The Detective may not be a particularly good movie, but it's often a fascinating time capsule. The film was released in 1968, just before the MPAA ratings system was put into place but after the old production code had fallen apart. As such, The Detective is a film that feels grittier than almost everything that came before but tamer than everything that came after. When the film was released, Roger Ebert praised it for providing a, “clear, unsentimental look at a police investigation, and even the language reflects the way cops (and the rest of us) talk.” I dunno: did angry cops use the words “eat turd!” to insult people back in 1968?
The film begins with New York police detective Joe Leland (Frank Sinatra, From Here to Eternity) being called in to investigate a particularly brutal murder: the victim was strangled to death and had his genitals removed. The other police officers on the scene are disgusted by this whole scenario, but not Joe. He's a cool customer who's seen it all before; the kind of world-weary detective who can wander into a room and say shocking things like, “There are semen stains on the sheets,” without batting an eye. The film plays all of this with a melodramatic flourish, failing to anticipate a world in which such things will be discussed on a nightly basis on network TV crime shows.
It quickly becomes clear that the victim was gay, and the rampant homophobia within the police department prevents everyone else from seeing the case with clarity. Not Joe, though. Joe is so open-minded that he's able to see the facts of the case clearly in spite of whatever personal feelings he may have. Alas, his marriage is starting to fall apart, as his wife Karen (Lee Remick, The Omen) continually indulges in extramarital affairs. He's open-minded, but he's not quite that open-minded.
Large chunks of the film have aged very poorly, particularly its treatment of homosexuality. While the film takes many of the supporting characters to task for their bigotry, it also patronizingly treats gayness like some sort of disease or addiction (note the extended flashback sequence in which one closeted man admits that he, “thought he could get it out of his system if he just tried it one night”) and offers what may very well the most laughable portrait of illicit gay hookups in the history of film (evidently, gay men liked meet up in secret and fondle each other's fully-clothed arms and legs). The word “fag” is littered throughout the film on a regular basis, and it often feels less like an accurate representation of the way people talked (as Ebert suggests) and more like the film trying to constantly, unconvincingly assert how “real” it is.
Admittedly, the central mystery is casually absorbing in a case-of-the-week sort of way (taking an interesting detour around the halfway point), and it helps that the supporting cast is stacked with talent: Remick, Jack Klugman (12 Angry Men), Ralph Meeker (Kiss Me Deadly), Jacqueline Bisset (Day for Night), Robert Duvall (The Godfather) and even boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. There's also a fine score from Jerry Goldsmith, who offers jazz-tinged melodies that feel like an energetic warmup for the work he would do on similarly noir-ish films like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential.
Despite these virtues, the film would be entirely forgettable if not for Sinatra's lead performance, which is richer than the movie really deserves. A lot of Sinatra's early performances feel like the work of somebody trying too hard to prove something to the skeptics, but there's a relaxed confidence and graceful charm in this performance that proves thoroughly appealing. The film rarely misses an opportunity to zoom in on his iconic blue eyes, which always seem to be filled with weary sadness. It's a shame that by the time Sinatra reached the top of his game as an actor, he had stopped making good movies.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
PAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 114 minutes
Release Year: 1968