The Detective

Seamy underbelly
★
☆☆☆
Released: 
1968
Director: 
Gordon Douglas
Starring: 
Frank Sinatra, Lee Remick, Jack Klugman, Ralph Meeker, Jacquelene Bisset
The Setup: 
Detective with principles finds himself in a world of vice and corruption!
Discussion: 

A regular reader wrote me to inform me of this little artifact, as it attempts to portray the gay underworld of New York City, and shows attitudes toward gays in an earlier time. This is from 1968, and stars Frank Sinatra [the collection of trailers from totally forgotten Sinatra films also on the disc document his failed attempt to move into acting in the late 60s and 70s], as well as Jack Klugman, Lloyd Bochner, Tom Atkins, Sugar Ray Robinson, Lee Remick, and Ralph Meeker, who won my heart in Kiss Me Deadly.

So we open with this neo-noir music [lots of big sax and strings] as we see Sinatra as detective Joe Leland, driving down the dirty, sin-filled streets of late 60s Manhattan. He is called to a murder scene, where the son of local bigwig Lightman lies on the floor, bludgeoned, fingertips shredded, and penis cut off. The victim was known to be gay, and one of the big sources of amusement is the vision of this gay fellow's apartment, all nude male sculptures, weights for fitness, furs and animal patterns. We also find out that there is semen on the sheets and Joe finds a huge, gallon-size jar of mineral oil! I'm not sure I want to know more. We soon find out that Joe is the sensitive cop with traditional values who is a friend of the common man and despises the corruption of the city bigwigs.

On the way home, Joe has a flashback--complete with things going out of focus and "do-do-do-do" sound, back to when he met Lee Remick as Karen. She is a student at Columbia, and after one look, Joe charged right into a formal dance and asked her to be his partner. They later went to the theater, where Joe stormed out because he only likes uplifting plays, not those that examine the darkness in man, which earns him the derision of Karen's sophisticated friends. He tells Karen "I'm only going here because of you--your friends give me a pain in the ass," and storms off. Okay, so Joe is being portrayed as this straight-up, salt of America holdover from the traditional old days when people had VALUES and CARED about each other! Which is enough to make Karen sigh that he is "the only real man I've ever met," while you at home might be forming an opinion of him as a smug, self-righteous stick in the mud interested in no one's opinion but his own. But this is the late 60s, which we are invited to think of as a time of serious moral decay, with Joe set up as the lone defender of human dignity. Along the way we are shown that the very fact of Joe being a cop makes him an object of derision in these turbulent times, as he is automatially assumed to be a "fascist." Searing social commentary!

So the scene changes and you think we have returned to the present, but no, we soon figure out that this film traffics in EXTENDED flashbacks. So after we find out that Karen was abandoned by her parents and grew up in orphanages [which will factor prominently into this film's A=B psychology], we have several shots in which she and Joe look directly into the camera and discuss getting married. They do, and live in wedded bliss for a while, which gives us time to judge their taste in furniture, and to note that the bed, chair and wallpaper all have exactly the same pattern. It looks like it supposed to be some sort of optical illusion.

Anyway, we finally return to the present when the cops go down and round up the gays cruising in the trucks along the West Side highway. Now, let me explain for the young and innocent. Back in the day [and recall that this movie is one year before the Stonewall riots] gays would go into the empty trucks parked along the West Side highway in Manhattan’s Village and Meat Packing District—long before it was a high-end shopping destination—and have sex. In this movie, which holds itself quite adult and gritty for showing and discussing homosexuality at all, you may be surprised to find that the trucks are full of young white preppy guys [turtlenecks abound] engaged in light petting and perhaps some discreet closed-mouth kissing. Wow, looks like being gay was a giant snore back then! This film is obviously limited in what it can show [above], but it is a bit hilarious to imagine audiences at the time imagining that gays go to these trucks and just kind of lay all over each other while staring meaningfully into each other’s eyes. The degenerates! This movie probably REVERSED a bit of homosexuality in some people—I can just imagine a young gay man in Iowa saying “Wait a minute—I’m going to move to Manhattan for THAT?!” Anyway, they start questioning the gays they find inside, Robert Duvall on hand as a cop who can barely contain his disgust for the sleazy fornicators, until Joe has to take him aside and beat him down for being such an intolerant bastard. Thanks so much for the help, Joe. You truly are the greatest guy ever.

One of the guys names this fellow Tessler as the killer, and they soon round him up and bring him in. By the way, Joe is up for a promotion to Lieutenant, which he will probably get if he nails the killer. The cops are roughing up Tessler and calling him “fag” without scruple, when Joe sends them all off and offers Tessler some tenderness. He sits across from him, speaks softly, and rubs his hand, then places his arms around his shoulders. I wasn’t sure if Joe was trying to appear seductive to get info out of Tessler, or we were supposed to understand him as just a decent, tolerant guy. I think it’s supposed to be the latter. Tessler himself, however, is another matter. First of all, he’s wearing this tank top that is akin to a leotard, he’s sweating all over the place and whining and simpering as though he is mentally ill. At the very end of the film, we will discover that he IS mentally ill, but most in the audience won’t connect that back, and what will stick in their minds is that these gays are these weak, mentally and emotionally unstable sweaty little mincing poofballs. Thanks for all the support, Frank. Anyway, they get a confession out of Tessler, he gets the electric chair [which Joe witnesses], and Joe gets his promotion, which not everyone in the department is happy with.

Now, another totally unrelated and extended flashback! Joe was out at a bar, when who should he see there, but his wife Karen! And with another man! She’s cool as a cucumber as she seamlessly says he’s an old friend from school [nice work, Karen!], but can’t keep her feelings from paragon of perception Joe, who demands that she call the dude immediately and tell him that it’s over. She does—or she pretends to. That night he sees her standing outside a restaurant with another man! She is forced to admit—she’s a serial dinner dater! Recklessly, wantonly arranging dinner dates with men across the city! No, actually, she’s a nympho, it’s just that the movie can’t show anything. You remember how she was raised in orphanages, right? Well obviously that MEANS sex addict nympho, always seeking new affection, but unable to truly love the good and stable man right in front of her! He basically dumps her and walks out. Yo, thanks for the support, asshole! If you’re so traditional, fuckbag, what about all that ‘death do us part’ stuff? How about we work together here? But no, Joe must keep himself unsullied by the filth of this world—even if it’s his wife—and he cold-dumps her and walks out. Not that he doesn’t come back for the rest of the movie to fuck her when he’s horny. Yeah, she’s good enough for THAT. Am I wrong, or have we all known this guy?

SPOILERS > > >
So now it’s a little over an hour in, and we suddenly switch to another case: we see this guy kill himself at a racetrack, then his wife Norma [Jacqueline Bisset] comes in and tells Joe she doesn’t think it was an accident. Joe goes out to see this psychologist, Dr. Roberts, who saw the man who killed himself. Joe has more sass to sling toward members of the psychological profession when he says that he thinks people should help themselves. Yeah well fuck you, you ignorant douche, okay? When he goes out to see the psychologist they’re at this beach house with mountains in the distance, and it’s like… it that anywhere near New York City? Or did they fly out to California? Because that’s what it looks like. Anyway, Norma has a room full of her husband’s books, where Joe finds a ledger book that lists this organization, blah, blah, and eventually it’s revealed that it’s this huge city-wide corruption thing that includes several bigwigs and police officers—some of whom try to kill Joe.

Blah, blah, so just as you’re starting to think “Okay, so I guess the first hour was one case, and the second will be this other case, and you know what? I’ll bet this movie is adapted from two novels,” it is revealed how the two fit together. Joe is at Dr. Roberts’ and he finds these tapes of the guy who killed himself. Roberts tells him “You don’t want to listen to those,” but of course he does. Turns out that the suicide guy, Colin, was a closeted gay. He doesn’t want to be among the “twisted faces and outcasts” with their “lives lived in shadows.” He goes to this gay bar, the L’Harlequin, which has this outrageously over the top RED décor and the requisite animal patterns and horrible male nude sculpture. If you’re gay, this is also something to see. He is soon picked up by this guy, who takes him home to his place, and comes on to him. Colin can’t take it, they start struggling, and Colin biffs him with an ashtray. This is where the flashback ends, but we also have to recall from the beginning that then—I guess—mild-mannered closeted husband Colin cut off the guy’s fingers and genitals! Anyway, now Joe realizes that he had the wrong man executed! Remember when I said earlier that we MUCH later find out that the guy executed was crazy? This is that later. Then Joe goes by Karen’s, and she once more makes a play for them to be together, because he is the only real man she’s ever known, and he demurs, because she’s a nympho slut.

And now, are you ready for the SOUL-SHATTERING CLIMAX??!?!? I sure hope so, because it’s going to leave you breathless. Joe—RETIRES! The end. He makes the tapes public, exposes the whole real estate corruption thing [and is told nothing will happen], and hands in his badge, knowing he’s just too good a man to exist in this tarnished world! Then Norma tells him she was shocked to learn that her husband was closeted, and she too makes a play for Joe, only real man, etc. The final shots are of him driving in his car, toward an uncertain future. Might I suggest Alaska?
< < < SPOILERS END

The best reason to watch this movie is for its pre-Stonewall, pre-HIV view of gay life in New York City, distorted as it may be. You have the trucks, where the preppy boys meet for some light petting, so that’s not realistic, but the gay bar presented later in the movie does match movie depictions I’ve seen elsewhere, so that may be a tad more realistic—and will show you how far gays have come, regardless of what you might think of the gay bar scene today. Then it’s also interesting to see the way gayness was presented back at the time—as though it’s quite understandable that the cops would be very homophobic, but sensible, forward-thinking people like Joe still regard them like freaks and degenerates, but are basically civil and distantly tolerant. Thanks so much!

As a movie, it was pretty dreary. Its whole idea is to examine this one uncorrupted guy in a world slowly slipping into degeneracy—the homos, the druggies [there’s a brief scene with a 19yo hooker and addict], the nympho wives, the corrupt cops—and finally realizing that he can’t fight the dismal tide. If you want to see the same message, but good, see No Country for Old Men. Here it all just comes off as a Sinatra vehicle, which it was, and all the hand-wringing over corruption just looks quaint and out-of-step now. I suspect it was then, too. And, as I have said numerous times, the way Joe is presented in this movie doesn’t make him sympathetic, but casts him as this smug asswipe who considers himself better than everyone. I just wanted to see something bad happen to him.

Finally, this was obviously adapted from a novel—because it really seems like it—but it doesn’t work so well as a movie. For one, because its message and intentions come out so obviously and just lay there on the surface, and mostly because the main action of the movie is not cinematic. At all. The first killer is caught and taken care of without a hitch. There is no drama with Karen. There are virtually no big scenes or action of any kind. Then, as we’ve noted, the end comes with a declining to fight rather than a rise to battle—which might work very well in a novel, but simply doesn’t work in a movie. Since film is primarily visual, you need action. You need things to move. A novel is primarily psychological, so a change of mind can work there. Can you imagine the end of Star Wars if Luke had just said “Fuck it. I’m gonna sit this one out—did you see the size of that thing? Later, dude!” But that’s kind of what happens here.

Anyway, a relic from a time long gone [the late 60s look particularly terrible, by the way] that’s only interesting if you want to see the attitudes toward gays in an earlier era. Pretty much everyone else can forget it ever existed.

Should you watch it: 

Only if you like to see how gays were portrayed in times past.