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 ideas of using his badge
to help the community is made impossible by a welter of corruption and intolerance. With Sinatra
embodying old-fashioned values going up against an inherently wicked system, the film scores some
interesting observations as it happily reveals 'shocking' content in practically every scene. Sinatra
has a role he clearly cares about, but some dated attitudes tend to drag the film down.
Detective Joe Leland (Frank Sinatra) is an honest New York cop up against a lot of
nagging problems. He's left his wife, sociology professor Karen (Lee Remick) because she can't stay
faithful to him - she thinks she's a borderline 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). He also butts heads against
the attitudes of his fellow detectives, who are either racists 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 for help to 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 good news is that The Detective is not a
Dirty Harry movie. Don Siegel's 1971
film tipped the political seesaw in cop films way to the right and made attempts at a reasonable portrayal
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 action packed cop shows that pretended that vigilante extremism equalled
American Values in action.
Abby Mann's screenplay talks tough from the very first scene's description of a dead
body's mutilated genitals and reference to things like semen. By the time the film has reached
the station house, we've heard a half-dozen ethnic slurs and more sharp talk. What's missing is any
real grit. None of these hardboiled detectives use profanity of any kind, and the glossy photography
makes the realistic sets look too comfortable.
Sinatra's Joe Leland's twin investigation take him on a trip into the side of police work that
previously was blocked from movie scrutiny, and 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 sleazy group
of homosexual revelers in the back of a closed truck doing nothing more shocking than kissing.
Robert Duvall and Ralph Meeker abuse and rough up the gays so badly that Sinatra's hero is sickened.
Yet he doesn't do much about it, which would be a halfway realistic touch if the Sinatra character
made any sense. He's supposed to be the most experienced detective on the force, and yet he's
surprised to find out about the rampant homophobia, even from the force's forensic expert. Most every
new cop on the beat would be 'cleared' in regards to the kickback corruption going on, but Joe
is shocked to find that Ralph Meeker is on the take. After the film's one brief scene of violence,
a double officer shooting that would 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 film
Serpico, but The Detective
pretends that police kickbacks in New York are an isolated problem. Homosexual lifestyles revolve around
crime and are treated as some kind of social-mental illness. Joe Leland's do-nothing tolerance is
supposed to be a positive character trait.
In the film's most laughable (or scary) scene, Al Freeman Jr. strips a child killer before
interrogating him, having read up on his (literal) Gestapo tactics of getting quick confessions
by psychological intimidation. Freeman's bit seems to be borrowed from Sam Fuller's Shock
Corridor, in which a black asylum inmate becomes a spokesman for the Klan. Sinatra walks in on
the scene almost like it was a Monty Python sketch, and can't think of anything to do but have the
old geezer get his clothes back on, and say a few sharp words. 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. Politically speaking, a 1968 film showing an educated black detective initiating
a police torture situation, can be compared to German filmmakers putting brutal Jews into
a Nazi film in 1935. Was "liberal" writer Abby Mann trying to make some point that got lost in the
The Detective has the maturity to acknowledge serious social problems, but it is really a
very conservative movie. Gays are sick vermin and a lot of them are psychos hurting themselves and
others. Cop racism and homophobia are understandable vices. In the midst of all the bad attitudes, the
movie almost downplays the fact that Joe Leland's department is perfectly at ease with sending an
innocent man to the electric chair.
There's still some even-handedness to be applauded. Joe's inability to stay married to an
admitted nymphomaniac makes sense, in that he'd have to be Superman to deal with yet another ego-crushing
problem ( ... just the same, if he loved her ...). Lloyd Bochner's LSD-promoting psychoanalyst
may be slighted as an unneccessary crutch for neurotics unwilling to take charge of their lives,
but (spoiler) he turns out not to be behind the evil conspiracy. If a 'quack' shrink appears in a
crime film, it's usually axiomatic that he's a bad guy, if not the Mr. Big behind it all. Jacqueline
Bisset's beautiful damsel in distress does not run to Sinatra's side for 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. (spoiler) Joe
turns in his badge because he's loyal to his department; if he has to fight the powers that be, it'll
have to be from the outside, on his own. We don't see him having much of a chance of doing that.
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. Comedian-writer
Renée Taylor has a nice bit as a doting Jewish wife. Third billed Ralph Meeker must have
been desperate - the celebrated actor has only a glorified bit, and is out-shone by the quiet
intensity of Robert Duvall, who has a fraction of his lines.
Sinatra cruised through a lot of movies but took some of them extremely seriously. He apparently thought
The Detective might be another Manchurian Candidate or an opportunity for Oscar
consideration. It's reported that this was the movie that caused 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 he served papers on her. Or at least
that's how the gossip goes.
Fox's DVD of The Detective is a good enhanced transfer of a mostly excellent master element;
only a few scenes have fine scratches, that may have been built-in to an optical element for one
of the dream-scene transitions. The clear audio made Savant aware of Jerry Goldsmith's dreamy
theme music, which plays in the same mode as his classic score for Chinatown six years later.
The only extra is a trailer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Detective rates:
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent (English 2.0 and mono, French and Spanish Mono)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 22, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson