He didn't do it his way
Ol' Blue Eyes and the Boys in Blue
This article is mostly about films Frank Sinatra wasn’t in. Obviously, this is most of the films in the history of cinema. He wasn’t in The Battleship Potemkin, for instance, or Avengers: Endgame. (Unless he was in that bit at the end, standing at the back among the Guardians of the Galaxy. Could have been. Everyone else was.) No, I mean the films that Frank Sinatra wanted to be in and wasn’t, or was offered but ended up not doing. Die Hard, for example.
Die Hard was a sequel. It was adapted from a novel called Nothing Lasts Forever, which was the follow-up to a 1966 book called The Detective, which was made into a film starring Frank Sinatra in 1968. And so the producers were, apparently, contractually obliged to offer the part of John McClane to Frank Sinatra. Thankfully he turned it down.
The Detective is, as you might expect, a very different film to Die Hard. It aimed to be a new, more adult approach to police thrillers; an advance on the po-faced, “just the facts ma’am” procedurals of the ‘40s and ‘50s. In film noir, only criminals and private eyes are allowed to have interiority; cops are just working stiffs in cheap suits who do everything by the book and always get their man. The Detective brought personality to the police.
Sinatra plays Joe Leland, a working-class cop who got himself an education and whose principled decency now stops him from rising higher in the service. His only problem with Robbie, his African-American partner, is that Robbie is too ruthless; he decks another policeman (a very young but already balding Robert Duvall) for homophobia; he’s distraught when the man he arrested for murder is executed. He also has a complex, realistic and slightly tragic emotional life. He is world weary because the world is so exhausting. This was all of a piece with Sinatra’s brand of masculinity. In public, on stage, he was a smart-mouthed, hard-hearted, ring-a-ding-ding wiseguy; in private, in song, he was expressive, worn down, heartbroken. He projected the tortured soul of a sensitive man who has had to inoculate himself against toxic masculinity with cynicism.
The Detective attempts to be ‘realistic’; it shows a world in which cops are bigoted and corrupt, detection relies as much on chance as on methodology, and the wrong people get arrested. A world in which society is complex and criminals are people.
In Die Hard, criminals are smarmily sadistic Europeans and police work involves a lot more plastic explosives and crawling through ducts than you’d expect. John McClane has principles, but those most revolve around trying to keep his clothes on and shooting smarmy Europeans. Die Hard is a cartoon, a western - and not one of those revisionist intellectual westerns like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or McCabe and Mrs Miller. The references to Roy Rogers are no mistake. John McClane is the Lone Ranger, a six-gun-toting white hat in a world where society is helpfully Manichean and criminals are better off six feet under up on Boot Hill.
And yet both The Detective and Die Hard are, in theory at least, cop movies.
Cops ought to make good movie heroes. Classical hero narratives always involve a tragic death - Heracles in his poisoned cloak, Beowulf’s dragon wounds - because to protect his community a hero must rise above it, be greater than anyone else. This threatens the cohesion of the community even as it saves it. The hero must die in order to preserve the peace he has won. The hero is outside society even as he champions it.
Cops, too, must transcend the bounds of society in order to save it. The police are there to protect society but in order to do so they must breach its niceties and forms. Their uniforms and badges separate them from the run of people, single them out as special; they also mean that they are privy to people’s darkest, most intimate secrets. Cops are required to stand apart and empowered to delve within. They are entrusted to keep the peace and they do so through action, often through violence. They are the people who run towards the screaming. They are ordinary people who have chosen to do extraordinary things.
This role is as susceptible to a progressive reading as it is a conservative one, and that’s largely what The Detective seems to be doing. Joe Leland is singled out as much by his intelligence and liberal attitudes as he is by his gun and his badge (he fires his gun precisely once in the film and gives up on promotion in disgust). Die Hard, on the other hand, is pretty conservative at heart. All the criminals are irredeemable and the only thing that can stop them is a good man with a gun. Government and business are suspect. The only thing on which we can rely is a working guy with ‘common sense’ and an attitude problem.
So how did Joe Leland become John McClane? Part of the answer is provided by another film Sinatra didn’t appear in: Dirty Harry (1971). He was initially cast though, at least partly because of his performance in The Detective, but he dropped out and the role was offered to Steve McQueen and Paul Newman before meeting its match in Clint Eastwood. Newman turned it down because he thought it was too ‘right wing’. He wasn’t wrong.
Like Die Hard, Dirty Harry is an urban cowboy film, with Harry Callahan mirroring the laconic gunmen Eastwood played in Spaghetti Westerns. Callahan doesn’t have a complex emotional life; he doesn’t appear to have an emotional life at all. He is completely detached from the society he is pledged to protect, ruthlessly bullying a would-be suicide on the edge of a building roof. He has no empathy for the criminals he confronts, and the serial killer Scorpio, whom he is hunting through the film, is a giggling, stereotypical psychopath who appears to have no more interiority than the cop.
Contrast this with Joe Leland browbeating a confession out of a mentally ill suspect in The Detective and then bitterly regretting it, especially when he discovers that the man was delusional and innocent of the crime he is eventually executed for. Dirty Harry regrets only that criminals have rights, and he executes Scorpio himself to save the judiciary any tedious mucking about.
As you might expect from a film part-scripted by Nietzche fanboy and Conan the Barbarian writer John Milius, Dirty Harry takes a deeply conservative view: the world is scary, order is fragile, and we are surrounded by bad people who must be destroyed. It is all the more irritating, then, that it is extremely well made. Don Siegel is an astonishingly gifted director and it is a beautiful film, full of grainy San Francisco light and stark framings. Perhaps most irritating of all, it was a massive hit, making five times as much as The Detective at the box office and spawning a long line of increasingly lurid sequels. Callahan, not Leland, was the model for the movie cops that followed.
There are, consequently, a lot of beautiful films featuring dirty cops throughout the ‘70s. Gene Hackman’s ruthless ‘Popeye’ Doyle in Friedkin’s grimy, relentless The French Connection; Bruce Dern’s monomaniacal Detective in Walter Hill’s slick and stark The Driver. ‘Grit’, in the sense of moral fortitude and determination to do the right thing at personal cost, became ‘grit’ in the sense of litter and a lot of swearing.
The economic and social decay of the ‘70s makes for a dangerous world, and these policemen become ever more dangerous themselves, sliding towards amorality until they are indistinguishable from criminals. In John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 the police and career cons team up again a marauding gang of thugs, and in The Driver Ryan O’Neal’s titular getaway driver is, if anything, more moral than the cop chasing him; he has to deal with giggling stereotype psychopaths employed by the police.
In Walter Hill’s next police thriller, 48 Hrs. (1982), the cop and the criminal explicitly team up. The cop is still grizzled, maverick and laconic in the ‘70s style (and in the ‘70s form of Nick Nolte), and he’s still chasing a one-note swivel-eyed psychopath (a young James Remar), but the criminal he’s forced to pal up with is a hip, quippy, electric Eddie Murphy. Murphy raises the film into a whole new state of being. It still has the shape of a gritty ‘70s thriller, but he injects a streak of ‘80s neon that actually threatens to make it fun, of all things. Compared to another 1982 film that Frank Sinatra wasn’t in, The Verdict, it’s a breath of fresh air.
The Verdict shows us where the progressive crusaders for justice have ended up: alcoholic and on the skids. Sinatra wanted the part of washed-up lawyer Frank Galvin but it went instead to Paul Newman, who very much didn’t think this one was too right wing for him. Galvin had been a promising lawyer until his principles and complex personal life destroyed him. He is where Joe Leland of The Detective might have been 14 years later, beaten down by the complex realities of the world. It is a sombre, methodical, deep brown film, a world away from the fast cars and stylish action of 48 Hrs. This difference accelerated through the ‘80s with films like Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop (1984), an unashamedly bright, escapist romp with none of the grit or shading of ‘70s policiers.
This whole slightly intestinal dive into films that Frank Sinatra wasn’t in started because we watched Lethal Weapon (1987) for our ‘Can We Show The Kids’ strand. We tried for ages to think of something interesting to pull out of it, but had to admit defeat. It’s just bobbins, and The Metropolitan has a ‘no dunking’ policy, so we pretended not to have noticed it. But it gnawed away at me. Lethal Weapon is curiously inept for something so popular. How was it so bad, and yet so successful?
After hours of watching its predecessors it seems to me that Lethal Weapon is trying to meld the humour of ‘80s cop movies with the relentless action of the ‘70s. Its set-up mirrors 48 Hrs. while its plot (such as it is) actively mimics Dirty Harry. And so you end up with a threatened suicide that is played for laughs.
A year later, Die Hard pulled off this combination much more effectively. It takes its notes from Beverly Hills Cop rather than Dirty Harry, with a single protagonist who is both world-weary cop and motormouth quipster. As the unexpected action hero we have comic actor Willis instead of comedian Murphy; the British stage actor villain is sinister Rickman instead of silly Berkoff. It's also tempting to see the gung-ho, Vietnam-nostalgic FBI agent who louses up the hostage rescue as an implied criticism of Riggs’ cliched Special Forces vet in Lethal Weapon. What makes Die Hard really successful, though, is what it inherits from The Detective; how John McClane evolves from Joe Leland.
One of the things that makes Joe Leland’s personal life so complex in The Detective is his relationship with his wife, played by Lee Remick. In a somewhat heavy footed piece of pop psychology, her past in care as an orphan has made her commitment-incapable and a nymphomaniac, unable not to cheat on Joe even as she loves him. John McClane’s wife, the appropriately seasonally named Holly, played by Bonnie Bedelia, has committed a crime far more heinous in the ‘80s than sleeping around: she’s taken a man’s job, as symbolised by the chunky men's watch her company has given her. A job that has put her in California, Nakatomi Plaza and harm’s way. (McClane’s admission of an emotional inarticulacy makes him more sympathetic than Riggs in Lethal Weapon, performatively drunk-weeping over a picture of his dead wife.)
Joe Leland in The Detective ends up alone, both personally and professionally, but John McClane rescues himself as well as the hostages. He accomplishes both in one act. When he removes Holly’s watch (the symbol of her control over her own destiny), he condemns metrosexual mastermind Hans Gruber to his plummeting doom and reasserts the salt-of-the-earth working stiff as the master of his own fate.
Die Hard is still an ‘80s action film, after all. But underneath, deep in the engine room, parts are left over from The Detective. There is a heart under the grimy vest. Even without Frank Sinatra, some small residue of upright, uptight Joe Leland is still fighting the good fight.
Look out for a special guest edition of The Metropolitan this Tuesday, as friend-of-the-show Mark Dykeman from How About This reveals a fiendish 1980s plot to turn Canadian teens British.
Meanwhile, for more on the uncomfortable politics of fictional policing, read our essay on Life on Mars:
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