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.

Once a Thief (1965) ****

Latter-day film noir gem with terrific cast filmed in black-and-white and often at night that crams into a taut storyline  different slants of the themes of the con-going-straight, the vendetta and the double-cross. While Hollywood at this point had imported platoons of foreign beauties in the Sophia Loren-Elke Sommer vein, there had been less interest in the male of the species with the exception of a small British contingent and possibly Omar Sharif, on whom the jury was still out. 

MGM was gambling on Frenchman Alain Delon (The Leopard, 1963) to alter industry perceptions at the same time as pushing new contract star Ann-Margret (The Pleasure Seekers, 1964) along more dramatic lines away from the glossy puffery that had made her name and which relied more upon her physical assets than acting potential. Had she continued in this vein, her career would certainly have taken a different turn. 

Eddie Pedak (Alain Delon), former minor hood turned San Francisco truck driver, is happily married to Kristine (Ann-Margret) with a young daughter they both adore. But tough cop Mike Vido (Van Heflin), with a reputation for brutality, is determined to pin a murder on him in revenge for purportedly being shot by him early in Eddie’s previous career. Eddie manages for a time to resist the overtures of brother Walter (Jack Palance) to participate in a million-dollar diamond. But when he loses his job, that changes.

While the robbery naturally takes center stage, that’s not actually the dramatic highlight. Instead, it is the Eddie-Kristine relationship. Instead of Eddie being the usual down-on-his-luck ex-con, he has clearly turned his life around, so much so he can afford a $500 down payment on a small boat. A loving father, he accepts without rancor when his daughter interrupts a night-time lovemaking session. And he’s stylish, too, wearing an iconic sheepskin jacket and driving a snazzy 1931 Ford Model A roadster. Kristine just wants a normal home life, desiring domesticity above all else, but swallowing her pride when she needs to go out to work in a night club to make ends meet, for a time rendering the unemployed Eddie a house husband.

But Eddie is not all he initially seems. His tough streak has not been smothered by the good life. In a brilliant Catch-22 situation he gets violent when an employment benefits clerk refuses to accept that Eddie was fired from his job, instead believing his employer’s claim that he resigned – the former triggering relief payment, the latter zilch. But that’s nothing to the beating he inflicts on Kristine when, pride injured that he is not the breadwinner, he discovers the skimpy costume she wears for her job.

Adding to the unusual mix are Vido and Walter, the former’s brooding presence somewhat undercut by the fact that in middle age he still lives with his mother, the latter while a big-time gangster letting nothing get in the way of strong fraternal feeling for Eddie. You won’t be surprised to learn that double cross is in the air, not when Walter employs a creepy sunglass-wearing henchman Sargantanas (John Davis Chandler) who appears to have more than a passing interest in little girls. The climax, which contains both emotional and dramatic twist, involves redemption and sacrifice.

Delon has played the cold-eyed ruthless but romantic character before, but here adds depth from his paternal commitment and as a man turned inside out by the system.

Ann-Margret is the revelation, truly believable as mother first, sexy wife second, and her anguish in the later parts of the picture showcase a different level of acting skill to anything she previously essayed. This role immediately preceded her man-eater in The Cincinnati Kid (1965) which attracted far more attention and considerably bigger box office and it would have been interesting to see how her career might have panned out had Once a Thief been the critical and commercial triumph. She probably did not attain such acting heights again until Carnal Knowledge (1971). And I did wonder, as with Daliah Lavi (The Demon, 1963) before her whether her acting skills were too often overshadowed in the Hollywood mindset by her physical attributes.  

Van Heflin (Cry of Battle, 1963) is excellent as the cop tormented by the idea that a villain is walking free, Jack Palance (The Professionals, 1966) is good as always and character actor Jeff Corey (The Cincinnati Kid) puts in an appearance as Vido’s whip-cracking boss. This marks the debut of Tony Musante (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970). Watch for a cameo by screenwriter Zekial Marko, who wrote the original book.

This represented another change of pace for director Ralph Nelson, Oscar-nominated for the Lilies of the Field (1963) and also known for box office comedy hit Father Goose (1964). His  use of an experimental extremely light-sensitive camera eliminated the bulky lighting commensurate with filming at night, bringing freshness and greater freedom to those scenes. His natural gift for drama ensured that the emotional was given as much prominence as the action. Racial awareness was demonstrated by the opening scene in a jazz club where African Americans were clearly welcome, hardly the norm at that time.

The picture was shot on location in San Francisco including Nob Hill, Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf. To add authenticity, Nelson employed as extras or in bit parts people famed for different reasons in the area. There was Armenian Al Nalbandian who owned the Cable Car flower store on Union Square. William ‘Tiny’ Baskin was a highly successful diamond cutter, owner of the city’s biggest diamond collection – because of his size he was ideal to play a night club bouncer. The North Beach night club provided cameos for Big Al and resident jazz drummer Russell Lee, who both play themselves. Local singer Toy Yat Mar plays the woman murdered at the start of the film. Also appearing were piano player Jimmy Diamond, bus driver Wed Trindle and belly dancer Shereef.

Mention again of a terrific score by Lalo Schifrin, especially the bold drum solo that played out over the credit sequence. Schifrin’s work on the film was showcased in a featurette aimed at schools and colleges. Russell Lee’s drumming so impressed Ralph Nelson that the opening credits were rewritten around his drum solo.

Catch-Up: Alain Delon has featured in the Blog in reviews for Lost Command (1966), Is Paris Burning? (1966), The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) and Farewell, Friend (1968); check out also Ralph Nelson’s Duel at Diablo (1966) and Ann-Margret in The Cincinnati Kid (1965).

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