Book into Film – “The Detective” (1968)

Screenwriter Abby Mann (Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961) had his work cut out adapting Roderick Thorp’s tombstone of a novel that ran to over 500 pages. The first job was to make the book – set mostly in the 1940s – contemporary. The book’s fictional locations of Port Smith and Manitou were transposed to New York. Joe Leland was younger in the book – in his mid-30s compared to the 50-plus Frank Sinatra.

And while the principals remained the same, the screenwriter employed some distinctive structural sleight of hand to keep apart the two investigations occupying Leland, the murder of a homosexual and the apparent suicide of a businessman. In the book the first investigation takes place in the past and is told in a long, detailed, flashback, while the suicide case takes up the present. For the film Mann relocated both crimes to the same timeframe, with the suicide simply following on to the murder.

But there was one distinct change. When Leland in the book investigates the suicide, he is doing so as a private eye, not a cop. He had resigned from the force after seeing a criminal sent to the electric chair. A minor alteration was also involved in the suicide case in that the widow Norma (Jacqueline Bisset in the film) was six months pregnant in the book.

More significantly was the swapping over of the sexual characteristics of Leland’s estranged wife (Lee Remick in the film) and the widow. In the film Remick is the nymphomaniac. In the book, it is the other way round, although Norma, after marriage, has that tendency under control.

Although Leland is a decent enough policeman, he makes none of the overt pitches for decency that occur in the film. That is all Abby Mann’s invention. And the scene in the picture where Leland objects to the stripping of a suspect is lifted from another episode in the book, one in which Leland has no involvement. While incorporating minor aspects from the book such as the annoying politician and civic corruption, Mann invented the atmosphere of the police station, the friction between the various cops and Leland’s ruthless ambition.

As I noted in my Blog on the novel A Cold Wind in August (published in 1960), fiction writers had far greater flexibility as regards sexuality than movie makers and Thorp’s 1966 novel reflects that trend. Although the book falls into the category of police procedural, and Thorp himself worked for his father’s detective agency, the sprawling canvas offers as much insight into human relationships as crime and investigative processes.

In some respects this is a textbook adaptation, stripping away the various layers of a dense book to focus on the essential narrative, then both trimming and expanding the main relationships to suit the new plotline. Virtually unspoken in both book and film are Leland’s reaction to the situations that have arisen as a result of his action, not because the writer in either circumstance was dodging the issues, but because both reader and moviegoer could work it out for themselves without introducing melodrama where it was not required.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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