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The Detective

The Detective
1968 / B&W / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 113 min. / Street Date May 24, 2005 / 14.98
Starring Frank Sinatra, Lee Remick, Ralph Meeker, Jack Klugman, Horace McMahon, Lloyd Bochner, William Windom, Tony Musante, Al Freeman Jr., Robert Duvall, Jacqueline Bisset
Cinematography Joseph F. Biroc
Art Direction William J. Creber, Jack Martin Smith
Film Editor Robert L. Simpson
Original Music Jerry Goldsmith
Written by Abby Mann from a novel by Roderick Thorp
Produced by Aaron Rosenberg
Directed by Gordon Douglas

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 shuffle?

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:
Movie: Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent (English 2.0 and mono, French and Spanish Mono)
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 22, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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