By Scott Ross
Roderick Thorpe’s thick 1966 bestseller The Detective — strangely compelling through 500 pages in which no real action of the type beloved by moviemakers occurs — centers on an insurance investigator, and while the makers of the 1968 screen adaptation obviously felt that Joe Leland had to be made an actual cop, they remained remarkably faithful to the substance of Thorpe’s narrative: Two seemingly unrelated cases, spread over time, come crashing together in the direst of fashions as Leland’s marriage falls to pieces. Most remarkably for the period, the picture’s screenwriter, the redoubtable Abby Mann, retains Thorpe’s laissez-faire attitude toward homosexual men in those dark, pre-Stonewall days of furtive existence. Thorpe is less sympathetic, perhaps, than simply non-judgmental, but even that is saying something for the era in which he was writing. And if this all seems a bit tame by 21st century standards, it’s notable that Leland’s live-and-let-live attitudes are embodied by no less a figure of normative, if publicly exaggerated, heterosexuality than Frank Sinatra.
More socially liberal than his famous, mercurial, switch of political parties would indicate — wholly typically, he turned his back on a lifelong affiliation with the Democrats after a silly tiff with Bobby Kennedy (who drove everyone away from his brother eventually, including Gore Vidal) — Sinatra is in fact the ideal spokesman for the forward thinking the makers of The Detective attempted to espouse. His Joe Leland is highly ethical, repulsed by the ass-kissing games departmental politesse require, disgusted by his city’s duplicitous attitudes toward the racially despised and economically dispossessed, and deeply disturbed by the floating morality of the people he is expected to represent. Sinatra, a far subtler actor than his “ring-a-ding-ding” Rat Pack persona might suggest, is never more effective than when he conveys, without words, a characteristically eloquent sense of ethical nausea.
Movies, of course, are always of their time, and The Detective is very much representative of its own. It’s a rather astonishing picture to have been released before the establishment of the MPAA ratings, in both content and language. (I’m not certain, but this may have been the first time the dread word “penis” was uttered in an American movie.) But the most telling point here is that the occasional (and, one presumes, somewhat shocking in 1968) use of ugly epithets like “fag” come from the mouths of creeps rather than — as would become, in the sickeningly routine fashion of future American movies — the heroes. Leland is never glib, or stereotypically homophobic. Indeed, in his grilling of his prime suspect, the gym-rat Felix Tesla, played with intense psychosis by Tony Musante, Leland himself trembles on the verge of homoeroticism, placing his hand on Musante’s wrist and leaning in as he questions him. It’s very close to a seduction, although the crazed Tesla is too wrapped up in his own demonic energies to notice. (The treatment of him by Leland’s coevals is both fascistic and sexually suspect.)
The Detective is peopled by an exceptionally strong supporting cast that includes the cool yet vulnerable Lee Remick as Leland’s estranged wife Karen; Jack Klugman, very fine as one of Joe’s more trusted compatriots; Ralph Meeker, insufferably smarmy as a cop on the take; Horace McMahon, projecting a surface benevolence that barely covers his smug complaisance; Robert Duvall as a queer-baiting colleague to whom Leland metes out a little street justice; the splendid Al Freeman, Jr. as a rookie detective with his eye as much on the main chance as any of his white coevals; Renée Taylor as Klugman’s ess, ess, mein kind Jewish wife, forever offering bagels and lox; and William Windom as the murderer, whose self-loathing rivals and indeed parallels (if for vastly different reasons) that of Leland himself.
The recent Blu-ray transfer from Twilight Time, a company that emphasizes its releases’ musical soundtracks, is superb, beautifully capturing the cinematographer Joseph Biroc’s sumptuous lighting and crisp, expansive Panavision framing. (And which include a few instances of Panavision lens flare, which I’ve been a sucker for since seeing Kelly’s Heroes on television when I was about 12.) There’s not much the manufacturers can do about the terrible rear-screen projection in the sequences of Sinatra’s nocturnal driving, in which no attempt was made to replicate the play of light and shadow of a man in a moving vehicle, but these things too are emblematic of their time. About Gordon Douglas’ direction, the best that can be said is that he at least doesn’t get in the way of things too much… although he is over-fond of the zoom lens. And while Jerry Goldsmith’s score is brief, it’s sharp and effective, with lonely horns blowing the bluesy theme and one especially vivid action cue that takes in what sounds like a sitar.
Thorpe resurrected Joe Leland in the much shorter but no less effective Nothing Lasts Forever, which later became the basis of another successful picture, the 1988 smash Die Hard. 20th Century Fox was contractually obligated to offer the then 70-year-old Sinatra the leading role, and was no doubt relieved when he passed. Thorpe is responsible for the bare-feet-cut-on-glass plot wrinkle, although his story emphasizes its protagonist’s age, of which Leland is all too aware, and its author’s climax is too deeply sad for a Hollywood epic of late ’80s vintage to encompass. Still, Fox may have been uneasy about there even being a novel out there which predated its Bruce Willis blockbuster; there was a perfunctory paperback tie-in reissue of Thorpe’s novel in America, but if you want a good contemporaneous edition, with studio poster art on the cover, you’ll have to hunt down the British Penguin tie-in. Good luck with that.
Text copyright 2016 by Scott Ross