Directed by Gordon Douglas
Written by Abby Mann, from a novel by Roderick Thorp
Starring Frank Sinatra, Lee Remick, Ralph Meeker, Jack Klugman, Tony Musante
The hard-boiled detective has to move with the times. By the time the 1960s came along, the changed cultural scene gave new possibilities, and one of the results was The Detective.
Joe Leland (Frank Sinatra) is an incorruptible New York city cop who is called in to investigate a murder. The naked corpse has been mutilated, hands and other body parts cut off. When his housemate Felix Tesla (Tony Musante) is found it all falls into place and Tesla is sent to the chair.
But Leland has his doubts. And when he investigates a second, seemingly irrelevant case, a suicide that seems a bit fishy, he begins to unravel a more complex set of facts that connect the two.
The movie reveled in its grittiness, touching on subjects that couldn’t have been tackled before, like drug abuse and corruption. Most notably, it was willing to talk about homosexuality. Now, it was hardly a balanced portrayal, even if some of the characters were sympathetic. I doubt it holds up very well, but the fact that it was portrayed directly was new in 1968 and some of that might be because they didn’t think the public was ready for a nuanced look.
This was one of Sinatra’s better roles. He seemed to really throw himself into a character instead of just playing himself and his Joe Leland is tough and no-nonsense, with some hints of vulnerability.
The movie was a success, but has slowly faded away. It might be too cringeworthy to get through today.
One side note: author Roderick Thorp wrote a sequel about the further adventures of Leland. It was forgotten for twenty years, until someone took the bare bones of the second novel and planned to make a movie about that. The problem was that Sinatra was given first shot at the role in any sequel. Sinatra looked at the script and knew he was too old to play the lead, who had been turned into an action hero. Bruce Willis took it instead, and Die Hard became a classic.