By Richard Winters
My Rating: 8 out of 10
4-Word Review: Up against the system.
Many people may not realize that Frank Sinatra was the original choice of Harry Callahan for Dirty Harry. Due to various reasons he turned down the part despite the fact that he was interested. You can’t help but wonder what that film might have been like had he accepted. A good indication may be the character of detective Joe Leland that he plays here. It has a similar theme of a tough cop tired of ‘the system’ and breaking off on his own to solve a bizarre case.
The murder itself is particularly gruesome and ahead of its time as it deals with the killing of a gay man found nude on the floor of his apartment with his genitals cut off. The actual shot of the victim is conveniently framed so that a fern, yes a fern, is strategically placed over the offending area, which is a little corny. Yet the dialogue and description of the case seems incredibly graphic for the time. Ol’ Blue Eyes even says the word penis, which I think has to be a movie history first.
The way it deals with the homosexual topic is also surprisingly enlightening. Gays are not labeled as ‘sick’ and ‘perverse’, at least not by the Leland character. In one good bit the Sinatra character even slugs another officer, played by Robert Duvall, in retaliation for getting rough with a gay man that he was questioning for no apparent reason except that he was gay.
There is another electrifying sequence involving Leland questioning the victim’s live-in lover and chief suspect. The part is well played by actor Tony Musante who gives his character all sorts of weird body gestures and nervous ticks, which makes the viewer feel uneasy but still compelled to keep watching until it becomes a fascinating experience. The Leland character again shows an amazing amount of compassion and enlightenment for the gay lifestyle during the interrogation, which should be enough to give this film a landmark status.
However, for all of its apparent sophistication, there are also things that hold it back and make it dated. One is reverting to what was a trend in the 40’s and 50’s, which was to film a person driving their car while sitting in front of a blue screen and holding onto a steering wheel that is not connected to any dashboard. It was considered a ‘ingenious’ way to stay under budget and not having to go through the ordeal of mounting a camera onto an actual car, but for today’s sharp audiences it comes off looking obvious and cheesy.
The casting of Sinatra is another drawback. He was already 53 at the time and he looked it. The part seems to be screaming for a younger, more rugged method type of actor like Steve McQueen or Paul Newman, who would have done better. Sinatra overplays the tough guy thing too much until it becomes one-dimensional and boring. The character needed more personal quirks and odd habits in order to make him more filled out and interesting. He also wears outfits worn by the ‘old school’ investigators of yesteryear even though the character is one looking to break from tradition and fighting the mainstream.
I also wasn’t quite sure why Lee Remick’s role as Sinatra’s love interest was necessary. I usually dislike it when crime dramas feel the need to work in a romance angle as a side story because it usually bogs everything down and in this case was no different. Now Remick is always reliable and her character was interestingly flawed, but how that was supposed to connect with everything else was not clear.
The story works in three different parts. The first deals with the murder and the homosexual community of the period. The second analyzes the politics of the police department while the third involves a mysterious suicide of a successful businessman. The third part, which doesn’t start until the second hour of the film, was the most intriguing for me. The suicide is shown from the point-of-view of the victim. They literally took a camera and heaved it over the edge of a building until it crashes directly onto the pavement below, which actually made me flinch. It is not until the very end where you see how all three of these parts come together, but the twist is excellent and made viewing this film well worthwhile.
Overall the cinematography, editing, writing, directing, and supporting acting are first rate. There are a lot of familiar faces in supporting roles including: Jack Klugman, William Windom, Lloyd Bochner, Jacqueline Bisset, Horace McMahon and Al Freeman Jr. They all do splendidly. The subject matter and the way it is handled easily elevates this from other melodramas of the period. The resolution should make this entertaining even for today’s viewers and enough to overlook a few dated elements.
My Rating: 8 out of 10
Released: May 28, 1968
Runtime: 1Hour 54Minutes
Director: Gordon Douglas
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Available: VHS, DVD