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Frank Sinatra took an extended break from acting after 1970's Dirty Dingus Magee, doing a TV movie but returning to the big screen in a starring role just once more, a decade later. The First Deadly Sin is a low key crime drama more or less ten years before its time. Serial killers didn't become ubiquitous entertainment fare until 1991's The Silence of the Lambs, even though the breakthrough film along those lines, 1968's The Boston Strangler shared some of the cynical, 'modern violence is too much for us' attitude of Sinatra's own The Detective, made at the same time. In that movie, Sinatra's police detective is a regulation aggressive hard-charger who doesn't mind breaking the rules. Sinatra, we're told, was also an early choice to play Dirty Harry.
But ten years make a difference. Sinatra's inspector Edward Delaney has mellowed out and is nearing retirement. He's no longer the kind of guy to throw his weight around. He's got serious problems of his own, but presses forward on a grim case out of pure professional curiosity -- and a humanistic streak that pushes him to keep trying to help people.
We're told that Mann Rubin's adaptation eliminates much of the lighter material in Lawrence Sander's source book. Old-school cop Edward Delaney (Sinatra) has seen it all. His pending retirement is no cause for cheer because his beloved wife Barbara (Faye Dunaway) is undergoing setbacks in her recovery from an operation. At the same time, Ed intuits a connection between several strange killings. By asking his coroner friend Dr. Ferguson (James Whitmore) to do extra autopsies, he determines that the victims all received a sharp blow to the head, by an instrument that leaves a round hole in the skull. 1 The precinct's new supervisor Captain Broughton (Anthony Zerbe) is only interested in making a show of reforms. He reprimands Delaney for spending time on cases that happened in other areas and tells him to relax and let the retirement clock run out. Delaney instead solicits the help of Dr. Ferguson, plus one of the widows Monica Gilbert (Brenda Vaccaro), and Christopher Langley (Martin Gabel), a museum expert on ancient weaponry. Monica offers to help Delaney cross-reference files (away from Captain Broughton). Langley just wants to be useful, and begins a careful investigation into every possible tool or weapon that could leave a round hole in a person's skull. A suspect is located, a wealthy executive (David Dukes) too important for Delaney to get a search warrant for without direct evidence. So Edward bribes a doorman (Joe Spinell) to sneak into the man's penthouse apartment. Why is the ethical and rule-conscious Delaney acting so rashly? His wife Barbara's health is getting worse, and her doctor (George Coe) can't seem to stop an infection. Ed keeps visiting her in the hospital, but each of them seems to be straining to cheer up the other.
Frank Sinatra's reputation as a bossy and somewhat belligerent 'Chairman of the Board' is substantially softened by this humanistic, emotionally sensitive crime tale. Instead of barging through situations, Sinatra's Ed Delaney quietly absorbs abuse from superiors. He puts up with bureaucratic BS from all sides, including his cranky old pal the coroner. Delaney asks nicely for things and for the most part doesn't squawk when people get testy or young punks in the department swing their authority around. The result is that we care intensely for Delaney. After so many films in which Sinatra seems to be acting for a lark, or not happy to be acting at all, he applies himself again in the service of a story. It's as if he finally discovered that he doesn't have to prove himself.
The scenes with Faye Dunaway are handled especially well, without pushing the sentiment or telegraphing whether she'll recover or not. Delaney loses his cool only when he thinks Barbara's doctor hasn't been attending her properly. The pressure has to show somewhere. Helping to conduct his unauthorized investigation are two more likeable people. Brenda Vaccaro often played lame female sidekicks, spouting smart-aleck dialogue; she'd end up doing exactly that for Dunaway in the ill-fated movie Supergirl. She's instead afforded some dignity as a woman grateful that Delaney is looking for her husband's murderer. Martin Gabel also has a memorable turn as the elderly academic happy to be contributing constructively. In most crime films the professor would be more comic relief, with the slick detective taking him for granted. Film fans will know Gabel from Hitchcock's Marnie, but he was also a producer, and as a one-shot film director is credited with the unusual literary-themed thriller The Lost Moment. Gabel and Sinatra share some fun interaction with a sporting goods wholesaler, played by the great character actor Robert Weil The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. New York in 1980 may have been a social disaster, but this movie inspires faith in its citizens.
The serial murder theme is handled in a fairly interesting way. The schizophrenic rich guy just has screwy personal delusions that lead him to compulsively kill random people, and he's changed his address frequently over the past few years so that his victims don't present an immediate pattern for the cops. Ed has a hell of a time tracking him down, and when he thinks he has his man the bureaucracy doesn't let him do anything about it. So Delaney solves it in his own way. It's too specific and un-shaded a case for a debate about policemen and morality, but for this show the ending is entirely satisfactory.
Receiving little credit for this very nicely shot feature is director Brian G. Hutton, who is much better known for his big-scale war adventures Where Eagles Dare and Kelly's Heroes. When such an interesting cast meshes so well, it's never wrong to compliment the director. Hutton and Sinatra seem to be on the same page entirely. Working in real locations, Hutton keeps the interest up; the killer is made mysterious through nicely stylized visuals of the artwork and slick décor in his tony apartment. Hutton's interesting career is written up in a fine Cinema Retro article by Lee Pfeiffer.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The First Deadly Sin appears to be a reissue of an earlier disc. The enhanced picture looks fine, with good color and smooth sound. The disc has closed captions as well as English subtitles.
We understand why the show wasn't a big success - low-key character dramas didn't have a chance in 1980. Sinatra had been out of circulation for a while and his character doesn't sing or really even smile much. The ad campaign focused on the wicked-looking murder weapon, which unfortunately removes the impact of its reveal. The chrome weapon is pretty scary; we're glad the movie had the sense not to use a certain pop tune.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.