Wednesday, June 20, 2007

From Joe Leland to John McClane


As we approach the release of LIVE OR FREE OR DIE HARD, the time has come to ask a very important question. Can we really call DIE HARD the sequel to THE DETECTIVE? DIE HARD was based on an unlikely source, a novel called “Nothing Lasts Forever”, written by Roderick Thorpe and a follow-up to his novel “The Detective” which was filmed in 1968 starring Frank Sinatra as Detective Joe Leland. Leland became John McClane for 1988’s DIE HARD and the rest is history. Did Sinatra and Willis ever meet and if so, did the subject come up?

THE DETECTIVE is possibly best known as the film which led Sinatra to divorce Mia Farrow, who was due to play a role but still working on Roman Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY, which was way behind schedule. At least, that’s what has been reported. Either way, the role slated for Farrow was taken over by Jacqueline Bisset in what appears to be her first film in America.

One of the interesting consistencies of Twentieth Century Fox films from that period is the degree to which they take advantage of Century City, which was just beginning to appear in the backyard of the studio where much of its backlot used to be. It turns up in films as diverse as the BATMAN movie and MYRA BRECKENRIDGE. A GUIDE FOR THE MARRIED MAN has a construction site scene at what I believe is the future location of the Century Plaza Hotel. One of the best examples has to be 1972’s CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES where the just-completed Century City mall is used to represent the film’s futuristic world of “North America 1991”.

Set in New York, THE DETECTIVE doesn’t make any use of Century City locations, but the area’s appearance in DIE HARD is now legendary. The use of the then-new Fox Plaza building as the Nakatomi Plaza remains iconic and some of the footage of the helicopters moving hurtling through the area is truly dynamic, giving a really good look at how different the area looked 19 years ago. I always liked how once I moved to L.A. I was able to get a much better geographical handle on everything going on in the film. It just occurred to me that with all the emphasis that is placed on how the situation is affecting people nearby, no one ever mentions the movie studio that is right next door. Maybe in DIE HARD’s universe Nakatomi Plaza doesn’t have to share any real estate with Twentieth Century Fox.

THE DETECTIVE remains an interesting and, in some ways, surprising picture considering when it was made, but it really hasn’t dated all that well. Sinatra, nearing the end of his interest in film stardom, seems more committed here than he does in a few other films made around the same time—give LADY IN CEMENT a try sometime—but the material here isn’t quite up to the heights of THE MANCHURIUAN CANDIDATE or SOME CAME RUNNING. For a movie made in 1968 there’s a surprising amount of sordid material both in plotting and dialogue but even with some good New York location footage too much of the film feels flat and stage-bound. Director Gordon Douglas made many other films including THEM! and several other Sinatra vehicles in the 60s, but much of his work here isn’t very interesting with the occasional exception. At certain intimate moments between Sinatra and wife Lee Remick the film switches to a first-person technique for the scenes as if to emphasize their closeness. Considering how how-hum much of the visual style of the film is, it’s surprisingly effective and is similar to the approach Jonathan Demme has used in many of his films. I wonder if he was influenced at all by THE DETECTIVE.


The film takes a decidedly adult approach to its story of a police detective trying to balance his personal life with an investigation that takes him into certain seamier areas of New York. The personal life includes his troubled marriage to Lee Remick and the investigation includes an excursion into the gay underground of the city, over ten years before William Friedkin's CRUISING. The unfortunate thing is that it all this sounds more interesting than it actually is.

The large cast of familiar faces also includes Jack Klugman, Ralph Meeker, William Windom, Lloyd Bochner, Robert Duvall and Tom Atkins. Jerry Goldsmith’s very good score features an emphasis on trumpet which strongly anticipates his score for CHINATOWN, then six years in the future.

As for what all this has to do with LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD, well, pretty much nothing.

1 comment:

Pamelia said...

Interesting to know.