Wednesday, May 6, 2015

ROBIN AND THE SEVEN HOODS: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1964) Warner Home Video

Frank Sinatra’s official status as ‘chairman of the board’ was solidified, at least in the movies, with Gordon Douglas’ production of Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964); a project begun with renewed vigor and a ringing endorsement from Jack L. Warner, who sought out Sinatra for a long term contract with Warner Bros. Interestingly, David R. Schwartz’s brilliant screenplay played right into the rumors about Sinatra’s own real life Mafia connections; cast as Chicago hood, Robbo. In the early 1950’s, Sinatra had been blackballed out of both the recording and film industries; his legendary resurrection from this seemingly fatal blow to his career, nothing short of miraculous. Good luck or good friends with the thug muscle to back him up? Who can say? Rumors about Sinatra’s spurious underworld associations had persisted ever since 1947 when Hearst columnist, Robert Ruart published a piece about the crooner flying to Havana to entertain Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano, the legendary mobster deported from the United States. An even more apocryphal story was that gangland stooge, Willie Moretti put a gun to bandleader, Tommy Dorsey’s head to wrangle Sinatra loose from his ironclad contract. 
One association, however, is irrefutable; Sinatra's close friendship with Chicago kingpin, Sam Giancana. This became a public relations nightmare and a political hand grenade after Sinatra introduced President John F. Kennedy to Judith Campbell Exner, an attractive 23 year old who also happened to be Giancana’s lover. The President’s affair with Exner is, today, common knowledge. But in 1961 it raised more than a few nervous eyebrows in the Oval Office. In retrospect, it cost Sinatra his personal friendship with J.F.K., eventually convinced to steer clear of both affiliations by his brother, Attorney General, Robert Kennedy. Despite all this backdoor fraternizing, there was never any proof Sinatra was anything more than the mob’s favorite entertainer; his hobnobbing with various influential Mafioso leaders having no direct correlation to any underworld activities. But the question remains: did any of them help salvage Sinatra’s sagging career? Hmmm.
Produced by Sinatra, Robin and the Seven Hoods was something of a rat pack reunion – minus Peter Lawford. In fact, Lawford had been slated to play Alan A. Dale. Alas, a minor kerfuffle over a planned Presidential visit to Sinatra’s home that was never to be, and for which Sinatra had already incurred considerable expense building a helipad on his property just for the occasion, led to a rift in Sinatra’s friendship with Lawford. As far as Sinatra was concerned, as brother-in-law to J.F.K., Lawford ought to have had some sway to see these plans through. In any case, it was Robert Kennedy’s concern over Sinatra’s ‘mob ties’ that won out. The President would stay at Bing Crosby’s home instead. Sinatra never forgave Lawford this snub, ostracizing him from the ‘rat pack’ for good. The two never spoke again.
As for the movie, it proved to be anything but ‘joy galore’; the shock of President Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963 sending the entire cast into an emotional tailspin; particularly co-star, Barbara Rush and Sinatra, who was to incur an even more bizarre betrayal just days afterward when his nineteen year old son, Frank Jr. was kidnapped from Harrah’s Club Lodge in Lake Tahoe by a trio of amateur thugs. Mercifully, the abduction came to not and Sinatra’s son was returned to him, shaken but unharmed. Still, the pall these events cast over the production cannot be overestimated. Indeed, viewing Robin and the Seven Hoods today, the film seems to lack that essential ingredient of playful petty larceny that had permeated Oceans 11 (1960) so completely; another mob-themed Sinatra classic, centered on a Vegas casino heist gone awry.  Interestingly, Sinatra harbored no animosity toward Bing Crosby, whom he personally cast as Lawford’s replacement in the role of Alan A. Dale. The two had last worked together on High Society (1956), playing up their musical rivalry in one of the movie’s most celebrated numbers, ‘Did You Evah?’ And Crosby had looked forward to reteaming with Sinatra again, possibly for the last time in a big and splashy Hollywood musical; the genre itself on the wane by the mid-1960s.
Yet, Robin and the Seven Hoods is a very odd duck, indeed; planned as a musical showcase for Sinatra and company with fourteen songs penned by the legendary, Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen. Of these, only eight would survive the final cut. Even more curious, Sinatra – arguably the biggest singing talent in the picture (save Crosby) has only one solo – the iconic, ‘My Kind of Town’. The musical program is unevenly spread throughout the movie, the latter third entirely void of a single hummable tune as the story struggles to get back on track after Robbo’s exoneration from all fraud charges. And, for a musical at least, what is even more peculiar is none of the numbers are staged for maximum sparkle; the camera maneuvering through a sea of extras without the benefit of choreography. The closest we get to a legitimate ‘production number’ is Sammy Davis Jr.’s sublime, ‘Bang! Bang!’ – an electrifying tap routine in which Davis leaps from crap table to counter top with pistols and machine gun in hand, annihilating the backdrop in a hailstorm of bullets; a routine inspired by Fred Astaire’s firecracker dance in Holiday Inn (1942).  Frequently, the songs are interrupted by bits of business (as when Dean Martin sinks billiard balls in between pregnant pauses intruding upon the verse and chorus of his ballad, ‘Any Man Who Loves His Mother’) or exchanges of dialogue meant to punctuate and emphasize the farcical elements (most intrusive during Crosby’s revival spell-binder, ‘Mr. Booze’).    
Robin and the Seven Hoods is nevertheless amusing, although not chiefly because it has Sinatra, Crosby, Davis Jr. or even Martin in its roster; the latter rather tragically wasted.  Quite simply, co-star Peter Falk, cast as the oily thug, Guy Gisborne, runs off with the picture; an assertively malicious goon, spouting veiled threats and mixed metaphor diatribes in tandem, punctuating his dialogue with well-orchestrated gestures of his cigar, and, at least in retrospect, giving us a glimpse into the persona he would later fine-tune and foster as TV’s most beloved and befuddled detective, Columbo.       
Our story begins with a brassy birthday bash for ‘Big’ Jim Stevens (Edward G. Robinson), the undisputed Chicago mob boss who, after delivering a benevolent speech about loyalty in his organization, is rudely assassinated by the criminal element in attendance, loyal to his lieutenant, Guy Gisborne (Peter Falk). Robinson’s appearance in the film was an obvious homage to his stellar years as one of Warner Bros. most notorious gangster-land reprobates: Little Caesar. Most of Robinson’s career was blissfully spent playing rough around the edges to downright mean and diabolical crime bosses; even more fascinating when one considers that, in life, Robinson was a soft-spoken, cultured and benevolent patron of the arts – in short, the very antithesis of the characters he portrayed on the screen.
After the assassination, Gisborne wastes no time taking over Big Jim’s territory. Moreover, he institutes an enforced dynasty, uniting all the independents under his umbrella of protection, overseen by his city hall stooge, Sheriff Glick (Robert Foulk) and his second in command, Sheriff Potts (Victor Buono). Where Big Jim ruled by loyalty Guy intends to run the organization via intimidation. This news does not sit well with Big Jim's closest ally, Robbo. When Guy suggests he sees himself as the President of their newly amalgamated venture, just like Washington, intent on crossing over into Robbo’s northern district, Robbo replies, “You come in like George Washington and I’ll send you back like Abe Lincoln.” In light of the Kennedy assassination it’s a fairly murderous line, one photographed mere days before the President’s killing in Dallas, that Sinatra would forever regret leaving in afterward.
Back at Robbo’s speakeasy, the great man and his entourage, including Will (Sammy Davis Jr.) meets a curious ally in pool hustler, Little John (Dean Martin), who presents a picture of naiveté to the casual eye. He quickly reveals some of his hidden talents to the group, plotting with Robbo to hit Guy’s rival gambling house on the same night Sheriff Glick suggests a similar course of action on Robbo’s modest speakeasy. Returning to the remaining wreckage some hours later, Robbo is introduced to yet another potential ally – this one more enterprising and vicious than he could ever imagine. It seems Big Jim’s daughter, Marian (Barbara Rush) is out for blood. Actually, she is out for all she can get, flip-flopping sides throughout the movie to suit her own advantage. Marian has wrongfully assumed Glick is responsible for her father’s murder. But Robbo flatly refuses to entertain the notion of another mob hit.  Meanwhile, to maintain the illusion it was Glick who killed Big Jim, Guy has the Sheriff killed, his body entombed in the cement cornerstone of the new bank building.
Marian now appeals to Robbo’s thirst for conquest. She can help him take over her father’s territory. Alas, Robbo does not share her interest to hold such vast dominion. Next, Marian tempts Robbo with a sizable $50,000 donation – money necessary for the extensive repairs on his nightclub. Instead, Robbo donates the entire bequest to a boy’s orphanage, incurring the sycophantic admiration of its director, Alan A. Dale. Notifying the newspapers of Robbo’s good deed instantly earns Robbo a new moniker as one of the city’s most intrepid philanthropists, and how original too: a gangster who robs from the rich to give to the poor. Evidently, Robbo’s newfound civic persona is the ideal camouflage. He hires Dale to manage his charitable donations; Dale, establishing the Robbo Foundation with a string of soup kitchens, free clinics and orphan shelters. In a sort of quid pro quo for having helped to bolster his reputation, Robbo and Little John spruce up Dale’s image and attire.
Now Robbo reopens his speakeasy – rechristened as one of the finest gambling joints in the city. It is an immediate hit. Infuriated, Guy and his new Sheriff – Potts – plan a raid to expose Robbo’s illegal activities and put an end to his seemingly Teflon-coated public persona. Alas, Robbo has anticipated Guy’s move; the nightclub rigged with moving floors and false fronts that shift the casino and bar, along with its patrons, to another concealed part of their underground hideaway, replaced by several rows of pews mimicking a mission, with Dale serving as its sermonizing minister, preaching against the evils of alcohol. Hence, when Guy arrives with Potts and the police they can find no trace of any illegal activity taking place; Potts unequivocally refusing to break up the ‘meeting’ or have Robbo arrested. Instead, Guy plants evidence to suggest Robbo is the one responsible for Glick’s murder. Robbo is arrested and put on trial. Back at the orphanage, the boys are torn in their opinion of their one-time hero; Dale encouraging them to take a lesson from Robbo’s present adversity.  Unable to find even a shred of evidence to convict Robbo of Glick’s murder, the jury acquits him without much deliberation.
However, upon returning to his club, Robbo quickly discovers the organization has moved on without him in anticipation of his seemingly inevitable incarceration. The soup kitchen he helped found has become a front for a lucrative counterfeiting ring, the newly pressed fake money smuggled in soup cans over state lines. Robbo also finds Little John has moved into Marian’s mansion. Marian condescendingly suggests Robbo may remain the figurehead of the network he established, provided she is in charge. Contemptuous of Marian’s plan, Robbo vows to regain control. He leaves in a huff with Little John following close behind. Marian now pursues Guy as her stooge. He is interested. But Marian has underestimated Robbo. In short order, Robbo does away with Guy once and for all, his body entombed in yet another block of cement meant as a cornerstone to grace another newly constructed municipal building.
Now, Robbo threatens Marian to get out of town. Hardly intimidated, she instead forms a Women’s League for Better Government, exposing the counterfeiting ring she and Little John started, laying the blame for it at Robbo’s feet and ruining his sterling reputation with the public. Unable to regain his stature in the community, Robbo and his gang retreat into hiding. In the film’s penultimate reveal, Robbo, Will and Little John are seen disguised as Salvation Army Santa’s, ringing their kettle bells on a street corner. A sleek limousine pulls to the curb and out steps Marian with her latest partner, none other than Alan A Dale, looking very dapper and moneyed. He hands the three befuddled compatriots some crisp bills to add to their kettles before he and Marian strut into a fashionable nightclub.  
Robin and the Seven Hoods is a meandering, although, in spots, joyously Damon Runyon-esque little farce about organized crime. And yet, there is something remiss about the film’s pseudo-elegance; the entertainment too slickly packaged to be believable as anything but cheap pantomime. We are never invested in either the story or these characters. They are not a revamp of the traditional and legendary Sherwood forest rogue and his band of ‘merry men’ but hollow and thinly veiled versions of Sinatra, Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. doing a lot of dumb show for the camera. Handing off the plum parts to Peter Falk and Bing Crosby is as unsettling to the central narrative, even if both actors are more than up to the task of doing the heavy lifting.  In particular, Falk assimilates into his part as the wily and frustrated mobster with superbly understated and expertly timed facial tics. To a lesser extent, Crosby is a smooth operating charmer as Alan A. Dale. He sings with ease and spurts the vernacular of a cultured prig with delirious double entendre. In retrospect, the best that can be said of the picture is that it moves along effortlessly, with insincere grace but also, with an ultra-high gloss of mind-boggling expertise put forth by all concerned. Sinatra, Martin, Davis, Falk and Crosby are all pros of a rarified ilk, and, to a lesser extent, vibrant hams who have no quam allowing their well-oiled star personalities to run amuck and away with the picture. Perhaps they understand the audience isn’t there to see a good story; rather, to worship at the altar of their seasoned professionalism.  On that score, Robin and the Seven Hoods is a winner. Hollywood doesn’t breed stars of such caliber anymore: a sincere pity and loss to our movie-going heritage.

Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray, released either individually or as part of the Frank Sinatra Collection, reveals some impressive work done to resurrect this catalog title in hi-def. Is it perfect? Well, no. But it’s more than competently rendered. The image is razor sharp for one, with colors that are mostly saturated to highly pleasing levels. Occasionally, flesh adopts a ruddy orange complexion and there are a handful of scenes in which color on the whole seems slightly faded or just a tad weaker than anticipated. But overall, the quality herein looks fairly marvelous with a light smattering of film grain indigenous to its source and accurately reproduced. However, grain does appear to have been digitally scrubbed; not excessively so, but to a level where the image is smoother than anticipated. On larger monitors, the effect is more obvious and unwelcome.
For a 1.0 DTS mono mix, this one sounds incredibly stereo-esque; good solid delineation between dialogue and SFX and the Nelson Riddle score and songs coming across with a great deal of clarity and crispness. Interestingly, after the songs had already been recorded in mono and inserted into the film, Sinatra decided they needed a stereo recording for the soundtrack album. Cast was reassembled and the whole score repurposed in true stereophonic sound. Extras herein include an audio commentary from Frank Sinatra Jr. – not terribly prepossessing and often struggling for something to say – a vintage featurette on the making of the movie, and, some vintage Warner cartoons and other shorts, plus a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: given Warner’s overall commitment to remastering this one for hi-def, I’ll recommend it. It’s not high art. Personally, I would have preferred High Society (1956) over this offering for a Sinatra Centennial set – or even, The Tender Trap (1955).    
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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