The Detective (Gordon Douglas,1968)
Armed with only the vaguest notion of it as a neo-noir starring Frank Sinatra (as well as able to add the presence of Lee Remick, seeing it was screening as part of a program celebrating the recently deceased actress’ work), I figured why not, plucked down my duckets in exchange for a ticket (after first stopping in the Quad Cafe where the oat milk latte is good but the wifi service sucks) and eventually plopped my ass down in one of those comfy, if entirely badly arranged, red seats in anticipation of what was to come, projected onto one of their infamously matchbook-sized screen, with the hope of taking in a worthwhile, quasi-old-Hollywood tough-guy style of a film (it’s Sinatra after all, and coming from the late 60’s, not yet the far grittier Hollywood 70’s… or so I thought… hint, hint).
It all starts satisfyingly enough, with a vibrant 60’s color palette and an appropriately jazzy orchestral score by Hollywood legend Jerry Goldsmith, as the camera follows Frank Sinatra’s New York City plainclothes detective Joe Leland, draped in a trench coat and donning his signature dark fedora (or trilby hat, whatever you call it), weaving through the city traffic as the credits take their time to play out… but it’s the startling moment he arrives at the crime scene, the wealthy apartment of a murdered homosexual, son of an influential New York businessman with political connections, where we see the naked, bloodied corpse luridly displayed, a few furniture accoutrements barely concealing his (missing!) essentials, learning with Leland that the poor guy has not only had his brains beat in, his fingers mashed to the point of some of them missing, but his penis severed (and also missing!), that I realized, whoa, this 1968 Hollywood movie wasn’t fooling around.
The film swirls admirably around themes of police corruption, including department-enabled homophobia, fascist behaviour, and an opportunism born out of the desire for job promotions (leading to the conviction of innocent people); the last providing the eye-popping example of black Detective Kelly (Al Freeman Jr), eager to make Lieutenant by maximizing the number of cases he can close by any means necessary, stripping a terrified old man of his clothes before the entire precinct house to interrogate him, claiming proudly to Sinatra’s horrified Leland that he learned the technique from watching old concentration camp films! I mean, I can’t claim to the veracity of this kinda thing in a police station, but certainly metaphorically it happens all the time… and it certainly made an impact on screen!
With scenes of the police rounding up packs of gay men in the throes of orgy-like activity at the docks, caught writhing about in groups in the back of parked trailer trucks (a little weird as they’re all fully clothed – but, hey, Friedkin’s Cruising was still a decade away… and this certainly opened the door for it!), with Robert Duvall’s homophobic cop beating up on them and referring to them as ‘fags’, a suicide, as well as a brutal depiction of an execution by electrocution (of a deeply mentally troubled gay man played by Tony Musante in a fascinating merging of styles that I couldn’t quite grasp if I thought was an offensive cartoon-like caricature of a tortured flaming queen, or a brilliant manifestation of deep mental illness – but whatever it was, like so much of the film, it played as intensely thrilling), it was the end of the draconian Hays Code and the start of the permissive ratings system, and the studio clearly was figuring it was ripe time to take long-time Hollywood actor Sinatra, sauntering about, referring to men about him in old school tough guy style as ‘baby’, and thrust him right into some R-rated, openly sensational territory.
I recently wrote about how Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo introduction, First Blood, was a film that perfectly bridged the cynical Hollywood 70’s with the soon-to-explode reactionary action films of the 80’s (the ‘new morning in America’ that conservative Pres Reagan spoke of). Well, The Detective is a fascinating, vibrant example of a film also straddling two generations, with the inclusion of Sinatra and a more traditional school of filmmaking (including wonky flashback techniques already outdated by the time of The Detective), the colorful glamorized old school Hollywood era, with the emerging modernistic verisimilitude of the approaching 70’s, and all the lurid sensationalism that the newly instituted MPAA ratings system allowed…. Yet even within the old school style (which, with its Goldsmith score, is good on its own), there is some odd attempts at filmmaking experimentation that, while not quite working, end up being fascinating nonetheless (such as Sinatra’s Leland and his wife, played by Lee Remick, consistently looking directly into the camera when they have a conversation with each other, rather than just off to the side).
It’s a noir world, alright… with a city run by the rotten wealthy; ever-protected, never punished for their sins, with weary, ethical cops like Sinatra’s Leland fighting against forces he can’t possibly beat… only this world is filled with all sorts of things never spoken about, or seen, so vividly before. Of course, in traditional fashion, Leland’s commitment to the ‘job’ is causing problems at home… only, in this case, it’s also because Remick’s Karen is compulsively drawn to sleep with men she barely knows. In just one of the amazing moments between them, Leland discovers her out at a restaurant with another man. He pushes the man away and takes her home, asking ‘So you’re seeing him again?’ to which she momentarily looks confused before admitting, with a matter-of-fact calmness, that no, he’s a new one. Leland’s own struggle of conscience comes (though never fully dramatically realized to the extent it could have been) when he realizes, in his desire to get promoted to Lieutenant, he forced a confession out of an innocent man leading to his execution.
Leland’s attitude (and the film’s, as the Sinatra character is the ostensible hero) towards his brethren is ballsy, holding an open contempt for the policeman around him (including, at one moment taking a liking to an angry female witness who refuses to speak to the police simply because, as she sneers, ‘she doesn’t like cops’). He punches out Duvall’s homophobic beat cop and despises Ralph Meeker’s sneer-smiling cop for openly taking handouts to do the bidding of the wealthy (the mere presence and differing acting styles between the young, up-and-comer Duvall with the noir-inflected Meeker is just another of the crashing together of two Hollywood mentalities in the film).
The Detective plays as a messy, lurid, entirely fascinating mish-mash of a neo-noir; filled with worthy themes, yes, but its real vibrant heart comes from its brazenly sensational approach to its subject matter, with the filmmakers and studio clearly determined to see how far they could push that newly created R-rating. It was an amazing discovery for me I never saw coming. And what can be better than that when you hit the cinemas?