Director: Gordon Douglas
Writer: Abby Mann. Based on the novel by Roderick Thorp
Cast: Frank Sinatra, Lee Remick, Jacqueline Bisset, Tony Musante, Lloyd Bochner
When considering how potentially offensive any movie can be, one must take into account the historical context in which the movie was made. The Detective is notable for being the first movie to deal openly with the issue of "homosexuality" and to attempt a sympathetic portrayal of "homosexuals". However, even though it was considered progressive for the time, The Detective struck me as being a little condescending and potentially offensive for modern audiences.
When the gay son of a prominent New York businessman is brutally murdered, Detective Joe Leland (Frank Sinatra) is assigned to investigate. It does not take him long to track down the victims live in lover Felix Tesla (Tony Musante) and extract a confession. However, Joe is troubled because Tesla is clearly insane. When Tesla is executed, Jos finds himself ridden with guilt even though breaking the case helped earn his promotion to Lieutenant as Tesla clearly had psychatric problems making his confession suspect. Soon afterwards, Detective Leland is approached by the recently widowed Norma MacIver who asks him to look into her husbands suicide. While the two cases appear unrelated, they both turn out to be connected to corruption at the highest levels of the city.
Like I said earlier, The Detective was considered progressive for the time period it was released in. However, it's attempts at sympathetically portrayals of it's gay characters falls far short of that lofty goal. The main problem is that the gay characters are either self loathing murderers, have serious psychiatric problems, or end up dead. Also, I later decided to watch the trailer and noticed that it appears to be using the term "perverts" to refer to gay men.
However, these complaints aside, one can forgive the filmmakers considering the time period. Remember, The Detective came out in 1968, a whole year before the Stonewall Riots that "started" the gay liberation movement and the now defunct Hays Code had only recently been officially abolished.
Furthermore, ignoring the negative stereotypes used to portray the gay characters, The Detective is a damn fine movie. The characterization of the non-gay characters is fairly subtle and complex, while the plot, while somewhat derivative, managed to hold my attention throughout. There are also some nice performances showcased within and after watching this, I can see why Frank Sinatra was considered the coolest actor of his generation.
On the flip side, The Detective was also trying to be progressive in areas beyond sexuality. To that end, Leland and his wife are suffering marital problems, the problems of drugs are not ignored, and the dialog tries to represent the way people and particularly police officers talk in real life. The film is somewhat succesful at this, the relationship Leland has with his wife is explored not only in depth but with a sensitivity rarely seen on film. Like with the presentation of the gay characters though, the film does resort to instances of facile melodrama that cause it to feel somewhat immature. These can be considered the growing pains of the Hollywood system following the aforementioned ending of the Hays Code.
Trivia: Roderick Thorp who wrote the novel The Detective the film was based upon, also wrote a sequel Nothing Lasts Forever featuring Detective Leland that was later used as the basis for the movie Die Hard. Other than that, it's difficult to find a connection between the two movies. The Detective tries to be gritty and "mature" film noir, whilst Die Hard of course was a typical 80's action flick geared towards adolescent males.
Once one gets past negative stereotypes, The Detective makes for an interesting diversion while showcasing a lot of old school Holywood talent. Considering the time period, I'm therefore willing to recommend it for anyone who may be interested in classic movies with queer themes. Personally, I enjoyed The Detective more for what it was attempting than what it succeeded at.
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