in hospital. Sin is both a detective and a serial killer thriller, but it’s also a career swan song shot in New York City with a great cast of veteran character actors.

Unfortunately, too much of the film’s first third is devoted to identifying the right kind of small pick-ax the killer (David Dukes) uses to brain his victims, and when Delaney’s given a trio of suspects that fit the killer’s habit of murdering locals and skipping to another part of town to launch another round of deaths, one of those suspects was reportedly dropped from the final edit to keep the movie’s running time under 2 hours.

When Delaney finally confronts one ‘Daniel Blank,’ it sets off a vigilante arc echoing Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry (1971) but lacks its impact largely because the killer feels like a hack TV writer’s impression of a dark character without bothering to do much research into actual case studies.

When not working by day, Blank maintains an exercise regiment in a dark ritzy apartment that’s filled with glass objects (bottles, vases, crystals), and he keeps his record and stereo system on the kitchen counter – decor that suggests less about Blank and his psychoses and more about a production designer tasked with making a spacious apartment look creepy with oddly placed objects afforded by a limited budget.

Blank sleeps in a closet under racks of impeccably folded clothes and the murder weapon, and he sports separate wigs for his day job and nighttime kills, although both wigs are nearly identical. Beyond looking ‘determined,’ actor Dukes has one major emotional scene with Sinatra where he whimpers, babbles some nonsense about merging with his victims through their deaths, and threatens to call the police when he realizes Delaney has entered his apartment of his own accord.

Sinatra’s version of Delaney is a good and fair-minded cop – not unlike Joe Leland in The Detective (1968) – but whether details were wholly ported over from the novel or shaped to suit Sinatra’s version of an aging detective, the secondary storyline of Barbara’s poor recovery in hospital repeatedly brings the serial killer story to a grinding halt.

Even stranger is Delaney engaging the widow (Brenda Vaccaro) of Blank’s first kill to help sort through a pile of mail order addresses, and using specific known markers, winnow the mass of candidates to the final trio of suspects.

This she does with the aide of another aged character – a museum’s resident ancient weapons expert (Marnie‘s Martin Gabel) – who uses his own down time to find the precise pick-ax by visiting several hardware and sporting goods shops. Gabel (who also appeared in Contract on Cherry Street) makes his own final feature film appearance in Sin, and it’s a quirky role that suits the veteran character actor and his magnificent voice, as does prune-faced James Whitmore as the grumbly head coroner, and smarmy Anthony Zerbe as the efficiency-minded precinct chief.

It’s a fine supporting cast augmented by equally colourful bit players, including familiar faces like Joe Spinell as a sly doorman, and George Coe as the surgeon who can’t get a grip on Barbara’s increasingly poor health, but the movie’s almost undone by dull scenes and deadly pacing, not to mention Dunaway literally spending the entire film being sickly in bed.

To Sinatra’s credit, he’s very good, and has a great rapport with Dunaway; their affectionate glances feel wholly genuine. Sinatra also has one potent scene where Delaney loses his patience with the surgeon, demanding empirical evidence to explain and help solve her sudden and rapid downward spiral, but the mystery of her poor health ends there, as the doctor disappears from the story and Delaney stops barking for answers.

Hutton’s direction is too quiet, if not distant, and most of the interior scenes are overlit in spite of many scenes shot in colourful locations. Jenkins’ music works best when its in its most minimalist form, whereas the broad thematic statements sound like slightly updated orchestrations of a glossy sixties big city detective story such as Madigan (1968) – not ideal for a grim serial killer thriller where people are left to die in the street after their craniums are poked open.

In his twilight years, Sinatra could still deliver a compelling performance of a tough yet tender cop, but Sin feels like an attempt to assemble genre aspects from older, prior, and better detective tales in an era when thrillers were becoming edgier and more stylized, if not devoting increasingly more screen time to serial killers in slasher films like Prom Night (1980) and Maniac (1980), the latter starring Spinell.

Sinatra portrayed detectives in a slew of successful films during the final years of his prolific career, including Tony Rome (1967), The Detective (1968), Lady in Cement (1968), The First Deadly Sin (1980), and a retired cop in the “Laura” episode of Magnum, P.I. (1987) starring Tom Selleck. One could argue each film showcased a singular character who evolved from beat cop to detective, sergeant, captain, retiree, and private detective at various points.

Director Hutton handful of film credits include the Clint Eastwood films Where Eagles Dare (1968) and Kelly’s Heroes (1970), the horror film Night Watch (1973), and his final work, High Road to China (1983), Selleck’s first attempt to break free from TV and upgrade to starring film roles.

Other adaptations of Lawrence Sanders novels include Pattern of Evil and The Anderson Tapes (both 1971).

Note: although released via Warner Archives in 2010, that disc is reportedly a reissue of the same full frame transfer as the older Warner snapper case edition from 1999.



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



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