Film: The Detective

The Detective (1968) works extremely hard to feel, by the standards of its era, edgy and contemporary—so much so, it ends up looking horribly dated. But while the sociopolitical components are often quaint or cringeworthy, the film as a whole is ultimately ahead of its time, thematically. Frank Sinatra stars as Detective Sergeant Joe Leland, a straight-and-narrow New York City cop who catches a grim case: the death and mutilation of a high-profile businessman’s homosexual son. While the gay subculture central to the case brings out the bigotry of many of his colleagues, Leland is different, conducting the investigation with no-nonsense efficiency and professionalism. When the department pressures him for results, though, Leland seizes on an iffy subject and manages to pry a confession out of him, even though the details don’t seem right. The result: a promotion. But soon thereafter, Norma MacIver (Jacqueline Bisset) entreats him to dig deeper into the supposed suicide of her husband, which Leland does. The investigation ties into the previous homicide, pitting him against powerful forces in the city and challenging him to re-examine the course of his career.

Cinematically, there isn’t much to recommend The Detective, which aside from its classic Technicolor vibe isn’t a particularly attractive movie. The dingy precinct sets work with the noir, of course, but the techniques (glaring rear-screen projection, clunky flashback sequences) are decidedly old-fashioned. The clumsy directorial look and conventional point of view makes for a weird clash with the subject matter, a reaction to the shifting attitudes and “moral decay” of sixties counterculture: psychotherapy, recreational drug use, homosexuality, even nymphomania, all handled in a manner calculated to shock or titillate. The result is a script struggling mightily to be open-minded, but mostly revealing its biases. Sometimes this is conscious: for example, Detective Nestor (Robert Duvall), whose abusive homophobia is depicted as counterpoint to Leland’s tolerant demeanor. But often the bias is unconscious, outmoding the material’s treatment. Still, there’s a stingy kernel of forward-thinking integrity baked into Sinatra’s man’s-man hero; it comes out in the way he handles, in reasonably mature fashion, a fraught relationship with his ex-wife Karen (Lee Remick), and in the nuanced way he analyzes the moral hypocrisies on display as he works a politically fraught case. The plot is slow to coalesce and isn’t exactly gripping, but once the puzzle pieces fall into place, there’s a respectable intricacy to it, tying together various threads to comment on society’s systemic corruption and injustice, and forcing Leland to confront his complicity. It’s not an objectively great film, but as a pulp relic attempting to straddle the competing generational sensibilities of its era, it makes for a historically interesting watch.

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