Great Movie Characters: Joe Leland in The Detective
By the mid-1960s, the notorious Hayes Code, the censorship standards begun in the 1930s, had begun to fall away. Films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate and In the Heat of the Night started pushing the envelope in terms of “adult” content portrayed on-screen. With the advent of the MPAA rating system in November, 1968 a new era of freedom was ushered in. Filmmakers could frankly portray sex, violence, profanity and formerly taboo subject matters. While the aforementioned films are all iconic in stature, one of the key films that pushed the rating system into being is now largely forgotten.
Roderick Thorp’s 1966 novel The Detective became an instant best-seller, a mammoth (600 pages), unflinching look at Joe Leland, a weary veteran cop who finds his legal and personal mettle tested while investigating the brutal murder of a wealthy, gay department store heir. The film adaptation, with a screenplay by outspoken liberal Abby Mann and direction by Gordon Douglas, starred Frank Sinatra, Lee Remick, Jacqueline Bisset, Ralph Meeker, William Windom, Robert Duvall, Al Freeman Jr., Tony Musante, Lloyd Bochner, Renee Taylor and Jack Klugman. Released in May 1968, no film before or since has had one foot so firmly in the traditions of Old Hollywood simultaneously with one foot equally planted in the New.
The opening credits for The Detective feel like an episode of Dragnet or The Naked City. Director Gordon Douglas, thought by many film historians to be the definition of a “hack,” amassed nearly 100 credits during his fifty year career, developing a style that can only be described as “no frills.” The shots of Sinatra in his car have the standard rear-projection background, making the in-studio shooting obvious. When Sinatra’s Sgt. Leland arrives at the crime scene, however, we realize that we’re watching something different than what appears to be an archaic old policier. Words like “penis,” “semen,” “severed,” and “gay,” are tossed around almost casually. While this would be found on any episode of C.S.I. today, in 1968 this kind of dialogue was unprecedented.
Leland soon finds himself investigating the murder of Theodore “Teddy” Leikman, Jr. in New York’s homosexual underworld, portrayed as a place where largely Caucasian, pretty and preppy men gather together in the dark like scared, feral animals. While today this portrait of gay men looks and feels laughably archaic (and even offensive in its often broad, over-the-top stereotypes), it was groundbreaking when the film was released, a full year before the Stonewall Riots shed light on the plight of gay men and women in the U.S., and the kind of discrimination and brutal harassment they often faced. Leland establishes from the get-go that he has no problem with homosexuality, blacks, Latins, the poor, or anyone “different.” “Live and let live” is Joe’s old school liberal mantra, and he takes it personally when someone like brutal detectives Nestor (Duvall) and Robbie (Freeman) find glee in abusing them.
In one particularly potent and still-topical scene, a young patrolman (character actor Tom Atkins) has just shot and killed a young black man during a routine traffic stop. The man was unarmed. Atkins’ character, obviously guilty, claims the man was reaching for something in the glove compartment, that the car “lurched,” so he fired. The precinct captain, Capt. Farrell (Horace McMahon), tells the rookie he’ll get him off this time, but that he’ll be in debt to the captain. Disgusted, Leland storms out of the room.
Meanwhile Joe’s wife Karen (Remick), a comely Columbia University sociology professor, has issues of her own, namely nymphomania. She can’t keep from hopping in the sack with every guy she meets. We learn about her background as an orphan, bounced around through foster homes, and Paperback Freud abandonment issues, all classic tropes from “serious drama” of the 1950s and ’60s. Again, it’s the dialogue in these scenes between Remick and Sinatra that still makes one snap to attention: “I came here to ball, baby! Ain’t that what you’re good for?” Joe screams at her, after a particularly untoward revelation comes to light. The frank portrayal, and discussion, of marital dysfunction was also revolutionary in its time and still packs a punch today, even though the actors are playing out these tough, “realistic” scenes on what are obviously movie sets, lit with the most artificial-looking lighting set-ups this side of I Love Lucy. In fact, if there’s a consistent beef that both critics and cinefiles have with The Detective, it’s the film’s artificial look and static camera set-ups, so indicative of the old Hollywood, while films like Bonnie & Clyde had camerawork and editing that practically crackled with kinetic energy.
The first half of The Detective plays out like a fairly standard murder mystery/investigation, with Leland and his crew catching their prime suspect Felix Tesla (Tony Musante), a twitching, whining gay stereotype that Leland instantly pegs as “a psychotic.” Leland coaxes a confession out of him, after pulling off a gang of bullying cops who scream “Fag!” and other offensive epithets at the cowering figure. Leland’s good cop gets his confession, Tesla gets the electric chair, and Leland gets promoted to lieutenant. End of the movie, you say? We’re only halfway there.
At almost exactly the halfway point of the film, sixty minutes in, we see a man jump from the roof of a race track to his death. It’s here the film takes a wild left turn as Joe is approached by lovely Norma MacIver (Bisset) asking if he’ll look into the suicide death of her husband Colin (Windom), which she feels was investigated in a slipshod manner. Joe goes to speak with MacIver’s closest friend, a slick and wealthy society shrink named Dr. Roberts, whom Karen had earlier pointed out as having given a fascinating lecture about the benefits of LSD. Roberts tells Joe little, saying that Colin’s suicide surprised him as much as anyone. Joe isn’t buying it, convinced the doc is hiding something big. Meanwhile, Norma shows Joe a cache of ledgers Colin, a CPA, kept, detailing something called The Rainbow Corporation, where millions of dollars was changing hands between some of the city’s most powerful people involving slum properties. Joe breaks into Roberts’ office later, finding two cassette tapes, just as Roberts returns and catches Joe red-handed. Joe makes Roberts play him the tapes at gunpoint.
Here we get the real meat (and sleaze) of the story, from Colin McIver’s POV on the tapes, detailing his anguished struggle with being a closeted gay man in a time when being “out” meant professional and social ruin. Colin mutters that he couldn’t bear to look at the gays’ “twisted faces and outcasts” with their “lives lived in shadows.” Colin confesses that it was he who killed Teddy Leikman after their tryst turned ugly, not Felix Tesla. Unable to live with his crime, McIver jumped to his death a couple weeks after making the tapes. Again, the portrait of the gay “underworld” during this sequence is shocking in its over-the-top, melodramatic staging (all that’s missing are wisps of steam and a guy with cloven hooves and pointed tail), but also in the fact that for its time, it’s done with surprising sensitivity and sympathy for “those people.” That this is a story where gay men are featured prominently told by men who most certainly were not gay is glaringly obvious. For 1968, however, it makes The Detective all that much braver.
Joe realizes that his career has been made on the execution of an innocent man, a man whose death he helped instigate. He also realizes he’s sitting on virtual TNT with the Rainbow Corp. ledgers. Fellow cop Curran (Meeker) tells Joe to back off, that certain friends of his and the department will “make it worth your while” to turn the incriminating ledgers over. Leland tells Curran to take a hike and later that evening narrowly misses being killed by two gunmen in his garage, both of whom he plugs with his .38. Despite pleas from Capt. Farrell and his partner/only friend, Dave Schoenstein (Klugman), Joe makes the tapes and ledgers public. He resigns from the department, so his fellow cops won’t have deal with the political fallout from the power structure they’ve just corn-holed. As Joe hands over his gold shield to Capt. Farrell, he mutters “It’s no worse to be a murderer in our society than a homosexual,” and exits.
Released with a “Suggested for Mature Audiences” warning along with its MPAA seal, The Detective did solid business as one of the top grossing films of 1968 and created an expected firestorm of controversy. Taken today as the relic that it is, it remains (at least to me) a remarkable film on many levels. Even Gordon Douglas’ much-derided direction has some potent set-ups, such as when the characters speak directly into the camera. The relationship talk between Sinatra and Remick feels not only realistic, but still contemporary. It’s one of Sinatra’s finest performances, weary and tough, but also tender and earnest. Joe Leland is a man out of his time who’s determined to stay relevant, even though the rest of the world has given up on his post-WW II era idealism and decayed into corruption. Much like the film itself, Joe has one foot in the past and one stubbornly planted in the present and future, on his terms.
A final bit of trivia: Roderick Thorp wrote a sequel to The Detective in 1979, entitled Nothing Lasts Forever, with Joe Leland stuck in a high rise office building that has been taken over by European terrorists, his daughter and grandchildren also inside. The book was bought by 20th Century Fox. Leland’s name was changed to John McClane. The title changed to Die Hard. And the rest, in the words of John Lennon, is pop history.
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