I was surprised to discover that Roderick Thorp's writings inspired this realistic, gritty cop drama AND Die Hard, yet somehow, it makes sense.
THE DETECTIVE is a well-acted 1968 film that broke new ground---sometimes shattered it. Frank Sinatra is Joe Leland, a veteran NYPD Detective, who is assigned to investigate the brutal mutilation murder of the gay son of the richest real estate developer in New York City.
THE DETECTIVE tries to address its subject sympathetically. In the course of doing so, however, it taps into every gay stereotype. It actually taps into almost every stereotype, and yet, overall, it works. Impossibly dated now, THE DETECTIVE is a fly in the amber. Men are still wearing hats and women white gloves.
From the outset, THE DETECTIVE throws us off balance. Sinatra, tough-talking out of the side of his mouth, plays Joe Leland like a liberal Joe Friday, stolid, fair, and "square." His opening gambit, "Penis cut off...fingers shredded" was absolutely shocking for the time, and put THE DETECTIVE into the realm of film noir right from the beginning. Leland's investigation carries us through a nether world where (as the script describes them) "closet queens" have secret dalliances with other men.
THE DETECTIVE relies on Havelock Ellis' groundbreaking but inaccurate early 20th Century research into human sexuality to explain sexual orientation: "There are no bisexuals," proclaims the film's noted psychiatrist, "only homosexuals with no sense of commitment to their creed." Gay men as portrayed in this film are all grotesquely "swish." The film is an outsider, looking in on a world it presupposes exists in a certain way. Still, THE DETECTIVE tries to make a serious social statement.
The script is full of words never heard before onscreen. Scenes of men mouth kissing stunned 1968 audiences. The gay subculture is portrayed as uniformly smarmy (more as a result of being driven underground than anything intrinsic).
The Cop Universe around Joe Leland is both anachronistic and brutal. Jack Klugman plays the Bill Gannon role, as Dave, Joe's thoughtful sometime partner. Most of the cops in Leland's NYPD are on the take. This was still a world where the boys in blue gave suspects the Third Degree. A suspected child molester is interrogated naked in the Station House. "Breaks 'em down," the token Black cop (played by Sugar Ray Robinson) explains. "I saw it in a newsreel on German Concentration Camps(!)."
The police routinely brutalize the gay men they find lurking in dark alleyways. Robert Duvall plays a particularly relentless homophobic cop, to whom the word "fag" is practically an honorific. He specializes in unprovoked beatings of his "queer" arrestees. The Department ME says, "Twenty years on The Job and those people still make me sick," to which Leland responds, "They don't bother me. I got my own bag."
Joe Leland's bag is his wife Karen, played by the strikingly beautiful Lee Remick. Ms. Remick has a class and ease onscreen that current-day actresses simply cannot match. Karen, who grew up in orphanages, yearns toward Joe (and he toward her), but cannot overcome a deep-rooted self-destructive psychological compulsive need to seduce other men. Although Joe and Karen are separated, it makes little difference. They clearly love one another and spend much, frustrating, time together.
Joe is a decent man and a good cop, but even he isn't immune to his environment. He coerces a spurious confession from a "psycho" gay muscleman (Tony Musante in his first role) who goes to The Chair for the murder even though Joe knows he's innocent.
Joe is promoted for closing the case. Not long after, Joe is visited by Jacqueline Bisset, whose husband has mysteriously committed suicide. Joe then discovers that he committed the murder, which is tied into a high-level real estate scam involving the Mayor.
Joe's sense of justice is outraged. "Those people up in the ghetto are tired of living in garbage cans! It's our job to sit on the lid of those garbage cans! And when the lid blows off, brother, we are going to be in for it!"
The sincere Liberalism of THE DETECTIVE is what makes it work, despite its repeated references to "those people." Gifted screenwriter Abby Mann takes a subject which was absolutely forbidden and brings it into the light with the best of intentions. Although THE DETECTIVE tends to be ham-handed, Sinatra plays it well, without parodying himself. It is instructive to remember that this film was the first of its kind. It tried to humanize its characters and subject. If it did a flawed job, it still set our feet on the right path.