Walter Mencken 2:37 p.m., March 1
DVD Rentals: Frank Sinatra, from Tony Rome with love
If Charles Bronson can pull the old Paul Kersey/Kimball switcheroo in the Death With series, I feel no remorse in referring to The Detective (1968), book-ended by Tony Rome (1967) and Lady in Cement (1968), as part of the unofficial Gordon Douglas-Frank Sinatra policier trilogy.
The first voice you hear in Tony Rome belongs to Frank Sinatra's youngest and most successful daughter, Nancy, who lyrically cautions viewers they had better place their daughters under house arrest lest the titular hero, played by her father, 'get' them. Nowhere near as homophobic or sexist as its sequels, Tony still commences on a zip-zoom into a sexy butt, inexplicably match cut with a boxer's behind.
Marvin H. Albert's novel provides the source material for a Raymond Chandler-lite (The Little Sleep?) detective yarn perfectly suited for that season's Sinatra vehicle. Tough monkey Rome quit the force and became a P.I. after his cop dad put a gun to his temple and redecorated the apartment walls. Ralph Turpin, played by Robert J. Wilke, Written on the Wind's bartender with a "hair trigger," call his ex-partner to the hotel he now "dicks" at. Even though the dissolution of their partnership was acrimonious, Rome goes so far as to accuse Turpin of getting his kicks hanging around schoolyards.
Turpin swears that "Georgia would sooner elect a colored governor" than Tony would rat on a source. He calls in a favor, asking his old buddy to help cover for a rich dipsomaniac, Diana Pines (Sue Lyon), found passed out in one of the rooms. Diana eventually leads Rome to her wealthy adoptive family who, before long, all offer him $500 a day plus expenses to solve their personal mysteries. What entails involves the usual amount of dirty film noir secrets, stolen jewelry and, what else, homicide.
Tony lives on a houseboat and spends much of Lady in Cement dressed as a Miami beachcomber. Tony Rome's Tony wears a dapper, man-tailored suit and cocked fedora that transform the Miami Beach gumshoe into something left over from the Songs for Swinging Lovers album cover.
Rome's wardrobe is much more impressive than his list of romantic conquests. Women -- categorized by TR as "good girls," "babies," sweethearts," "odds and ends," and "goodies" -- apparently have no place in this busy detective's life. When Jill St. John asks to stop for a romantic drink, Tony produces a flask from his glove compartment. Gena Rowlands appears interested, but Tony don't mix with other guy's broads, see. Sue Lyon (five years after Lolita) offers sex in exchange for a stolen diamond pin. A dreamy Deanna Lund and dumpier than usual Joan Shawlee are both Rome's for the asking. All these chickie-babies to pick from and in 110 minutes, Tony never once seals the deal. (Jerry Lewis fans have undoubtedly forgotten Ms. Lund's performance in Hardly Working and Joan Shawlee was Billy Wilder's resident on-screen tramp.) The closest he comes to sex is a confrontation with a prospective client in search of her lost cat. The double entendre fortified "pussy" exchange will no doubt leave you flabbergasted, if not laughing.
As if wanting to let the world know that he was up to date on the current state of sexual deviancy, Frank saw to it that each film in the trilogy factored in at least one dirty bit guaranteed to jolt and arouse '60's audiences. With the exception of an ambisexual Lloyd Bochner, this Rome adventure ignores the gay boys, focusing instead on a little girl-on-girl action. Arriving at her pad, sexy Deanna Lund finds Tony questioning her piggish "roommate" (Elisabeth Fraser). Fraser blasts her stripper galpal for undressing in front of a strange copper. Lund suggests her portly playmate shed a few pounds. Blows are exchanged and before long Tony turns off the lights and quietly leaves the lovebirds to their rough trade.
It's better made, but in a certain way less interesting than its sequels. Douglas' direction is as leaden as always -- two-character conversation scenes instantly digress into one angle, one-take each affairs -- but not as glaringly faulty. Car rides play on actual locations, not studio rear screens, and DP Joe Biroc is allowed a few extra minutes to artfully compose an occasional shot.
As was his custom, many of Frank's paisans were given a day's work and a hot meal. Richard Conte goes through the motions as the long suffering Lt. Santini. He drew Rome duty. When Tony appears on a crime scene, it's a sure bet Santini is driving up the block. He follows Tony closer than July does June. Joe E. Ross pops up as a bartender, but vanishes before he can fire off so much as one "Oooh!" In an unprecedented dramatic turn as a contract killer, Vegas funnyman Shecky Greene's mugshot drew the film's biggest inadvertent howl. Rocky Grazziano has a walk-on as a punch drunk tie salesman called "Packy." (A boxer named Packy...Hmm...I wonder.)
Sinatra's uninspired film noir retread appears to have been born of boozy Cliff's Notes dispensed by drunken Rat Pack mentor Humphrey Bogart; Sam Marlowe by the numbers. Tony Rome is to film noir what Sergeants Three is to Gunga Din: a throwback to a simpler time when audiences demanded more and were given it.
Following the formula set forth in Rome, The Detective delivers a little social commentary, a little sex, more deviant sex, gunplay, and Budweiser product placement, all in the name of box office riches.
Tony's houseboat is put in dry dock and New York replaces Miami's tropical locale. This go-round adds a love interest and more location work, but no more in-jokes (unless you count Jilly Rizzo as a bartender), snappy theme song, or Mickey Mouse music. (Not surprisingly, Jerry Goldsmith supplied the trilogy's most competent score.) As the title indicates, the character is no longer self employed. He's a Detective Sergeant working for New York's finest.
A Moss Mabry topcoat covers the smartly tailored plainclothes dick and little else. Joe Leland is Tony Rome East. Marvin H. Albert's laid back gumshoe registers a shade darker when filtered through novelist and screenwriter Roderick Thorp and Stanley Kramer scribe (and Kojack creator), Abby Mann. Leland is a gritty, seen-it-all career cop disgusted by internal corruption. Gone is the galaxy of hot and cold running broads. This flatfoot's love life is scorched by a flame he carries for his nympho ex, Karen (Lee Remick).
The Detectve plows through the investigative material in an entertaining, if not particularly fresh manner. Everything grinds to a screeching halt whenever the lengthy boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl-to-numerous-indiscriminate-sex-partners subplot kicks in.
You can feel the flashbacks coming two reels away. They start with a blinding blast of glaucoma followed by a throbbing inner ear infection. Images zoom and blur while shrill audio effects invade the senses. Douglas' idea of depicting intimacy is moving the camera in close and instructing his leads to speak directly into it. There are plenty of roomy, center-scan 'Scope closeups within which the characters pitch woo.
On date night, Leland takes in a play and spends the third act outside grabbing a smoke. Karen's friends deem the macho bull too dense to grasp the nuance of stagecraft. Not Joe, who defends his honor by referencing O'Casey and Shaw. This ain't no average flatfoot, baby. He's cultured!
Lee Remick, who gives the film's best performance, was always at her hottest when she appeared broken and self-loathing. (Make a pitcher of Brandy Alexander's and watch the last reel of Days of Wine and Roses.) When Joe shows up to make nice with Karen, instead of packing candy and flowers, he brings an edict: "I came here to ball!" Frank and the boys put Ms. Remick to good use.
The Detective encourages more stereotyping than Tommy Roger's Tenement Symphony. There are Cohens, represented by Officer Dave and his wife, Rachael Schoenstein (Jack Klugman and Rene Taylor), and a Kelly played by boxing great, Sugar Ray Robinson. A menorah on the Schoenstein's mantle adds verisimilitude. Rachel pushes lox and bagels, and the second Joe finds a set of doctored books, he takes them directly to the token Jew.
Someone must have derived delight in casting a black man in the role of "Kelly." Sugar Ray Robinson's years as a Vegas greeter prepared him for the part: he spends most of his on-screen standing next to doors. Joe's partner, Robbie (Al Freeman, Jr.), has a bit of the Fuhrer in him. He likes his suspects nude. When asked why the naked interrogations, Rob-O confessed it was a habit he picked up watching German newsreels.
The film's messages to the gay community are decidedly mixed. Frank thought he was Hoboken's answer to Harvey Milk. Graphic fag bashing will be tolerated, but only in the name of peace, love and exploitation. Characters who are meant to appear sympathetic are given lines like, "I knew he was gay, but he was civilized." After "one of their kind" is murdered, the police scour the gay underworld for his killer. On the outskirts of town, dozens of clean, impeccably well-dressed gay men transform empty moving vans into glory holes. Homophobic vice cop Robert Duvall makes the bust, but not before roughing up a few Marys. Frank came to the aid of gays everywhere by punching Duvall in the face.
When the killer is finally caught, only Leland is secure enough with his masculinity to get through to the boy. After clearing the interrogation room of uniformed fag-haters, Leland offers suspect Tessla (Tony Musante) equal doses of coffee and sympathy. He quietly coddles and strokes the beefy hunk before tightening the screws and getting the confession that ultimately leads to Tessla's execution.
Hero for a day, guilt-ridden schmuck for eternity. A second-hour subplot involving Jacqueline Bisset and her closeted, self-loathing husband William Windom proves Tessla's innocence. Windom kills himself after a particularly seedy homosexual encounter ends in murder. (In order to visually dramatize the suicide jump, Joe Biroc, Frank's DP of choice, tied a rope around a Mitchell and tossed it over a bridge.) Windom, whose creedo was "There's no such thing as a bi-sexual, only homosexuals without conviction," was also responsible for the film's initial murder. Joe sent an innocent man to his death. You try packing around that much guilt, daddy.
Lady in Cement continues the series’ stellar display of homophobia and obsessive depiction of women as props, or in this case shark bait.
Sinatra kicks off the proceedings by playing an underwater scene without once getting wet. His stunt double fends off a drugged, toothless shark before discovering a naked blond "broad" anchored in cement sneakers. He spends the rest of the picture traversing Miami and dispensing verbal sexual slurs to every tomato he meets. Emerging from a pool, a sizzling Raquel Welch instantly sizes up the five-foot-seven crooner's game: "Shall I scream rape now or wait and phone in a complaint?" Without the benefit of so much as a word, Ms. Welch had perfectly pegged Tony Rome's idea of interpersonal relationships.
This is a Frank Sinatra picture for people who couldn't afford to shell out the $5.95 (1960's price) plus airfare and accommodations, to attend a Rat Pack summit live at the Sands in Vegas. No, he doesn't sing, and Dino, Sammy, Joey, and the excommunicated Peter Lawford nev make the scene. Prior to From Here to Eternity, "The Voice" appeared in a string of whimsical studio musicals. After the horses' head gag and an Oscar, Mr. Sinatra was always careful to maintain a separate career as a serious dramatic movie star.
When it came to directors, Frank gave what he got. With the exception of a certain Ferris wheel incident on the set of Some Came Running, he freely granted Liza's dad Vincente all the time and demands the master filmmaker required. For John Frankenheimer and George Axelrod's controversial The Manchurian Candidate, executive producer Frank raised the money (ask me no questions, I'll tell you no lies), consented to rehearsals, met every 6 am call time and put in a full day's work. In other words, he did what he was handsomely being paid to do.
For others less gifted, he took the dough, showed up at noon and walked off the set at four. Ever wonder why so many of the lesser Sinatra vehicles were filmed in resort towns? The scripts, and subsequently the films, were structured around his swingin' lifestyle. While in Vegas, Frank would perform two shows nightly, party till dawn, knock off a few broads, catch some daylight shut eye, and devote a couple of afternoon hours to picture making.
Most of the humor is sickeningly self-referential. Tough guy Dan Blocker watches reruns of Bonanza. Talk of a chick who used to swing with bullfighters is a nod to Frank's ex, Ava Gardner. At one point, Tony eludes the cops backed by a band strumming the Sinatra standard, You make Me Feel So Young.
Frank doesn't phone in his performance in Lady In Cement, he uses a Telex machine. Director Gordon Douglas, who cut his teeth on Our Gang two-reelers and Carney & Brown programmers, was always grateful for the one take Mr. Sinatra gave.
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