Saturday, December 12, 2015

Frank Sinatra Centenary Blogathon: Sinatra meets the gays

I have to admit to never having been the biggest fan of Frank Sinatra, and certainly not the biggest fan of his singing. But today is the 100th anniversary of his birth, and like a lot of other movie bloggers, I'm taking part in the Frank Sinatra Centennial Blogathon. One of his movies that has intrigued me for a long time is The Detective, which I think is generally not as well known as many of Sinatra's other movies.

I blogged about the movie back in June 2010 at the link above, but I first learned about the movie many years before that. My grandparents subscribed to Reader's Digest, and we got the back issues; with my mom being a hoarder, we had the back issues dating to the late 1960s in the house even though this was several years before I was born and by the time I was able to read them they were even older. One of the issues from about 1968 had an article discussing the need for a movie rating system, this being the period just after the end of the Production Code and just before the rating system we have today really came into effect. The article specifically mentioned The Detective as one of the movies that made the case for the necessity of a rating system, since Sinatra utters a line you wouldn't want your children to hear: "Penis cut off". Having read that article, I always wanted to see The Detective simply for that odd line.

It turns out that the line comes near the beginning of the movie. Sinatra plays New York police detective Joe Leland, who is investigating a murder of a man. Leland finds in the man's apartment a bunch of the sort of oil bodybuilders use to oil themselves up with so they glow, as well as the murder victim naked, and with that penis cut off. All of this means one oh-so-obvious thing, at least by 1960s standards: the murder victim was gay and there was probably some homophobic motive behind the murder.

Leland's investigation brings him first to a common thug (Tony Musante), but after that thug goes to the electric chair, another man (William Windom) jumps off the roof of the Aqueduct race track. Leland investigates that death, and it turns out that it is not only possibly related to the first one, but also related to some high-level corrption going on; corruption that could put Leland in danger which is why he's relying on help from his partner Dave (Jack Klugman).

The Detective is interesting in part because of its portrayal of gays, a year or two before the Stonewall riots. There's one scene that looks bizarre looking back on it close to a half century later, of a bunch of gays being caught in the back of a tractor trailer, because that's where they apparently go to have a little affection without getting caught by the police. It's also interesting for its look at New York City as it was back in the late 1960s.

But as this is a post for a blogathon on Frank Sinatra's centenary, it's more appropriate to talk about his performance. I think Sinatra was a bit miscast as a detective in the same way that John Wayne would be in movies like McQ and Brannigan. They were both good actors, but a gritty police detective is something that doesn't play to their strengths. Sinatra does a good job, first in being tough while going after the Musante character, and then in having to do a 180 after the William Windom character dies, forcing Sinatra to take another look at his career. Although The Detective has a lot of stereotypes due to the gay murder plot, stereotypes that threaten to drag down the movie, Sinatra rises above those.


Vintage Cameo said...

Sinatra's Detective "trilogy" is SO interesting to me—as you point out, there's always something kind of "off" about the films! For me, it's partly because Frank feels so old-school in juxtaposition with the more modern '60s filmmaking and themes. But also definitely enjoyable as an experience, I think! Thanks so much for joining in the blogathon!

Silver Screenings said...

I've not seen this film, or any of Sinatra's "Detective" films, but this one sounds intriguing from a historical/cultural viewpoint. I'll definitely check it out if I come across it – thanks!

Carrie-Anne said...

I don't think I'd ever heard of this film, but it sounds fascinating. It's also always interesting to see what was considered risqué or inappropriate for children in previous generations. So many of those older films, music videos, songs, and books now seem pretty tame in comparison to all the graphic stuff that goes on nowadays.

Ted S. (Just a Cineast) said...

Unfortunately, TCM ran it this past Wednesday as part of the Star of the Month salute to Sinatra, so you missed it on TCM. It is interesting, if a bit jarring. It did get released to DVD but looking at Amazon I think it's out-of-print.

Tony Rome, which I never did get around to seeing when the old Fox Movie Channel had it in frequent rotation, does seem to be in print.

Judy said...

I haven't seen this one yet, but did recently buy it on DVD in the UK - it's widely available here, as with the other two in the 'trilogy'. There is also a box set of the 3 over here.

I have seen the two others and liked Tony Rome but wasn't so keen on Lady in Cement - however, I'd heard that this is supposed to be the best one, so am looking forward to seeing it. Thanks for taking part in the blogathon, Ted, and for writing about such an interesting film, though I do take warning about the stereotyping.