Detective, The (Blu-ray Review)25 Jan, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Frank Sinatra, Lee Remick, Jacqueline Bisset, Ralph Meeker, Robert Duvall.
For all its narrative sputters and misses, the once popular movie version of Roderick Thorp’s sprawling novel remains something of a grabber, in part because it’s both retro and progressive. A truly bold Hollywood entry of the day in its lurid treatment of homosexuality (and homophobia an otherwise progressive movie often seems to share), it’s on the short list of Frank Sinatra screen dramas that matter at the end of the day — and arguably the last Sinatra picture to have made make real waves outside of maybe drive-ins (though I’ve always had a soft spot for 1980’s The First Deadly Sin, which also cast him as a cop).
The investigation at hand involves the bludgeoning murder-of-passion that slays the gay son of a city bigwig — an early scene very much in keeping with the movie’s consistent portrayal of the gay lifestyle, which is 100% den-of-iniquity stuff. On the other hand, The Detective’s by-then Republican star (or at least close to it) comes off an appealing bastion of tolerance when just about every other law enforcement colleague in the picture is quoting from a warm-up for the Ted Cruz Playbook, including a Dial-a-Reactionary type played by the young Robert Duvall (who even then, didn’t look all that young). Though Lee Remick does a lot here with a role that isn’t very much on paper, it is to Sinatra’s great acting credit that he carries the picture on his back. When I was programming the AFI Theater in the ’70s and ’80s, the esteemed gay activist and film historian Vito Russo served as an advisor to a work associate who curated what became an outstanding series (presented in the Kennedy Center) on gay cinema. Somewhat to my associate’s surprise, The Detective was a movie that Russo said just had to be in the program.
The Blu-ray has a particularly lively commentary by Twilight Time guru Nick Redman, his frequent bonus track partner Lem Dobbs and David Del Valle in an entertaining court jester role. They talk a lot about how Sinatra worked a lot with journeyman director Gordon Douglas, who didn’t even try to get in the Chairman’s way; for all of its semi-clumsy flashbacks, lack of subtlety and the Sinatra age issue (he was a pushing-it 52 when he made this), The Detective is probably the high point of an association that also brought forth Young at Heart, Robin and the 7 Hoods, Tony Rome and its sequel, The Lady in Cement. Attempting to give Douglas his due (or at least a break), either Redman or Dobbs notes that the director did do the sci-fi classic Them!, from 1954. Del Valle then follows by noting, in equalizer mode, that Douglas also directed Liberace in the notorious Sincerely Yours, which tossed Jack Warner off a pier into a Pacific of red ink. Sinatra and Liberace: well, even a directorial journeyman would have to amass at least functional calibration skills.
As Sinatra’s nympho wife (to use 1968 parlance), Remick sports one of the greatest pairs of blue eyes this side of you-know-who’s — something that comes across forcefully even via DeLuxe Color of the day (this is the best rendering I’ve seen of The Detective since the summer I turned 21). In a much smaller role, Jacqueline Bisset landed something just short of a breakthrough role when she got cast as a knowledgeable figure in the murder case. Bisset was a late casting substitute when Sinatra’s then-wife Mia Farrow couldn’t finish Rosemary’s Baby in time — or simply bolt the project in blatantly unprofessional style — to play a subsidiary role that never would have been able to compete with Roman Polanski at his best, an act that promptly got her served with divorce papers on the set. In Alex Gibney’s recent and impressively mammoth four-hour documentary All or Nothing at All, Sinatra claims in archival interview footage that the shooting conflict had nothing to do with the split. If there is anyone who believes this, I have never met him, though it speaks well of a very complicated personality that he and Farrow remained friends until his death and that the Sinatra family invited her to the funeral.
Sinatra’s enticed “confession” here from dubious murder suspect Tony Musante is so over-the-top (by the latter) that it possibly stunted the younger actor’s career, but when you watch Sinatra working with him here, it certainly looks as if this is a movie that its star tried to make as good as he could make it within the parameters of his standard screen working methodology (read: no second takes unless absolutely necessary and maybe not even then). For an absolute sense of what star power is or was, one need go no further — and despite my reservations, this is a movie that often succeeds in spite of itself in a huffing/puffing kind of way (windbag Abby Mann wrote the script). In a way that still seems a tad surprising, audiences responded to the movie’s explicitness in the first year of the MPAA’s rating system — a time when 20th Century-Fox (then mired in producing a litany of white elephants chronicled John Gregory Dunne’s classic reportage, The Studio) needed hits. For an amazing footnote, source author Thorpe later brought back the Sinatra character in another of his novels, which was later adapted by Fox into Die Hard.