You think Frank Sinatra, you think brassy lounge singer, iconic voice, Ol’ Blue Eyes, maybe a star in a some old time musical. But you probably don’t think of him as a leading man in dramatic movies, even though he did a few in his time, even won an Academy Award for his support in one of the greats, From Here to Eternity. My point is, his music was the thing and while he was impressive most times on screen, we remember him for his songs. That said, I recently came across a film of his that I think deserves some attention, so let’s take a look back at his work in The First Deadly Sin.
Sinatra portrays Sergeant Edward Delaney, a New York City cop nearing retirement. He’s a greying, modest looking man weaving his way through his final days on the force in a town rife with crime. He’s just got word that his wife Barbara (Faye Dunaway) needed emergency surgery, forcing the doctor to remove a kidney. She’s bedridden and infection is worsening her condition. Meanwhile, a maniac with an odd weapon is killing people right on the street and Delaney feels it’s his last chance to make a difference, despite the higher ups urging, and then demanding he let it go and move on with his life.
Directed by Brian G. Hutton, and heavily adapted from the 1973 novel of the same name by Lawrence Sanders, The First Deadly Sin is not at all in the same vein as most in the genre, even as many that came later sort of make tropes of the lead character. I read the book twice, once years ago and again a few months past, only just becoming aware a movie had been made around its premise. I highly recommend the book, but it is one to read after watching the film, which isn’t all that faithful, especially with the finale. However, Sinatra is very well cast as Delaney and several of the more impactful elements from the book remain in the movie.
That includes Delaney’s relationships with those who help him. Coroner, Dr. Ferguson (James Whitmore) is fun to watch but it’s Martin Gabel as Christopher Langley, a curator of ancient armor who makes the greatest impression, doggedly searching for the instrument of death based only on the findings Ferguson offers Delaney. You begin to see a pattern in the story, as these aged men nearing the ends of their careers find varying motivations for sticking to the case, with Delaney refusing to be sidelined and Langley driven by someone actually in need of his expertise. This makes for the heart of the story.
Now, understandably, The First Deadly Sin will be a hard watch for those weened on the action cop thriller of modern times. A John Wick fan (of which I count myself) may feel a bit restless watching this wondering when exactly will the dang thing speed up. Indeed, this is a very slow movie, but I don’t want to paint that as a detriment. Hutton paces this as it should, as a methodical hunt where Delaney steadfastly works his way closer to a killer (played by David Dukes) in hopes of ending his spree. Everything leading to that end is actually entertaining, built not out of long stretches of punches and gunplay, but by an older man simply not giving up. This is a film about a predator where the prey is in fact, the killer. Once you get that, this movie clicks.
The final confrontation is a let down, I will admit. It’s not like the book, and while I don’t mind that, the last few moments between Delaney and the murderer are a bit flimsy for my taste, even as I really liked the way Delaney gets himself to that position. Hutton works some style into it that I think doesn’t quite work, and the choice Delaney makes is one that I think needed more weight to make stick.
However, just about (see below) everything else is on target. Sinatra plays Delaney as a man of few words with nearly no expression, and does so for so long in fact you wonder if he’s even trying. But that is the point, and in a scene late in the film when he confronts the surgeon (ported by George Coe) who cut open his wife, believing he is a man of lesser skills, it’s a jolt that makes everything about Delaney crystal clear. Watch a scene early on when he comes home from work and the hospital and Hutton navigates us through his apartment up a few flights and through the scattered mementos of his married life, done without a word spoken and you get a sense that this a figure who is on a different edge from all those other cops that movies build bombastic reasoning behind. Sinatra delivers a deliberate and taxing performance out of appearing like he’s doing nothing at all. It’s great.
Poor Dunaway spends literally the entire film in bed in a slow state of demise, and it’s an utter waste, the story having no room for her at all, which leaves us lacking sympathy about Delaney’s state of mind when he’s with her. It’s a tragic misstep that should have seen her left on the cutting room floor, or not cast at all. The movie then could have given us more time with Delaney’s pursuit and better yet, more time with Langley. Still, Dunaway does what she can, and Sinatra is good when with her, but aside from the moment mentioned above, is the best time to get up and get a snack.
So, I do recommend the film, quite a bit actually. This is a quality production with affecting performances from Sinatra and Gabel. I think what makes it worth a look is how it handles its killer, in just about every aspect, with even his name (which I won’t reveal) a strange choice that at times seems bluntly obvious and then a bit existential, but more so, the manner in which he’s caught. Take a break from the current over-the-top action cop thrillers and see what was happening a few decades back and appreciate that an old man with a gun didn’t have to spend two hours on screen blowing everything up.