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Detective, The (1968)
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by Jay Seaver

"Interesting in ways it never intended to be."
4 stars

I had intended to watch the "The Detective" a week earlier, as a double feature with "Die Hard", doubling down on the gag of watching that at Christmas by following a connection that has been deliberately obscured (the original novel by Roderick Thorp spawned a sequel named "Nothing Lasts Forever" that would be modernized and adapted twenty years later, with Fox still contractually obligated to offer it to Frank Sinatra before going with Bruce Willis). It's a surprisingly interesting film even without that connection.

Sinatra stars as Detective Sergeant Joe Leland, called in to investigate the grisly murder of the gay son of a prominent businessman, and he may just be the best person for the job, in that he's probably much less homophobic than the rest of the force, though he doesn't quite move easily in the academic circles of his wife Karen (Lee Remick). He methodically follow the trail until he arrives at the man's lover Felix (Tony Musante), and is awarded with a promotion to lieutenant. Soon a widow (Jacqueline Bisset) tells him there is something suspicious about her husband's suicide, and tugging at that string leads him to a great deal more than he bargained for.

The actual crime stories aren't that big a deal here. Indeed, neither is large enough to span the entire film, to the extent that even when the stories tie together, they still feel more like a relay than a single unit. The film could split into two episodes of a television crime drama without much effort, and it would be an interesting show, equally focused on the legwork of solving crimes and the attempts to change police culture. A number of scenes built around cops closing ranks around an officer who shot a civilian remain remarkably relevant fifty years later, except that audiences might have a harder time believing that someone who grew up in the system like Leland would be so squarely on the side of the civil-rights attorneys. Director Gordon Douglas and screenwriter Abby Mann do a fair job of explaining the real-estate corruption Leland finds as well.

The heart of the film is Joe's relationship with Karen, told in lengthy flashbacks that eventually arrive at a present where they're not divorced but not really together. Seeing this after many viewings of the Die Hard movies and knowing the connection, it's easy to see John & Holly McClane in these characters and see the seeds of an opposites-attract relationship that was probably doomed to eventually fail from the outset. It's something of a coincidence - Nothing Lasts Forever featured Leland's daughter rather than his wife - but the sort that comes from drawing from the same well. On its own, it's still an intriguing tale, pairing a couple of intelligent people who nevertheless come at the world from different angles and watching them often fail to make things work despite the fact that they each know the score. Jacqueline Bisset's Norma MacIver complicates things interestingly, as she's in many ways everything Karen is without the self-destructive baggage, though Joe is too much a man who respects the rules to act on that attraction.

It makes for a trio of impressively cool performances. Sinatra, Remick, and Bisset all play their characters with a sort of aspirational detachment and sophistication, like showing too much passion is untrustworthy, although Sinatra's Joe Leland knows that he can't really be a good cop without the right sort of investment. Both Sinatra and Remick show how they feel boxed in without over-emoting, while Bisset, whose Norma seems to have started out where the others wish to be, can sometimes seem colder but also more genuinely self-assured. Sinatra loosens up a bit when paired with Jack Klugman, playing a detective closer to his working-class roots, and there are some fun other gems to find in the cast - Lloyd Bochner's shrink, William Windom as a closeted man not sure how he fits in with younger folks who are less inhibited Robert Duvall as a cop not nearly so tolerant as Leland.

"The Detective" winds up being pretty far from the material most likely to lead one to it half a century later, but winds up serving as an intriguing time capsule regardless. Released a week or two before Robert Kennedy was assassinated, with characters who often seem to be striving to meet some Kennedy-inspired ideal, it captures a moment when America was poised to change in ways it did and did not anticipate. Not many movies get to become more interesting as time passes and things change, but this one is lucky that way.

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originally posted: 01/01/20 06:32:24
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User Comments

5/20/07 action movie fan good story of detective seeking the killer of gay man-interesting 4 stars
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  DVD: 24-May-2005



Directed by
  Gordon Douglas

Written by
  Abby Mann

  Frank Sinatra
  Lee Remick
  Ralph Meeker
  Jack Klugman
  Horace McMahon
  Lloyd Bochner

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