Some evenings ago, I had finished with a hard day of accomplishing nothing on NERPoD: The Sequel (Which reminds me, have you ordered your copy of the original NERPoD from your favorite on-line bookseller? All the really cool bloggers have already read it. Why haven’t you?). This meant that I needed some form of entertainment to distract me. My mindless channel surfing stopped at the start of The Detective (1968). Now here was a film that would allow a lot of self-justification for watching the idiot box. I knew of this film from Vito Russo’s classic Celluloid Closet (and the later HBO documentary of the same name), but had never watched it in its entirety. Parking on the couch to watch this wasn’t me blowing off the evening. Rather, I was assessing a critical primary source that would shed light on past notions of sexual difference. Hey, it’s tough work, but somebody has to do it.
For those who have never heard of The Detective (and I’m going to guess most people have not), it was one of the first explicit representations of gay men at the local picture palaces. The year 1968 had brought significant changes and challenges to the nation. The Civil Rights movement was dealt a serious blow by the death of Martin Luther King, Jr; LBJ served his last year in office; Pierre Trudeau became Canada’s Prime Minister; Andy Warhol got in the way of radical feminist Valerie Solanas’ bullets; and Hawaii Five-O premiered on television (for the first time). That last one alone sent many people into an existential crisis from which they never recovered.
The year 1968 also brought an end to the draconian censorship of the Movie Production Code. Moviegoers demanded that films start reflecting the bleak and turbulent times. In place of the censorship Code, which sought to keep everything squeaky clean for all audiences, films started having a letter rating (G, PG, R, and X) that parents could totally ignore when considering which films were appropriate for their families.
Twentieth Century Fox rode that new rating train all the way to the bank with their highest grossing picture that year, The Detective. None other than Frank Sinatra occupied the titular role. The movie, based on a novel by Roger Thorpe (the man who later brought you Die Hard (more or less)), included topics like marital infidelity, corruption, civil rights movements, anonymous sex, and, of course, homosexuality. They probably couldn’t have included any more salacious story lines unless they made it a flat-out porno.
The start of the film lets us know that this ain’t no Doris Day flick. New York Detective Joe Leland (ol’ blue eyes) arrives at a crime scene. Upon entering the upscale apartment, he casually observes that the victim was a “male Caucasian, nude laying on the floor. Penis cut off, laying on the floor of the living room.” Leland’s partner, a novice African-American policeman, nearly hurls his cookies onto the floor. In contrast, Leland has seen it all and casually asks Quincy, or, er, Jack Klugman to wrap up the penis in newspaper to keep people from accidentally kicking it around the floor.
The audience is left asking, who could have perpetuated such a gruesome crime? Well, it was a number of years too early for people to imagine that Bobbit story.
We start to get clues about what might have transpired as Leland tours the deceased’s apartment: Nude, greco-roman male statutes in every corner? Check. Unknown drugs in the medicine cabinet? Check. Semen stained sheets? Check. A pile of barbells and a half-gallon jug of mineral oil? Check and check! Even Scooby-Doo could have pieced together that this man was as queer as Fred’s ascot. The Detective is that subtle.
But this was post code! No longer did movie makers need to hint broadly about the sexual identity of its dead characters through objets d`art. The Detective spelled it out plain and cold: “Junior over there was a homosexual” remarks the medical examiner. Just how the doctor determined this posthumously is never revealed, but he assures Leland such an end is typical for men of his persuasion. When asked about the cause of death, he glibly replies “Lover’s quarrel, that’s how they settle it.. . . Twenty years and they still disturb the hell out of me.” Who can blame him? Most of my man dates usually follow the trajectory of drinks; then dinner; then a movie; then sex (possibly slathered in mineral oil); and then a bloody death match on the livingroom floor. If I come out alive and with my member intact, I hope he calls me again.
One doesn’t need an extra eye to see the homophobia dripping out of the film. It is for this reason that The Detective has been rightly disparaged by generations of queer scholars and moviegoers. The film makers promised, and delivered, the first celluloid glimpse at “gay” life. Following the chairman-of-the-board through his investigation gave a voyeuristic glimpse at all the joints that gay men apparently inhabited: gyms, boarding houses, the docks, and orgies in semi-trucks. Or, as I think of it, Tuesday. Each time they encounter a gay person, an ancillary character comments on how “sickening” it is to normal men like him.
To make a long, convoluted story shorter, Nancy Sinatra's father thinks that he finds his man, Felix Tesla, at a sketchy boarding house. The suspect fits with what sixties mainstream society imagined for gay men. In other words, he was totally drugged out . . . or nuts . . . or both. It didn’t really matter. Listening to his contorted speech patterns, it’s hard to believe this man was lucid enough to ride a city bus much less have an extended relationship with a prominent millionaire. But, whatev’s.
Tesla arrives at the police station for intensive interrogation, which does result in some of my favorite campy movie dialog ever. When questioned about life with the victim, Tesla proclaims, “He was a bitch!” Oh, honey, I’ve been there. The rest of the scene played out more peculiarly as Frank Sinatra more-or-less seduces his suspect. A gentle touch here, an oblique reference to a gay bar there, questions about the victim’s body (“soft, like a girl’s” btw). Before you can say “police coercion” Leland has his suspect singing like Billie Holiday. You can guess what happens next. Yep, the gay man goes immediately to the electric chair and fries faster than a bucket of chicken. All the cops and politicians are delighted. The detective wins a big promotion and everybody enjoys some stiff brown drinks. A happy ending in heteroville. Well, except . . .
Turns out maybe Tesla wasn’t so guilty after all. Through an unrelated investigation, the detective discovers that another man has jumped to his death at a local race track. The newly deceased? A closeted gay man who had been involved in some mighty shady deals in the city. Apparently the director couldn’t let a full twenty minutes of celluloid lapse without having a gay man facing some type of peril: dismembered, strangled, beaten up, threatened with a gun, threatened with imprisonment, electrocuted, or just clumsy on a ledge. Like all gay men, The Detective lets us know that the most recently departed deserved his fate. He helped a crew of politicians and real estate brokers embezzle millions of dollars, all at the expense of the poor. Yet, this was not what set him over the edge, literally. He just couldn’t handle his deep, deep desire for some man love. I mean, committing outrageous acts of fraud and theft are one thing, but kissing another man? Somebody has to die.
Leland uncovers a taped confession that outlines the closeted man’s torment. Oh, you know the type. He had “experimented” in college, but since then had become 100 percent heterosexual. Think an accountant version of Ted Haggard. To prove his new found straightness, he even married the glamorous Jacqueline Bisset. Hey, if you’re going to get a beard, go top of the line is what I say. Trouble was that sometimes he just needed somebody in bed who was, shall we say, a bit more hairy. He turned up at a local gay bar and went home with the millionaire. And, as we were told early on, the inevitable happened when two gay men connect: murder. Sinatra emotes some remorse over turning Tesla into a human flambé, but not enough so that he can’t end with a sanctimonious speech about city corruption.
All in all, the movie leaves you with the impression that gay men are self-hating, drug addled, murderous embezzlers who keep the mineral oil industry afloat. Yet, in watching the film I was surprised to see that it also contained a (very modest) counter vision of gay men. The police contemptuously questioned the victim’s beard, or er, occasional “date” to parties. She defended the victim. “I knew he was gay," she said without apology, "but he was civilized and he a bit of wit, which is more than I can say for most people.” Though most of the police rough up the gay men whom they encounter at the docks, Leland reminds them to “take it easy. These people aren’t murderers.” Of course, that line would have been more convincing if the film hadn’t already presented gay men as only murderers. Later in the film, he tells Tesla “I believe in live and let live.” Of course, that line would have been more convincing if he didn’t later send Tesla to die in the electric chair.
Perhaps The Detective can be understood as exploiting the contradictory attitudes about sex and sexuality swirling around during the 1960s. On one hand, the film didn’t shy away from pointing out that gay men actually existed and were out having a good time. Well, at least until they died in some gruesome way. When they did die, it was usually their own fault or at each other’s hands. Those depictions of gay men, though, have to be placed into the larger context of the way the film presents other forms of sexual behavior. The Detective didn’t just delve into gay men as the only symbol of sixties sexual corruption. In an ancillary plot, Leland's own marriage falls apart when it’s revealed that his wife likes to have anonymous sex with strangers whom she meets at bars (Don’t ask). The increased sexual freedom of the era costs Leland personally and left him disillusioned.
Leland thereby comes off less as a crusader for social justice than as a libertarian who has himself been victimized by the sexual revolution. The film reassured audiences that good straight white men, like Leland, always fight for the less fortunate and provide stability in a world run amok. His mild defense of gay men served to make him appear more generous and “by-the-book,” unlike the crooked cops who surrounded him. He was a hetero patriarch that audiences were supposed to embrace. It ignored that such straight cops were often the ones harassing anybody who dared to break the social mores.