The First Deadly Sin


‘…while not the grand send-off Sinatra was looking for, it’s an ernest, worthwhile movie for fans of the star…’

All this on-going chat about mug-shots brought a blast from the past; Francis Albert Sinatra did it his way when he posed for a pretty cool police identification pic way back in 1938, when accused of the crime of ‘seduction’. By 1980, Sinatra was well beyond his prime as a seducer, having turned down the role of Dirty Harry and soon to turn down the role of John McClane in Die Hard, but still had claim to a huge fan-base for his music and live shows; he’d been off the big screen for almost a decade, so The First Deadly Sin was a much ballyhooed vehicle to return him to being a marquee name in cinema.

Alas, this adaptation of the chunky Lawrence Sanders novel didn’t quite do the job, with a few elements of the chairman of the board’s masterplan falling apart; the mooted director, Roman Polanski ended up fleeing the country permanently on a rape charge, leaving Brian G Hutton (Where Eagles Dare) to take up the reins on this bitter cop-show. Sinatra plays Edward Delaney, a NYC detective closing in on retirement but with one last, dangerous case to solve, a serial killer who uses an unconventional item as a weapon; an ice-axe, designed for mountaineering use. While Delaney’s wife lies in hospital, the cop hits the snowy Manhattan streets, searching for a personal redemption that might somehow season his wife for her passage…

The First Deadly Sin has a striking, wintry atmosphere, with Catholic iconography set against graphic surgery scenes, gruesome autopsies, an early appearance by Bruce Willis, and an aging Sinatra well cast as a man out of time. It’s something of a shock seeing old blue eyes dealing with such modern phenomena as ‘computer analysis’, ‘erections’, smoking joints and the responsibility of being the last male star to wear a hat into the 1980’s; High Society this is not. There’s always a backlog of scumbags to put away in this kind of scenario, and Delaney’s heart isn’t in it; his Captain admonishes his procrastination although his motivational advice probably doesn’t reflect current NYD law enforcement language, policy or mission statements; ‘All I care about is cleaning up the garbage in this dump. I got enough whores, pimps, queers and freaks roamin’ around out there to start my own Macy’s parade. So if you got Jack the Ripper goin’ down on Lizzie Borden in the middle of Times Square, I don’t wanna’ know about it!…’

Although some of such scuzzy detail feels authentic to a fault, it seems bizarre that for all his experience, Delaney doesn’t even have professional access to any kind of weapons expert, and has to relay on a museum-working contact to identify the weapon used; rather more damning as to the attitudes of the time is the casual lawman’s description of a witness as having ‘a nice ass and a great set of jugs’. And the element of class conflict is also well drawn ‘Uptown doctors, uptown diseases’ is a pointed line with dissects Delaney’s medical problems as being very much his own private war; he’s got rich people’s problems. For all its flaws, The First Deadly Sin contains Sinatra’s last substantial performance, and it’s substantially better than his Tony Rome/Lady in Cement turn; while not the grand send-off Sinatra was looking for, it’s an ernest, worthwhile movie for fans of the star.


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    • This film has grown on me; not quite a classic, but a failure with more to offer than many successes. And I take the point made in the comments that when the book was written, forensic detective work was at an early stage.

  1. I read a couple of Sanders’ books. Vile pieces of filth. No wonder this didn’t make it big.

    So Sinatra was going to be John McClane? Man, he seems to be a bit old for the role. Of course, maybe the guy in the original book was an old guy? Well, I for one am thankful he turned it out down so we got Bruce Willis instead.
    ♪Count your blessings♪
    ♪count them one by one♪

    • Yup, I ready the book of this, and I remember lots of detail which would be a big NOPE for you, and possibly for me too; we’re so alike! I think Sinatra had contractual first dibs on the John McClane role, but sensibly realised he was far to old to be hanging off a building with a fire hose…

      • Twins man, totally twins. You’d think you’d be used to it by now, but I guess it still surprises you every time you look in the mirror.

        With the attention his songs still recieved, and the shows, I wonder why he felt like he needed to do another movie? I know nothing about him as a person, so was he an ego-maniac or something?

        • Probably yes, like many powerful men, he didn’t realise when his time was done. Having said that, he went on singing for years after this, so what do I know?

          Every time I look in the mirror, or you look in the mirror? I can’t tell which of us is which these days…

          • I guess singing wasn’t enough for him.
            ♪he could’ve had it all!♪

            He should have listened to Adele and taken her song to heart…

            Well, I’m in America, and we look in the mirror on the right side. I assume you look on the left, just like you drive? So I guess you can tell who you are by which side of the mirror you look in.

            Oh, alarm clocks. If you don’t get up to an alarm clock, you’re you. If you get up to an alarm clock, you’re me. Alex and I thrashed this out on his latest movie review. Top notch cultural exchange….

          • He was a guy that really did it ‘his way.’ He wasn’t afraid of getting old, put out September of My Years album and every song was about getting on in years. He had a persona all his own…he treated the microphone like a musical instrument. He had been guilty of the 1st deadly sin of pride and perhaps it’s even why he returned to the big screen after a decades absence? There’s a sad/beautiful dance playing out with an aging Sinatra, aging curator, and dying wife, all refusing to give in. In fact, Sinatra’s last word (1998) was ‘can’t…’ and it was the only time he ever said it.

            When Sanders wrote the book in 73 US forensic science wasn’t very advanced so the laborious method for tracking down who bought the odd weapon makes sense. The script made many deviations though it stays true to what the book was, a slow, methodical hunt…a pursuer that won’t give up… I agree this was Sinatra’s last great performance, where he treated the craft and the camera like it was also an instrument to be played. Perhaps it’s also one of the last times we watch a murder based movie that has little need for 5 sec bursts of blood, guts, sweat? By the way, bravo for Jack the Ripper mention!

            • It’s a mixed message to be sure, but was thinking of you when I got my Ripper mention in! This is quite a poorly regarded movie, but I do think that Sinatra works with the film in a modern way; he’s well cast, and that ‘man out of time’ theme suits him. Didn’t realise the book was 73, good intel, that does partly explain his romancing of the museum curator. Maybe the tighter handling of the material that Chinatown era Polanski would have brought would have made this a classic, but those seeking a ‘wee small hours of the morning’ incarnation of Sinatra will get what they want from this imperfect but atmospheric film, and it’s Sinatra who generates the feel of the whole project, as a real star does…

  2. As a gentleman of a certain age I can assure you that erections are not a modern phenomenon.

    Think I saw this on TV a while back. Should watch it again sometime. Along with Gorky Park. Remember Gorky Park?

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