Frank Sinatra was able to pick and choose his roles as he saw fit by 1968. He picked movies he wanted to do, not just for the sake of doing a movie. With 1968's The Detective, Sinatra was at the helm of a police drama that was ahead of its time and helped kick the door open for where the genre would go at the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s.
A veteran detective with years of experience in New York City, Joe Leland (Sinatra) has seen it all, and it's starting to wear on him more than a little bit. He's been called in to investigate a particularly gruesome murder, the son of a rich businessman killed and disfigured. Rumor has it the dead man was gay, Leland and his fellow detectives forced to explore the gay sub-culture (its the 1960s, just go with it) to see if they can track down the murderer. The case has gained notoriety in the headlines, putting Leland and the precinct in the spotlight to solve it and solve it quickly. It's the kind of case that can make or break a police officer. Solve it and quickly rise through the ranks? Don't? Well, a scapegoat will be needed. It's not the only case on the docket though, crimes -- murders and more -- rolling in on a daily basis. Hopefully, Leland can keep it together long enough to find his man.
The appeal in this police drama from director Gordon Douglas is obvious. Made during one of the most turbulent times in Hollywood history (and American history at that point), 'Detective' embraces the sharp-edged, rougher mindset perpetuating the minds of the audiences. It isn't interested in being politically correct...at all. A gay man being murdered (with his penis cut off) provides quite the jumping off point, constant mention of "fags" and "homos," as well as an almost laughable portrayal of a homosexual meeting point. Beyond that though, it's a brutally realistic story in terms of the storytelling. Sex, violence, one-night stands, drugs, city corruption, 'Detective' is ready, willing and able to dive in head first and get dirty.
For all the positives though, there's the obvious counter of the negatives. In a movie that runs 114 minutes, I thought too much time was spent getting to know Sinatra's Leland via a series of flashbacks. It serves to give some cool background, but there's a limit. We see Leland meet Karen (Lee Remick) who he eventually marries. If cop movies have taught us anything though, it's that a cop's marriage has never gone smoothly in the history of law enforcement. The subject matter may have seemed ahead of its time in 1968, but it makes the story lag. We hear Joe talk about all the women he's been with, we hear Karen discuss her troubled past, her series of one-night stands, her inability to hold a relationship. A little bawdy if you ask me (that's sarcasm by the way). Seeing Remick's Karen say 'Let me make love to you this time' is a little scandalous for the time, but when the murder cases are far more interesting, those wavy-screened flashbacks kill the momentum.
I've always thought Sinatra was an underrated actor. Was he a great actor? No, but he was far better than people remember him. He does a no-nonsense tough guy like nobody's business. As we see with his dating/marrying Karen, Joe is exceptionally smooth, looking like he's almost bored with the process. He's that cool. More than that though, I appreciated the human side of Sinatra's part as longtime detective Joe Leland. The job is beating him down as he sees the lowest of lows, what people can do to each other in day-to-day life. He comes from a family of police officers and does it because it's in his blood, not because he loves it. Joe is good at what he does, but as he sees the violence and corruption, he begins to question how much more he can take. Uninterested in being a PR police man, he wants to do his job. An underrated part, Sinatra is the best part of this one.
Give Sinatra credit when it's due. Other actors wanted to work with the guy. Including Remick, the cast is pretty impressive. The list of Leland's fellow detectives include Robert Duvall, Jack Klugman, Ralph Meeker and Al Freeman Jr, Horace McMahon playing the precinct commander. Jacqueline Bisset plays a widow who approaches Leland with a case involving her dead husband, supposedly by suicide but she believes otherwise. Also look for Tony Musante, Lloyd Bochner and William Windom as possible suspects in the cases Leland is pursuing.
I wanted to like this one more, mostly because there was so much potential for a really good to maybe even near-classic status. The flaws are pretty big though, especially the intense focus on Leland's personal life. I thought the twists in the movie's last act were pretty solid too, catching me by surprise, but even in that aspect, the execution is pretty weak as the film limps to the finish. Really good performance from Sinatra and a solid cast overall, but it never lives up to what it could have been.
The Detective (1968): **/****