First Deadly Sin, The (1980): Neo-Noir Crime-Thriller, Featuring Sinatra in his Last Starring Role, and Faye Dunaway

Brian G. Hutton directed The First Deadly Sin, a neo-noir crime thriller film produced by Frank Sinatra, who appears in his last starring screen role; he later had one more cameo role and appeared on TV.

Mann Rubin’s scrip is based on the 1973 novel of the same name by Lawrence Sanders.

The film was to be directed by Roman Polanski, who was dropped by Columbia Pictures due to the statutory rape charges against him, forcing his escape to France.

Sinatra plays a troubled New York City homicide cop, Captain Edward X. Delaney.

In a small role, Dunaway is the detective’s ailing wife, hospitalized during the entire story with a rare kidney affliction.

The third production by Sinatra’s Artanis production company, The First Deadly Sin and was shot on location in New York City.

It premiered on October 23, 1980, at Loew’s State Theatre in Times Square as a benefit for the Mother Cabrini Medical Center.

The musical score was by composer Gordon Jenkins, who had first worked with Sinatra on the 1957 album “Where Are You?”

In the first scene, set outside Mount Pleasant Baptist Church on West 81st Street in Manhattan, a man is viciously attacked by another man wielding an ice axe.

The attack is intercut with graphic closeups of a woman undergoing surgery– it’s Delaney’s wife Barbara (Dunaway) recovering from emergency surgery. 

The coroner, Dr. Ferguson (Whitmore), shows Detective Edward Delaney the fatal wound on the skull, which he claims was made with a round object.

At the hospital, Barbara’s surgeon, Dr. Bernardi (Coe), explains that complications from her kidney stones forced him to remove the organ. As Barbara’s condition worsens, Delaney begins to suspect that Bernardi is incompetent.

The murder on 81st Street is sort of solace for Delaney, who throws himself into the case, despite admonitions from friends and supervisors that the NYPD’s priorities are elsewhere.

Visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he consults with elderly Arms and Armor curator Christopher Langley (Martin Gabel) about the type of weapon used to make such unique wound.  Langley determines that the weapon must have been a special tool.  At a hardware store, a clerk helps Langley deduce that the weapon was an ice axe.

A similar attack had occurred recently on West 79th Street. After consulting with Ferguson, he discovers that the wound patterns are nearly identical. As they investigate, they realize that similar attacks have occurred all over New York City.

Langley uses the new information to locate the exact model of ice axe. At a  sporting goods store, the owner hands over the addresses collected from every customer who bought that ice axe. The addresses eventually lead Delaney to the residence of Daniel Blank (Dukes).

Blank attempts one more attack, but it does not go as planned. After striking several blows, his victim escapes only to be hit by a passing car. Delaney’s investigation of Blank confirms that he is the killer. Delaney realizes that his chances of arresting and obtaining a murder conviction against Blank are slim due to Blank’s wealth and high position in the city.

Before going to confront Blank in his luxury apartment Delaney gets a Luger nine millimeter pistol from a closet in his home, a souvenir he brought home as a soldier returning from WWII.

Delaney finds Blank curled in a closet in a disturbed state. He confesses to his crimes before composing himself. Blank brags about how respectable and well-connected he is, betting that he will get away with his crime. While at a phone booth to report Delaney for breaking and entering, Delaney shoots him in the head with the Luger pistol.  Delaney then retires from the police department.

The final scene shows Delaney reading to his wife in the hospital, holding her hand as she is dying.

The movie’s climactic ending was changed from the novel in which the killer Blank retreats to Devil’s Needle in upstate New York where he dies of dehydration before Delaney and the State Troopers bring him down. 

The First Deadly Sin was not a commercial success, despite (or because of) efforts to make a more detailed than the usual a character-driven (rather than plot) crime thriller, and the fact that Sinatra renders a solid leading performance in one was one of his best serious films.

Cast

Frank Sinatra as Edward X. Delaney
Faye Dunaway as Barbara Delaney
David Dukes as Daniel Blank
James Whitmore as Dr. Ferguson
Brenda Vaccaro as Monica Gilbert
Martin Gabel as Christopher Langley
Anthony Zerbe as Captain Broughton
George Coe as Dr. Bernardi
Joe Spinell as Charles Lipsky
Jeffrey DeMunn as Sergeant Correlli

 

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