Perhaps the boldest aspect of this raw look at the seamier side of life as a New York cop is that perennial screen loverboy Frank Sinatra plays a cuckold. Prior to what is always considered the more hard-hitting cop pictures of the 1970s – Dirty Harry (1971), The French Connection (1971), Serpico (1973) etc – this touched upon just about every element of society’s underbelly. Despite an old-school treatment, more a police procedural than anything else, homosexuality, nymphomania, corruption, police brutality, and a system that ensured poverty remained endemic all fell into its maw. And, for the times, several of these issues were dealt with in often sympathetic fashion.
Joe Leland (Frank Sinatra), an ambitious but principled detective gunning for promotion, investigates the murder of a prominent homosexual while dealing with the disintegration of his marriage to Karen (Lee Remick) and colleagues on the take. When other cops want to beat confessions out of suspects or strip them naked to humiliate them, Leland intervenes to prevent further brutality. He is not just highly moral, but takes a soft approach to criminals, not just playing the “good cop” part of a good cop/bad cop double-act but genuinely showing sympathy. Not only does Leland leap to the defense of those he feels unfairly treated, but he trades punches with those meting out such treatment. In addition, he clearly feels guilt over sending to the electric chair a man he believes should be treated in a mental institution.
Although at first glance this appears a homophobic picture, it is anything but, Leland showing tremendous sympathy towards homosexual suspect Felix (Tony Musante) – whom his colleagues clearly despise – to the extent of holding his hand and gently cajoling him through an interview. Later, rather than condemn a bisexual the film shows empathy for his torment. Certainly, some of the attitudes will appear dated, especially the idea of sexual expression as a brand of deviancy, but the film takes a genuinely even-handed approach. Through the medium of Leland’s perspective, it is clearly demonstrated that it is other police officers who have the warped notions.
Having solved the first murder, Leland takes up the case of an apparent suicide at the behest of widow Norma McIver (Jacqueline Bisset), only for this to lead not only to civic corruption on a large scale but back to the original investigation. Leland also has a wider social perspective than most cops and there is a terrific scene where he berates civic authorities for creating a system that perpetuates poverty. The ending, too, casts new light on Leland’s character.
By this point, most screen cops were defined by their alcoholism and ruined domestic lives, but this is altogether a more tender portrait of an honest cop. Leland’s relationship with Karen is exceptionally well done. Normally, of course, it is the man who usually strays. This reversal in the infidelity stakes adds a new element. Karen has more in common with an independent woman like the Faye Dunaway character in The Arrangement (1969).
While playing the good cop would come relatively easy to an actor like Sinatra, carrying off the role of the hurt husband is a much tougher ask. Coupled with his sensitive approach to criminals, this is acting of some distinction, a mature performance by a mature star. This is the last great Hollywood role by Lee Remick (No Way to Treat a Lady, 1968) and she brilliantly portrays a woman trapped by her self-destructive desires.
Jacqueline Bisset (Bullitt, 1969) leads an excellent supporting cast that includes Jack Klugman (The Split, 1968), Ralph Meeker (The Dirty Dozen, 1967), Robert Duvall (The Godfather, 1972), Lloyd Bochner (Point Blank, 1967) and Al Freeman Jr. (Dutchman, 1966).
While Gordon Douglas (Claudelle Inglish, 1961, and Tony Rome, 1967) was viewed very much as a journeyman director, he brings an inventive approach and some surprising subtleties to the picture. He opens with a very audacious shot. It looks like you are seeing skyscrapers upside down, as if a Christopher Nolan sensibility had entered a time warp, until you realize it is the city reflected off a car roof. There are some bold compositions, often with Sinatra appearing below Remick’s sightline, rather than the normal notion that the star must be taller or at least the same height as everyone else.
Oscar-winning Abby Mann (The Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961) adapted the bestseller by Roderick Thorp who achieved greater fame much later for writing the source novel for Die Hard (1988) – Nothing Lasts Forever, a sequel to The Detective. For the Bruce Willis film Joe Leland became John McClane. Sinatra, although 73 at the time, was offered that role first as part of his original contract for The Detective.
In The Detective Sinatra’s wife Mia Farrow was initially contracted to play the part of Norma McIver but pulled out when Rosemary’s Baby (1968) overshot its schedule. Partly in revenge, Sinatra sued her for divorce.