Seeing Cinema in a New Light: Criticism, Essays and Observations about Classic Cinema

1960s Movies, Classic Movies, Crime Drama, Film Criticism and Analysis

Bullitt (1968) vs The Detective (1968)

A few years ago, I discovered The Detective (1968) for the first time when it aired on the Movies network. When it first started, I thought it was going to be a very middle of the road mainstream police movie. Instead, I came across a movie that shocked the hell out of me on many levels, even though it was released in a time when movies were nowhere near as gritty and envelope pushing as they are today.

You see, The Detective starts off as a typical police story in the vein of Naked City.  Joe Leland, played by Frank Sinatra, is a homicide detective called in to investigate the death of a well to do bachelor. As it turns out, this is no ordinary homicide. Not only was the victim brutally murdered, he was indisputably, undeniably gay. Not gay in that cutesy, coy way using Hollywood code. Nope. He’s referred to as gay plenty of times, and we even get to meet his boyfriend later (played by Tony Musante). So, the movie lets you know in no uncertain terms that this is a film about an out gay man.

The Detective also plays out in a surprisingly gritty way. Not only is the murder gruesome (the victim had his penis hacked off), there’s coarse language and suggestive content that must have been shocking for its time. For example, on top of the constant references to homosexuality, it also turns out that Lee Remick’s character is openly promiscuous. Also, the movie shows in stark detail what it was like to be gay pre-Stonewall. We see gay men being brutalized and humiliated by law enforcement, as well as experience what it was like for closeted men to go cruising for the first time.


When the movie ended, I was stunned. It wasn’t just because of how dark and gritty it was for a 1968 film. It was because I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t heard about this movie until it aired. In terms of genre, it was no doubt a forerunner of grittier police dramas like The French Connection and Dirty Harry, and it anticipated NYPD Blue by 25 years. This was probably the very first film to break away from shows like Dragnet, Adam 12 and Naked City, which glamorized law enforcement and portrayed detectives as choir boys living completely flawless, untroubled lives. In The Detective, we finally got see how low down, dirty and seedy homicide work could be. But more importantly, we saw detectives and police officers in all their jaded glory.

Frank Sinatra in The Detective

Frank Sinatra in The Detective

Also, this movie tackled homosexuality in ways that were far more explicit and revealing than Midnight Cowboy. Yes, there’s no question that Midnight Cowboy is the far superior movie. However, it played coy with homosexuality in a way that The Detective didn’t. It was so coy that to this day, people who’ve seen the film still don’t realize that the “bromance” between Joe and Buck was a coded gay relationship. With The Detective there’s no ambiguity whatsoever.

If The Detective was so groundbreaking, why does no one talk about it? And why has it fallen into obscurity? Well, all you have to do is look at another film that came out that same year, Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen. Although the movie was completely different stylistically and thematically, it begs comparison to The Detective. Like that film, it’s also about a rogue member of law enforcement who decides to push back against his superiors in solving a murder case.

Bullitt was one of those movies I used to feel was overrated for a long time. I thought it was just a style over substance picture. Do I think that way anymore? Nope. Why? Because it took a movie like The Detective to make me understand and appreciate why Bullitt, which didn’t really push the envelope as much as The Detective, emerged as the iconic classic while the other one didn’t.

1 Comment

  1. Woodstock

    The car that Steve McQueen drives in Bullitt is a 1967 Fastback Ford Mustang (I used to own one) it’s the bad guys in the movie that drive the 68 Dodge Charger.

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