Thursday, October 21, 2010

SINATRA/ROME/CEMENT

Last night I stayed up late and watched, back to back, the two late-60s flicks in which Frank Sinatra played Miami PI Tony Rome --- Tony Rome (1967); Lady In Cement (1968).

In a word, they were fun.
I think they were exactly what they set out to be --- breezy, sexy, hip, with a tip of the fedora to the decidedly more noirish Bogart-type crime/detective films of the forties. Top notch production values all the way around, with plenty of action and snappy dialogue, lovely ladies galore, and nice use of locale --- from the breathtakingly beautiful to the sad and seedy. The most glaring weakness was the lack of realism regarding police procedure in response to all the mayhem taking place; still, they didn't quite take it to the point of being ridiculous (well, except maybe for a scene or two). And, come to think of it, those Forties films weren't exactly hung up on realism in that regard, either.

Both films were based on novels by Marvin H. Albert, who also co-wrote the screenplay for Lady In Cement. Both were directed by Gordon Douglas, who directed several films starring Sinatra in that same time period. Filming was done on location in and around Miami and took place in the off-hours when Sinatra wasn't performing evenings at the Fontainbleau Miami Beach (where several scenes from each movie also took place). A current of "Sinatra cool" runs strongly through each film, complete with several in-joke references and walk-ons by a number of The Chairman's cronies who apparently were passing through at the time and needed a little work.

Tony Rome was the better of the two movies, by a considerable margin. The plot was more complex yet got wrapped up tighter in the end. The dialogue was snappier and there was a stronger sense of danger and and an undercurrent of real toughness, even a little grittiness (well, as much as you could squeeze out of sunny Miami in that time period). The relationship between Rome and his cop buddy Santini was edgier, and in one scene between them we even got a glimpse of what transpired in the past when Tony and his father had both been cops and the elder Rome was driven to suicide by a scandal. In another scene, Rome visits a trashy trailer park to question a stripper who may or may not have some answers he is after. The stripper, who has no qualms about undressing and changing clothes in front of Rome, is living with another woman --- a surly, decidedly unpleasant sort who makes it clear she is unhappy with Tony's presence and equally unhappy with how the stripper makes a living taking her clothes off in front of other men --- and in the course of Rome's questioning it becomes evident the two are in a lesbian relationship. By the end of the scene the two women have exchanged heated words and slaps and then fall into each other's arms for consolation. Rome departs, turning the lights out on them ... It is a somewhat disturbing scene, perhaps gratuitious, yet nevertheless has real dramatic impact and leaves a lasting impression. By contrast, there are at least two scenes in Lady In Cement that amount to blatant gay-bashing and seem to have been included for no other reason than to provide Sinatra a chance to point and giggle and make mocking remarks. I mention this not as a point of political correctness (which I am sick of to the point of wanting to hurl) but to show the difference between the two films --- the difference in the seriousness of how each seems to have been approached.
Tony Rome was tough, taut, and a little edgy --- Lady In Cement was a much lighter "vehicle", more of an action romp. Both were entertaining, only one was more satisfying than the other --- like the difference between a hot dog and cotton candy.

Worth noting is the snappy dialogue in some of the scenes.
Example: When Jill St. John first appears in Tony Rome, Rome has just returned an errant daughter home to the wealthy Kostermans, where St. John is a house guest. As the hungover daughter is led past St. John she gives her a poisonous look and spits: "You slut!" St. John smiles benignly, saunters over to Rome and says, "Now that I've been properly introduced ... "
Example: Later in that same film, when the matriarch of the Kosterman family tries to hire Rome, he gives her a look and says, "Lady, first your stepdaughter tries to hire me, then your husband, now you ... If you had a bigger family, I could retire."
Example: In Lady In Cement, when the character played by huge Dan Blocker gets wounded in the leg, Rome tries to help him get to his feet (visualize a mouse trying to pull up a bulldog). His face reddening very convincingly, Sinatra quips: "Christ ... didn't you ever hear of diet foods?" One has to wonder if this wasn't an impromptu line thrown in by Frank.
Example: (Here's one of those non-PC scenes I mentioned earlier - but I still found it funny as hell.) When a swishy nightclub owner warns Rome to butt out with his investigation he tries to back up the warning by threatening Rome with Seymour --- a large, muscular bartender who is also the owner's boyfriend --- and adding that Seymour used to play pro football with the Green Bay Packers. To which Rome replies: "Yeah, I remember. He led the league in penalties for illegal use of the hands ... and that was just in the huddle."

Final personal note: I never saw Tony Rome when it played in the theaters. Don't know why exactly, I just didn't. However, I distinctly remember making it a point to see Lady In Cement. For two very good reasons: Raquel Welch. (Think about it.) Looking back on the two films now, after the passage of years and the perspective of a bit more maturity (although often not a lot maturity, some would be quick to point out) I find that Jill St. John actually comes off sexier than Raquel. Part of this is the result of the characters they were scripted to play and Ms. Welch, I hasten to add, nevertheless is quite pleasing to the eye. Furthermore (and again from the perspective of whatever maturity I've managed to achieve) I found that Lainie Kazan --- husky-voiced, earthy, showing about a mile of real-woman cleavage playing in a bit role in Cement --- gives them both quite a run for their money.
Jeez, revelations like this make me almost afraid to go back and check out  those old Beach Party movies with Annette ... but that's a concern for another time.

Bottom line: You could find way worse ways to kill a couple of hours than  with  Tony Rome or Lady In Cement. You may be able to find better, grittier, more realistic crime drama on TV most nights, if that's what you're looking for. But if you just want some basic and fun and action, these still get the job done. And, if you happen to be of my generation, re-experiencing a  taste of the swingin' 60s and recalling that "Sinatra cool" is simply frosting on the cake.

Persevere --- WD

1 comment:

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