It’s ring-a-ding time, with producer-star Frank Sinatra and his cooperative director Gordon Douglas doing a variation on the hipster detective saga. The two Tony Rome pictures are lively and fun and chock-ful of borderline offensive content, like smash-zooms into women’s rear ends.
Tony Rome & Lady in Cement
1967, 1968 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 110 and 93 min. / Street Date September 8, 2016 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
Starring Frank Sinatra, Richard Conte; Tony Rome: Jill St. John, Sue Lyon, Gena Rowlands, Simon Oakland, Lloyd Bochner, Robert J. Wilke, Virginia Vincent, Joan Shawlee, Lloyd Gough, Rocky Graziano, Elisabeth Fraser, Shecky Greene, Jeanne Cooper, Joe E. Ross, Tiffany Bolling, Deanna Lund. Lady in Cement: Raquel Welch, Dan Blocker, Martin Gabel, Lainie Kazan, Paul Mungar, Richard Deacon, Joe E. Lewis, Bunny Yeager.
Cinematography Joseph Biroc
Original Music Billy May, Hugo Montenegro; song by Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra
Written by Richard L. Breen; from the novel by Marvin H. Albert
Produced by Aaron Rosenberg
Directed by Gordon Douglas
Frank Sinatra appeared in an average of two films per year in the 1960s. Several are well remembered and a few were critically praised. Perhaps looking at the success of his pal Dean Martin in the down-market Matt Helm spy films, Sinatra tried a franchise hero of his own on for size. Sinatra found his character in ‘Tony Rome,’ author Marvin H. Albert’s MIami-based private eye, whose setup and adventures are similar to author John D. MacDonald’s private eye hero, Travis McGee. Albert’s Tony Rome is an ex-cop detective who lives on a boat and is drawn into jobs by an unending parade of attractive, aggressive women. Rome is so well connected that he uses the police department as his research resource and answering service. He’s forever being framed or caught in compromising situations, and if he can’t talk himself out of an arrest, he goes on the lam until he can find the real killer. In other words, Tony Rome is the generic TV detective, a cross between Mike Hammer and Nick Charles. The difference is of course what Frank Sinatra brings to the part.
Twilight Time graciously gives us a double bill pairing of both Tony Rome adventures, Tony Rome & Lady in Cement. The expensive Fox pictures were shot on location in Miami of the late 1960s. Fans of Ol’ Blue Eyes have a bargain on their hands. In between, Sinatra played a more serious detective in a drama imaginatively titled The Detective. It’s a Twilight Time limited edition disc as well.
Tony Rome sees Tony dragged into some murders when his crooked ex-partner Ralph Turpin (fave cowboy baddie Robert J. Wilke) asks him to take the drunken, passed-out Diana, (Sue Lyon) the daughter of wealthy developer Rudy Kosterman (Simon Oakland), out of a cheap hotel room and back home. Turpin is found murdered in Rome’s office, a sticky point that Lt. Dave Santini (Richard Conte) overlooks so Rome can dig deeper. Kosterman’s new wife Rita (Gena Rowlands) doesn’t get along with Diana, and the son-in-law Donald Pines (Richard Krisher) is a jerk. Suspecting some form of blackmail, Rome finds that Diana is giving money to her birth mother, now a lush and living with a disgraced doctor. Trying to get at the out-of-town creep responsible for the killings (comedian Shecky Greene), Rome must deal with various thugs, a jovial hooker they call Fat Candy (Joan Shawlee) and a gay drug pusher named Vic Rood (Lloyd Bochner). But the hard work is made easier by the amorous company of Ann Archer (Jill St. John) a divorcee looking for action in sunny Miami.
Tony Rome is the better of the two movies by virtue of its supporting cast alone — a number of old favorites show up, looking good. We spend good time with able personalities like Elisabeth Fraser, Jeffrey Lynn, Joe E. Ross and Tiffany Bolling. ‘Friends of Frank’ include restauranteurs Michael Romanoff and Jilly Rizzo, and boxer Rocky Graziano. Rocky plays a punch-drunk old boxer, what else?
Part of the game plan seems to be to make the three leading ladies all interact with Sinatra, but not with each other. Jill St. John’s appeal all seems to be in her wicked smiles and red hair. Most of her dialogue is deadpan-bad, and her ‘sexy walk’ is awful. Sue Lyon doesn’t make much of an impression at all. She doesn’t get many close-ups, and many of her one-take master shots favor Sinatra. We barely get a look at her face. The gorgeous Gena Rowlands raises the temperature of every scene she’s in. Her Rita seems sincerely in love with her husband and worried as hell. But when she’s asked to take Diana away and put her to bed we want to laugh. When trouble happens in the world of Tony Rome, women all need to be taken away, and ‘protected.’
Gordon Douglas’ slick direction must have found a way to get everything on the first or second take, as we’re told that is the way Sinatra liked to make movies. The lush, colorful Miami location is an asset, always giving us something pleasing to look at. And Nancy Sinatra warbles the not-bad title tune by Lee Hazelwood. They should have used it for the second movie as well.
The sex in the movie is mostly all verbal. Extending the Rat Pack swinger sensibility into the dialogue, Sinatra tries to catch up with Dean Martin in the chauvinistic double-entendre department. Some of the faux-hardboiled jargon rings true but a lot feels forced. It’s mostly a misogynist nightmare. The leering Tony Rome makes incessant remarks that critique women’s figures and their suitability for sex. This is all said right out in the open. Jill St. John’s Ann loves being treated as a cheap Trixie, and the movie suggests that a happy relationship is one in which the infantile male verbally asserts his sexual control over any and all females. Several of the jokes are purposeful smut talk, like a 7th-grader would use. An older woman bursts in asking Rome to help find her lost cat, and Rome has himself a big chuckle getting her to say ‘my pussy’ over and over again. Joan Shawlee’s Fat Candy is an object of ridicule, but that’s okay ’cause she’s a hooker and has already knuckled under to the Male Imperative.
Nobody is going to miss the film’s most dated effect — long smash zooms shot into various women’s rear ends, showing what Rome is thinking about. It’s a running gag in both movies, accompanied by a big music sting. It’s a bit painful to imagine the director saying, ‘and when you get here, bend over and touch the floor and stay there until we’re zoomed all the way in.’ This was the older generation’s defnition of sexual liberation, circa 1967.
For Tony Rome gay characters are an opportunity for emasculating comedy — it’s considered fun to humiliate and bully them. Deanna Lund plays a stripper who turns out to have a lesbian relationship with a whiny older woman; Rome exits their bedroom with smug disgust. Lloyd Bochner’s gay drug pusher is open season for derogatory quips and gets beat up as well. All this was SOP in 1967 but now it makes it seem that Tony Rome is obsessed with sexual control. All women need to be on a leash, and ‘sexual deviants’ are fun to push around.
The show’s attitude is that Law and Order are for nice squares like Richard Conte’s Lt. Santini, while hipsters like Rome can do what they please. Santini continually plays doormat for Rome, who does what he pleases down at the police station. As Mickey Spillane would have been happy to explain, private detectives are above legal details, especially when we know they’re doing the right thing. After all, ‘there’s no law against what’s right.’ This is detective fantasy, not fascism, but I doubt that much of the audience can tell the difference. Sinatra at one point was to play the role of Dirty Harry. (Superfluous comment: The present contempt for the rule of law can be seen on the TV show NCIS, where the elite agents behave like benign secret police and simply do whatever they want. Doubters obviously don’t support our men in uniform, and ought to be flogged. )
That said, Tony Rome is a product of the 1960s and is such is a fascinating window into the past. I find it a relaxing watch. The Miami skyline isn’t overdeveloped and even the ritzy beach and nightclub areas look like friendly neighborhoods, with (gasp) parking places available on the street.
1968’s Lady in Cement is a slightly less exciting follow-up. Richard Conte is back but the attention goes to new star Raquel Welch. Sixties’ audiences that didn’t like science fiction movies may have seen her here first. Also making the show worthwhile is a supporting turn from Dan Blocker of the TV show Bonanza. He’s great as a derivative ‘Moose Malloy’– type roughneck thug. But Fox must have gone cheap on the guest list, for we miss the first film’s colorful supporting cast.
Looking for treasure in his cabin cruiser, Tony Rome discovers the body of a nude blonde, the lady in cement of the title. The trail of clues leads directly to the wealthy Kit Forrest Raquel Welch), who passed out at one of her own wild parties and is hiding the fact that she might have been the killer. Her neighbor is Al Mungar (Martin Gabel), a racketeer who seems overly protective of Kit, so much so that other people begin to die. Meanwhile, Rome is hired by the gigantic Waldo Gronsky (Dan Blocker) to find a missing girlfriend. This takes Rome to a strip joint owned by the sarcastic Danny Yale (Frank Raiter) who resents Rome’s talking to Maria Baretto (Lainie Kazan), one of his performers. Framed for murder, Rome must flee his best friend Lt. Santini (Richard Conte), stealing Santini’s car to do it.
Lady in Cement is pretty much the same as the first film, a TV-grade mystery kicked up to A-feature status with gorgeous scenery, some good action, and in this case, peekaboo nudity. Released at the end of 1968, it was rated ‘R’ by the new ratings system. The big addition enabled the filming of a nude corpse (a good woman stunt-diver, that’s for sure) bobbing with the tide thirty feet underwater. Then there’s the scene where Rome visits an artist (the welcome Richard Deacon) whose nude model keeps begging to be released to go to the ladies’ room.
Raquel Welch is no major talent, at least not yet. She’s too careful in her line readings. Unfortunately they’ve given her some really tacky clothes and hair to wear — the producers seem to think a plunging neckline is always classy and sexy. Raquel’s introduction, seen from afar diving into a pool, is more tastefully handled.
Dan Blocker’s Waldo is obvious good fun, because he’s great at playing an unstoppable man-mountain. Waldo even laughs at Rome’s .38 revolver, saying that it could never stop him, which is silly. Sinatra realizes that he has to perform some of the fight scenes personally, and conducts himself with honor. Director Douglas clearly had a crack camera crew: the way Sinatra sprints out in the sun and through the grounds of the Fountainbleu, he would have been very upset to do anything twice.
The story works out in a more mechanical way than the first. Tony Rome is of course the center of attention for every girl he meets, and he verbally baits and abuses a mincing, menacing nightclub owner. He also spends enough time on his boat to wear a captain’s cap once in awhile. Did I get it wrong? In the first movie Rome wears a hat a lot, like it was still 1958. In the second Rome goes hatless more often, and looks like your father trying to act twenty years younger than he is.
And refresh my forgetful nautical knowledge. When playing cards or rubbing noses with a starlet below decks, Tony Rome leaves his cabin cruiser running at full tilt, with nobody at the wheel to say whether there’s a reef ahead, or an iceberg or Moby Dick. What’s up with that? Is Rome so cool that he can take naps while driving his car, too?
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Tony Rome & Lady in Cement is a bright and polished encoding of the two feature films, which shine as if they were filmed yesterday. Joseph Biroc’s camerawork is Hollywood-slick at all times, and when the sets are attractive, stylish as well. I also like those Gena Rowlands close-ups, which look so good that you’d think the cameraman was in love with her.
I only listened to part of the boys’ club commentary with Eddy Friedfeld, Anthony Latino, Lee Pfeiffer, and Paul Scrabo. Pfeiffer and Scrabo are definite experts on the ‘sixties film scene and offer a steady string of facts and observations, as well as stories and anecdotes about Sinatra that have become legend. I skipped around on the track, so it’s possible that they answer some of my questions about the picture. Trailers are included and discrete music tracks that aren’t totally clear of sound effects. Nancy Sinatra sounds pretty good on the title track for Tony Rome.
TT’s liner notes writer Julie Kirgo bites the bullet and works out a fair and balanced insert essay about the film’s appeal and Sinatra’s place in the celebrity firmament. The Tony Rome pictures aren’t some aberration, but just a little spicier than mainstream fare of the time — your average SuperSpy picture was practically an incitement to rape. Politicos with a feminist or LGBT mindset will find the two pictures unpleasantly dated. Others will take the show for what it is and wait for one of the smart-ass jokes to be funny.
A knowledgeable commentary would have been nice. I wonder if the producers went for the Tony Rome series instead of a Travis McGee series because John D. MacDonald’s price was too high. Or did Sinatra figure he couldn’t play someone of Scots descent? In the same vein, I’d like to know what happened way back in 1940, when RKO dropped Leslie Charteris’ ‘The Saint’ series yet moved their star George Sanders over to an almost identical ‘The Falcon’ series, without skipping a beat. Was it as weasely a move as it seems? I think we need to put a private eye on the case.
Tony Rome & Lady in Cement
Movies: both Good
Video: both Excellent
Sound: both Excellent
Supplements: Isolated Score Tracks (with some effects); commentary on Tony Rome with Film Historians Eddy Friedfeld, Anthony Latino, Lee Pfeiffer, and Paul Scrabo; trailers, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: Aiugust 28, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson