A Loner's Toughest Case
This “adult look at a police detective” was going to be tough, all right. And its star and producing influence, the powerhouse known as Frank Sinatra, saw to that. Despite critical brickbats, The Detective (1968), which opened 49 years ago yesterday was a moody and edgy box-office success, helped largely by Sinatra’s cool but world-weary central performance as an NYPD lieutenant who’s led a bruising personal life but a reasonably solid professional one – until he catches one particularly sordid, acutely controversial case that starts the various strands of his solitary world unraveling. For someone so legendarily entouraged through six decades in the limelight, he felt a direct connection to his loner persona, and perhaps never channeled it so effectively in his late-career performances as he does here. It undoubtedly felt hurtful to him that his recent new wife Mia Farrow would not exit the delayed production of Rosemary’s Baby to join him in The Detective, and a deep sense of disloyalty and betrayal triggered his action for divorce. But if work on this screen adaptation of a Roderick Thorp novel about a gruesome homosexual murder case and the fallout of its devastating revelations would provide a healing way forward, Ol’ Blue Eyes in the title role truly took this bull by the horns. “Looking heavier than in the past, Sinatra etches a portrait of a veteran cop who knows his way around a crime scene and has clearly seen in all,” Tom Santopietro wrote in his 2008 study Sinatra in Hollywood. “This hardened veteran is one tough customer who is anything but easily rankled. The look of loneliness – indeed, wonder – that informed many of Sinatra’s films from the 1940s and 1950s, has been replaced by a glare that speaks to the character’s toughness and cynicism. Sinatra prepared meticulously…, a sure sign that he cared about the material and realized it presented him with strong possibilities as an artist: ‘I used to chat with [veteran cop Johnny Broderick] about little idiosyncrasies that they have….And I tried to put all those little things that he told me about….I want you to believe that I am thinking that I am the cop….You’re playing a cop with a badge, and the authority. I was always trying to keep a little tenderness in it somewhere….” That tenderness was especially engaged in the flashback scenes depicting the lawman’s devotion to his straying wife (Lee Remick), from whom he has become estranged and yet has never stopped loving. There’s a brief sequence recapping their earlier decision to marry, in which, Santopietro comments, “Sinatra’s ensuing enormously appealing wide-eyed grin makes him appear to be all of 18 years old, one of the few moments of warmth and humor in an increasingly dark film.” If the film’s treatment of the homosexual culture is in retrospect naïve and overly shadowy and its exploration of police brutality and civic corruption blunt and ham-fisted, it was as cutting-edge as mainstream Hollywood got at the time. “The film adopts a rather schizophrenic viewpoint on the issue,” Santopietro assesses. “On the one hand, [Sinatra’s detective] Leland displays sympathy toward homosexuals, treating them with respect, but of the three main gay characters in the film, one [William Windom] is a murderer, another [Tony Musante] is hysterical and falsely confesses to murder, and the third [James Inman], a thoroughly unpleasant man, is killed. It’s a motif that runs throughout all of Sinatra’s late-1960s detective films; as a rule, the Sinatra character does not personally find the gay men repellent, but the gay men are presented as ‘bad’ men, either killers or hysterical queens, while the women are depicted as oversexed and somehow not worthy of the hero’s love.” Director Gordon Douglas effectively guides a marvelous supporting cast – Ralph Meeker, Jacqueline Bisset (in the role originally intended for Farrow), Jack Klugman, Horace McMahon, Lloyd Bochner, Al Freeman Jr., Pat Henry and Sugar Ray Robinson – but it is the image of Sinatra’s anti-hero, his policing infallibility shattered, his romantic loyalties torn, and his future uncertain, driving alone into the night at story’s end that lingers. “Sinatra is first-rate throughout, never once begging for audience sympathy or coming across as less than believable,” Santopietro concludes. That’s the uncontested verdict of the unnervingly crafted The Detective, featuring Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting blues score on an Isolated Music Track and a frank and involving Audio Commentary with David Del Valle, Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman on an exceptional Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.