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The Detective

The Detective(1968)

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teaser The Detective (1968)

Frank Sinatra started as a singer, became an award winning actor, and ended up a tough guy. The transition took a few years but by the time Sinatra ended up playing detectives in the late sixties, his public persona and onscreen persona had formed the perfect complement to one another. His rumored connections to the mob, his headlining presence with the Rat Pack, and a rougher, slightly more gravelly voice, made Sinatra an easy sell as one of the screens best tough guys in an era of ever changing mores both on the screen and off. In 1968, with The Detective, Sinatra made the transition complete, playing a gritty urban detective on the streets of New York, dealing with a murder and a suicide that end up taking him down the rabbit hole of corruption and conspiracy. And the movie openly embraced formerly taboo subjects in, what was for the time at least, thought to be both cutting edge and illuminating.

The movie begins with detective Joe Leland (Frank Sinatra) investigating a grisly murder, one in which the victim's skull has been crushed in and the body mutilated. They don't have any good leads except the victim's roommate, Felix (Tony Musante), a man currently missing, perhaps because he's a murderer on the run. When they catch up with him, Leland rends a confession from him but it's not exactly the most reliable confession ever given. In fact, he seems mentally off to the point that any suggestion of any crime might illicit an affirmation of guilt. It's not until a suicide occurs some time later that Joe Leland begins to believe, and eventually discover, there's a lot more going on than he previously knew and following it through to the end will mean taking on the very system of which he's a part.

Sinatra had worked with director Gordon Douglas before, on Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964) and Tony Rome (1967), made just before The Detective (and with Lady in Cement [1968] coming right after, Sinatra and Douglas made three consecutive movies), and obviously felt comfortable with him. This was important as Sinatra would be in movie situations that were still considered racy for the time. The language was more profane, the violence more pronounced, and sexuality was a central theme. True, by today's standards, the movie's view of homosexuality seems dated and unenlightened, but at the time it was a risky step for a star like Sinatra to even star in a movie that treated such formerly taboo themes with a previously unknown level of openness. It was also important to the writer, Abby Mann.

Abby Mann had made his fame winning an Oscar for the Stanley Kramer classic, Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). Mann was known to wear his heart on his sleeve and when given a worldwide audience as a winner at the Academy Awards, he remarked, "A writer worth his salt at all has an obligation not only to entertain but to comment on the world in which he lives." Commenting on the world was something that Mann sought to do in everything he wrote, even the countless television dramas he wrote week in and week out. When given the chance to adapt Roderick Thorp's police procedural novel into a movie, he used the screenplay as a platform to express his own worldviews through the mouth of detective Joe Leland. Detective Leland comments on youth culture, gay culture, and the general sense of disenfranchisement so thickly felt in the air in 1968, and all in an understanding, open-minded, socially progressive way. It was fine with Sinatra, a lifelong liberal who wanted to be seen as understanding the world of 1968 that many of his generation could not hold claim to. As rock and roll became the music of choice for a younger generation, Sinatra didn't want to see himself shuffled to the sidelines as an out of touch old man and using his clout as an actor to make tough, adult-oriented films was one way to appear more of the time.

As for the novel itself, also titled The Detective, it was the work of a young teacher and former detective turned novelist, Roderick Thorp. Published in 1966, when Thorp was only 30, it quickly became a bestseller before being optioned for the movies. After the success of the film, Thorp wrote other police novels but without the same success until, after seeing The Towering Inferno (1974), he decided to write a sequel to The Detective, entitled Nothing Lasts Forever, in which a retired Joe Leland finds himself hiding inside a skyscraper trying to kill a group of terrorists who have taken employees at an office Christmas party hostage. Sound familiar? It should. After trying to get both Sinatra to agree to the sequel, and failing, then trying to get Arnold Schwarzenegger to turn it into a Commando sequel, and failing, it was finally retooled as a stand-alone movie with the main character's name changed to John McClane and the title changed to Die Hard (1988). Starring Bruce Willis, it became an instant hit, spawning numerous sequels and even more copycats.

While the lead performance of Sinatra stands out, the movie has a terrific supporting cast as well. Tony Musante is excellent in his brief but powerful role as the main suspect, Felix. The great Robert Duvall is as strong a performer early in his career as with his more famous roles later. Lee Remick, as Sinatra's wife, is forced to play most of the pathos of the movie and acquits herself admirably. Others, including Al Freeman, Jr., Ralph Meeker, Jacqueline Bisset, and Jack Klugman, round out a great ensemble cast.

The Detective proved that Frank Sinatra, in 1968, could still be a box office champ as the movie was one of the top grossing movies of the year with critics such as Roger Ebert even going so far as to draw comparisons between Sinatra's new tough guy persona and Humphrey Bogart. High praise indeed and praise that Sinatra took to heart, only playing tough guys in what few movie roles he had left. Even though he was only 53 in 1968, Sinatra would only make a handful of movies after that. Perhaps he felt he had proved himself well enough. He'd gone from Gene Kelly's musical costar to Oscar winning dramatic actor to tough guy ushering in the era of realistic police dramas. What more was there to do? Might as well return to what he loved more than anything, singing. But for a brief time in the sixties, Sinatra set the pace for police procedurals to follow and The Detective became his triumph.

By Greg Ferrara

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