Friday, June 18, 2010

Ol' Blue Eyes talks dirty!

One of the consequences of the death of the Production Code in the 1960s is that movies could look at subjects that had previously been taboo, as well as using words that never would have made it into the movies a decade earlier. One example of this is the Frank Sinatra movie The Detective, which is airing at 4:00 PM ET this afternoon on the Fox Movie Channel.

Sinatra plays New York police detective Joe Leland, and is called in at the very beginning of the movie to investigate a murder. Right away we get something shocking (at least, it must have been shocking for at least part of the audience back in 1968): Det. Leland declares that the victim was found "naked, penis cut off". Apparently, back then, finding a naked man dead meant that the victim was gay and that his homosexuality had something to do with the murder, so for the first half of the movie, we get Leland visiting all of the stereotypically seedy gay hideouts in New York looking for the murderer. Along the way, Leland has to deal with estranged wife Karen (Lee Remick), who wants more sex than Joe can give her; at work Leland is up against a corrupt and uncaring bureaucracy, with only fellow detective Dave Schoenstein (Jack Klugman, a decade before he was investigating deaths in a different manner as Queasy, ME) being sympathetic. Eventually, Leland finds mentally challenged (and possibly unstable) Felix Tesla (played by Tony Musante whose performance is almost as memorable as in The Incident, who had a connection to the deceased, and forces a confession out of Felix. For this Felix is sent to the electric chair.

At this point, the movie doesn't end, but takes a strange twist. Some time after Tesla's death, a man jumps (or perhaps is pushed) off the roof of one of the race tracks. The suicide is hushed up, but the dead man's widow (Jacqueline Bisset) thinks there was more going on, and would like somebody to investigate -- and Leland is the only person whom she can trust. Leland does investigate, and finds that there might be some high-up people on the take. Worse, he learns that this man might have had something to do with the death for which Felix Tesla went to the chair....

The Detective is never less than interesting, even if it does present some pretty horrible stereotypes about the gay community. Then again, those who know more about the history of the gay community would point out that The Detective was released before the Stonewall riots, at a time when the idea of gay rights got little if any respect in the mainstream community. Most of the people making this movie, even if they knew gays in Hollywood who were in the closet, probably didn't know what life was really like for gay people, and had to resort to guessing or whatever news stories about gays there were. After all, "sodomy" between consenting adults was still illegal in many jurisdictions in the US, and had only been decriminalized a few years earlier in Britain thanks to the movie Victim. Sinatra is good if not great, a description that could be used for most of the cast aside from Musante, who frankly doesn't get enough screen time. The biggest problem the movie has is that the two halves of it -- that is, the cases of the two dead people -- really seem like two completely different and unrelated story lines until the very end, which makes you wonder why the writers ended the more interesting half so early.

The Detective may not be Sinatra's best work, but is certainly a worthy effort, and worth watching simply for the historical value. It's also been released to DVD, so you don't have to wait for the Fox Movie Channel showings.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Yes, I remember this one. One of Jack Klugman's half-dozen film roles or so. Always thought the title - "The Detective" - was so uninspired.