A grim policier noteworthy for containing Frank Sinatra’s final leading role—he relegated his acting appearances to cameos and guest roles for the remainder of his life—The First Deadly Sin is a peculiar piece of work, because even though the technical execution is first-rate, the story is hopelessly enervated. What’s more, Sinatra’s manner of depicting his character’s world-weariness comes across as disinterested acting, a problem exacerbated by his character’s murky motivations. The movie also suffers an imbalance because leading lady Faye Dunaway’s scenes are needlessly attenuated, given the underwritten nature of her role, and because most of the central investigation comprises a quest to identify a murder weapon, rather than a murderer. As such, the protagonist lacks emotion, the key secondary character lacks substance, and the main narrative thrust lacks a human element. It says much for the skills of everyone involved that The First Deadly Sin is relatively watchable despite all of these shortcomings.
Sinatra plays Edward Delaney, an NYPD detective on the cusp of retirement. At the very moment a challenging murder case lands on his desk, Edward’s wife, Barbara (Dunaway), suffers a seizure while hospitalized and undergoes emergency surgery. Furthermore, Edward’s combative new supervisor, Captain Broughton (Anthony Zerbe), orders him not to investigate crimes with connections to other precincts. This set of circumstances creates an existential quandary for the diligent detective—even as his wife’s health becomes more and more precarious, he must defy his supervisor’s orders if he wishes to bring an elusive killer to justice. Eventually, this situation resolves into a scenario of Edward seeking to impose morality onto a capricious universe before impending tragedy strips life of its meaning.
Director Brian G. Hutton’s pacing is very slow, resulting in myriad shots of Sinatra loitering onscreen with various gloomy facial expressions. The love story between the Delaneys never clicks, partially because the 26-year age gap between Dunaway and Sinatra is so glaring. Furthermore, the hero enlists nonprofessional helpers to aid his investigation, and these folks never face danger; come to think of it, we never really fear for Delaney’s welfare, either. So as a thriller, The First Deadly Sin fizzles. Every so often, however, the movie sparks thanks to a zesty addition from a character actor. George Coe is suitably loathsome as a doctor who lacks empathy, David Dukes contributes twitchy work as a deranged killer, James Whitmore lends amiability and crustiness to his role as a coroner, and Joe Spinell is wonderfully crass playing a doorman who can be bought cheaply.
The First Deadly Sin: FUNKY