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.

The Detective (1968) ****

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.

Two for the Road (1967) ***

This film had everything. The cast was pure A-list: Oscar winner Audrey Hepburn (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961) and Oscar nominee Albert Finney (Tom Jones, 1963). The direction was in the capable hands of Stanley Donen (Arabesque, 1966), working with Hepburn again after the huge success of thriller Charade (1963). The witty sophisticated script about the marriage between ambitious architect Mark Wallace (Albert Finney) and teacher wife Joanna (Audrey Hepburn) unravelling over a period of a dozen years had been written by Frederic Raphael, who had won the Oscar for his previous picture, Darling (1965). Composer Henry Mancini was not only responsible for Breakfast at Tiffany’s – for which he collected a brace of Oscars – but also Charade and Arabesque. And the setting was France at its most fabulous.

So what went wrong? You could start with the flashbacks. The movie zips in and out of about half a dozen different time periods and it’s hard to keep up. We go from the meet-cute to a road trip on their own and another with some irritating American friends to Finney being unfaithful on his own and then Hepburn caught out in a clandestine relationship and finally the couple making a stab at resolving their relationship. I may have got mixed up with what happened when, it was that kind of picture.

A linear narrative might have helped, but not much, because their relationship jars from the start. Mark is such a boor you wonder what the attraction is. His idea of turning on the charm is a Humphrey Bogart imitation. There are some decent lines and some awful ones, but the dialogue too often comes across as epigrammatic instead of the words just flowing. It might have worked as a drama delineating the breakdown of a marriage and it might have worked as a comedy treating marriage as an absurdity but the comedy-drama mix fails to gel.

It’s certainly odd to see a sophisticated writer relying for laughs on runaway cars that catch fire and burn out a building or the annoying whiny daughter of American couple Howard (William Daniels) and Cathy (Eleanor Bron) and a running joke about Mark always losing his passport.

And that’s shame because it starts out on the right foot. The meet-cute is well-done and for a while it looks as though Joanna’s friend Jackie (Jacqueline Bisset) will hook Mark until chicken pox intervenes. But the non-linear flashbacks ensure that beyond Mark overworking we are never sure what caused the marriage breakdown. The result is almost a highlights or lowlights reel. And the section involving Howard and Cathy is overlong. I kept on waiting for the film to settle down but it never did, just whizzed backwards or forwards as if another glimpse of their life would do the trick, and somehow make the whole coalesce. And compared to the full-throttle marital collapse of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) this was lightweight stuff, skirting round too many fundamental issues.

It’s worth remembering that in movie terms Finney was inexperienced, just three starring roles and two cameos to his name, so the emotional burden falls to Hepburn. Finney is dour throughout while Hepburn captures far more of the changes their life involves. Where he seems at times only too happy to be shot of his wife, she feels more deeply the loss of what they once had as the lightness she displays early on gives way to brooding.

Hepburn as fashion icon gets in the way of the picture and while some of the outfits she wears, not to mention the sunglasses, would not have been carried off by anyone else they are almost a sideshow and add little to the thrust of the film.

If you pay attention you can catch a glimpse, not just of Jacqueline Bissett (Bullitt, 1969) but Romanian star Nadia Gray (The Naked Runner, 1967), Judy Cornwell (The Wild Racers, 1968) in her debut and Olga Georges-Picot (Farewell, Friend, 1968). In more substantial parts are William Daniels (The Graduate, 1968), English comedienne Eleanor Bron (Help!, 1965) woefully miscast as an American, and Claude Dauphin (Grand Prix, 1966).

Hepburn’s million-dollar fee helped put the picture’s budget over $5 million, but it only brought in $3 million in U.S. rentals, although the Hepburn name may have nudged it towards the break-even point worldwide.

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