Detective Sergeant Joe Leland (Frank Sinatra) has been called out to this swanky New York apartment because the owner has been found dead there. But Teddy Leikman did not die of natural causes, he has been murdered and his body mutilated; what makes it imperative that the killer be found is not so much that there's a psychopath on the loose, but that Leikman was heir to a fortune so the pressure is on for Leland to solve the case. He interviews an upstairs neighbour, who reveals the deceased was gay: could this be an important lead? The NYC cops start using strongarm tactics on the city's gay population to find out...
In some ways The Detective was the American equivalent of Britain's Victim, the Dirk Bogarde-starring item of championing the homosexual cause, only Sinatra was not playing the same kind of character - a gay Old Blue Eyes? It doesn't sound like it would travel well with the public, and the thought of him in such a role might well have provoked unintended hilarity. Therefore to compromise and show the bigoted general populace that it was not right to victimise homosexuals, Frank plays a cop who is so liberal that he's disgusted by the harsh treatment his fellow cops use on them, and indeed this disgusted tone informs the rest of the film as well.
This was made by the same team as had filmed Sinatra's Tony Rome movies, but where they were a mixture of two-fisted tales and a sense of fun of a sort, here the mood was far more serious. So serious in fact that it's hard to enjoy, with a seedy and sordid feeling to much of the drama that says, yes we're preaching equality here, but aren't people vile? Not vile in that they prefer the company of other men, but in that everyone in this has a dark side they are quite happy to let loose should the whim take them, from Robert Duvall's bullying cop to Leland's estranged wife Karen (Lee Remick) who cannot restrain her urges to sleep around.
In among this Leland mopes, barely cracking a smile as the weight of the world leans heavily on his shoulders. There's a scene early on during one of his plot exposition flashbacks where he's walked out of a play he attended with Karen and a couple of her friends, his excuse being that he prefers works that look on the brighter side of life and don't rub your nose in the grime, in which case he'd hate the film he was appearing in. The investigation goes as well as can be expected, with Leland quietly stepping in to prevent too much damage to the suspects and unfortunates roped in in passing, but by the time the culprit (a hysterical Tony Musante) is executed, we're only halfway through the story.
This is because the culprit they believed they had caught was not as guilty as they thought he was, and the subplot about big money property scams rises to the surface, as if to say nobody in this city is immune from corruption, from the junkies and prostitutes all the way up to the most powerful members of society. The police are somewhere in between, dragged down into the swamp of moral turpitude as, for example, one cop uses the interrogation technique of stripping the suspect of his clothes because he heard that worked in the Nazi concentration camps. Leland doesn't get angry, he simply wearily does his best to stem the tide, and the conclusion is that he is fighting a losing battle. Very different from Bruce Willis in Die Hard, eh? What does he have to do with this? Bruce and Frank were playing characters based on the same fictional cop in two separate Roderick Thorp novels, that's what. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.