BR: Detective, The (1968)

February 13, 2016 | By

Detective1968_BRFilm: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released: December 8, 2015

Genre:  Crime / Detective / Thriller

Synopsis: A senior detective is pressured by the department to solve the murder of a councilman’s son.

Special Features:  Audio Commentary with film historians David Del Valle, Lem Dobbs, and Nick Redman / Stereo Isolated Music Track / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.




Frank Sinatra’s foray into grungy, sleazy crime movies managed to perform well at the box office, but it’s a really strange film that’s hard to love for all the risks the actor took in playing a decent cop surrounded by a corrupt, ass-kissing force, and his earnest efforts to uncover deep-rooted corruption between elite city councilors and land owners – a tale of oily glad-handing that predate Robert Towne’s own tale of West Coast corruption in Chinatown (1974).

Based on a truly fat (albeit large print) novel by Roderick Thorp, Abby Mann (Judgment at Nuremberg) did a commendable job in distilling yet retaining the many characters and their bad behaviour, even holding onto the weird flashbacks that sometimes bring the murder investigation (the novel’s narrative motor) to a halt in order to detail the marital highs and ultimate flaming-out of Detective Joe Leland and Karen.

Audio commentators Lem Dobbs, Nick Redman, and David Del Valle contrast Mann’s script with Thorp’s novel, citing several major changes which were arguably mandated when fiftysomething Sinatra was cast to play a role suited for a much younger actor (like Paul Newman, who was reportedly interested in the project).

Instead of the novel’s wartime flashbacks, we see Leland as a beat cop and night school student (!) who woos future university professor Karen (Lee Remick); and the role of secondary love interest Norma MacIver (Jacqueline Bisset) was trimmed down, perhaps to keep the already long film dramatically lean, and emphasize the genuine loss felt by Karen and Joe as they realize neither can give their once potent love a needed reset.

Leland’s called into action when the gay son of a wealthy councilor is found stabbed and head-mashed in a ritzy apartment, but that opening scene also introduces the film’s most controversial subject matter which makes The Detective either tough to accept as a thriller, or quite laughable in spots. Twilight Time’s ace commentators describe the film as a slice of Hollywood circa 1968, depicting homosexuality on the commercial screen as a mental illness and warped (if nicely colour-coordinated) lifestyle. Mann’s scene of police raiding trailers of pretty boys in freshly dry-cleaned pastel sweaters is quite ridiculous, as is a visit to a bodybuilding club, and another character’s walk into a ‘hellish’ gay bar, where he’s soon sickened yet drawn to something that burns deep within his belly: a disease called ‘bisexuality.’

Just as bizarre is Tony Musante’s version of a psychotic suspect named Felix who cringes and wiggles in the interrogation hot seat as Leland (literally) holds the suspect’s quivering hand to coax out a confession. It’s hard to tell from Mann’s script if Felix’s psychosis is drug-based, sourced from a loathing of his dead & abusive lover, or the inner torment of being gay (as projected through Hollywood’s angst-ridden lens), but it keeps shifting from high camp to being hypnotic for the emotional dynamics between squirming, screeching Felix and soft-voiced and very patient Leland.

Dobbs and his fellow commentators find the scene similarly bizarre, but also brave on Sinatra’s part because it’s arguably a necessary exchange where Leland ultimately succumbs to the department’s pressure to delivery a confession within 48 hours, saving the face of his colleagues and superiors, and making the already planned promotion a ‘natural’ reward after years of service and hard work. The success of Leland’s interrogation is the pivotal moment when he joins his morally flawed colleagues, and does so with spilled blood.

Sinatra’s careful performance still channels Leland’s palpable disgust, and every insult keeps pushing him towards a bigger confrontation from which we suspect he’ll be a changed man. When new partner Robbie (Al Freeman Jr.) is caught interrogating a naked suspect because ‘he got the idea from German prison camp films,’ Leland comes close to beating the shit out of a man he once respected; and coordinated effort by the department to cover up a green cop’s (Maniac Cop’s Tom Atkins) murder of a civilian similarly makes it clear that even from within, Leland can’t seed change in the department’s rotting culture. Change can only happen when something big and dangerous is exposed in its ugliness to the media and the city as a whole.

Not unlike Joeseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), everyone in the city is having a shitty day, and that punchiness permeates all… except perhaps the women, who remain happily oblivious or fixated on particular issues: the wife of fellow cop Schoenstein (Jack Klugman) fixates on food and becomes irritated when her fresh lox and bagels are shooed back into the kitchen; waif and potential love interest Norma (a role originally set for Sinatra’s then wife Mia Farrow, before she settled on Rosemary’s Baby) is suspicious of her father’s death and wants Leland to uncover every drop of truth no matter how far and deep it travels; and heartbroken Karen seeks out strange men because of another type of mental illness, that evil uncontrollable bullet of an addiction called nymphomania.

Remick manages to make Karen tragic and compelling when she could’ve been whiny and sleazy, and her scenes with Sinatra feel very genuine, much in the way Sinatra managed to transcend otherwise dull material with Faye Dunaway in The First Deadly Sin (1980), a film that offered variant of his detective persona where the fair-minded cop becomes a vigilante.

There are multiple dark secrets layered between several characters which intertwine, and that includes psychiatrist Dr. Roberts (Lloyd Bochner), who breaks the patient confidentiality code with casual ease because he wants to see Leland wrinkle when he tells him he’s heard all of Karen’s secrets; Norma’s dead father Colin (William Windom, seen in another set of flashbacks) whose self-loathing stems from realizing he’s bisexual; and rival cop Curran (ever-smirking Ralph Meeker), comfortable working the system for his own profit no matter how many poor and innocents are cheated.

Jerry Goldsmith’s brassy score (built around a great mournful / lonely / sleazy / big city landscape trumpet solo) is surprisingly sparse, and while there are two genuine action sequences – the apprehension of Felix on the beach, and a dramatically spastic garage shootout – The Detective is pretty much a procedural detective drama. To the cast and writer’s credit, it manages to work in spite of its 114 min. running time.

Gordon Douglas is often regarded as a capable yet workmanlike director who occasionally delivered a few genuine genre classics – the James Cagney noir Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950), the sci-fi classic Them! (1954) – and as Dobbs argues, he knew when to step back and let the star run the show, hence his recurring work with Sinatra on Young at Heart (1954), Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964), and the detective thrillers Tony Rome (1967) and Lady in Cement (1968).

Douglas also helmed the 1966 remake of Stagecoach, a film often filled with moments of blandness and technical laziness that boggles the mind, but when the material was right and he cared, the results were fairly solid: the spy spoof In Like Flint (1967) is ridiculously fun and shows his grasp of comedy after beginning his career directing Our gang shorts during the 1930s.

Douglas gets a bit of a hard rap from Twilight Time’s commentators, as it’s a much slicker film that does incorporate more than a few real locations with the usual sterile film sets, and the cinematography by Joseph Biroc (Bwana Devil, The Flight of the Phoenix, Warning Shot) is a pleasing blend of location grit and slick widescreen.

Douglas also recognized that his star had a very likable screen presence, and certainly to fans, there’s real magic in the series of medium close-ups which solidify the attraction between a younger Leland and Karen by placing the camera straight-on their faces, highlighting their gorgeous blue eyes. Whether or not that connection existed between the actors off-camera, that screen attraction ensures we’re willing to follow and support Leland through some of the grimy and weird encounters in The Detective, and forgive its makers for some of the sleazy and offensive elements.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray will delight Sinatra fans for offering a really beautiful HD transfer. Goldsmith’s sparkling score has also been isolated in a separate stereo track (plus some material apparently gathered from a music & effects mix), and the original 1.0 mono mix sounds fine.

The best extra, however, is the lively discussion of both the film and Frank Sinatra as a walking, singing, acting contradiction, being generous and cruel, gifted and domineering, liberal and conservative, and like many superstars, sometimes working with malleable directors instead of trusting more demanding and adventurous talents to extract potent performances.

The irony is that while Douglas may have given Sinatra a wide berth to develop his character and work with the cast, Mann’s script and the material brought out a tougher, leaner detective persona, and he handles the often sleazy elements as his character would – a swirl of negligence, ignorance, and selfish acts of evil which are offset, and maybe on occasion tempered, by acts of decency.

It’s a quality that resonates in the actor’s roles as well as Leland, a character whom whom Thorp later revisited in a follow-up novel in 1979 called Nothing Lasts Forever. That work was later adapted by several screenwriters who renamed Joe Leland as John MacClane, a frustrated NYC cop separated from his wife whom he visits in L.A. in John McTiernan’s disaster film satire / action classic Die Hard (1988). (In a weird quirk of fate, that film’s star, Bruce Willis, would make his film debut in a barely visible unbilled bit part in Sinatra’s film swan song, The First Deadly Sin.)

Dobbs, Redman, and Del Valle tackle every aspect of the film and its great cast – including Robert Duvall, Musante (Bird with the Crystal Plumage), massively prolific character actor Windom, and always underrated Remick (The Long, Hot Summer, Wild River, Experiment in Terror) – and deliver another lively discussion that runs on the energy and enthusiasm of its commentators.

Listeners will likely want to track down some of Sinatra’s other work in a film career that began in musicals, ebbed and rebounded with stark dramas, and eventually settled into a state of complacency of which the nadir may be the cheap & lazy Assault on a Queen (1966), but peaks include The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

The Detective sort of falls on the low end of the mid-quality films, but as the commentators point out, it’s a film that predates Dirty Harry (1971) and its formula in which rebel cops were the heroes within political and judicial systems younger audiences felt were corrupt. Thorp’s novel may not have seeded the rebel cop genre (Dobbs’ very appropriate term), but Sinatra’s vivid portrayal in this often profane work certainly sets up a genre that is integral to understanding and enjoying seventies cinema.



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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