TONY ROME/LADY IN CEMENT: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1967-'68) Twilight Time
The longevity of stardom – real stardom – is a curious thing. It virtually does not exist today. But the staying power of the truly great and memorable is attached to an intangible quality, amusingly coined as ‘personality’; what makes one person stand out in a crowd while another becomes lost in a sea of the nameless. The other component to ensuring a long-lasting legacy is, without question, conjoined to a star’s ability to morph with the times and well beyond the very traits, first to have brought them to our attention as a momentarily much beloved, though as easily disposable fixture in the firmament of our ever-evolving pop culture. Consider then, how singer, star and ‘Chairman of the Board’ Frank Sinatra fits into this snap assessment. Sinatra, who began his professional life as a boney big band crooner, making scores of bobbysoxers swoon on cue with a simple refrain rendered by his silken smooth voice, later to be coarsened up by boozin’ and ballin’. Sinatra was a legend on the radio throughout the 1930’s. And, with seeming effortlessness he transitioned into movies; his early roles, fashioned around making his physical scrawniness squeezably lovable. Think of him as the ‘before’ snapshot to Gene Kelly’s ‘after’ – having sipped a miraculous male tonic to bring forth more robust masculinity in films like Anchors Aweigh (1945), On the Town and Take Me Out to the Ballgame (both in 1949); Sinatra, ‘Mutt’ to Kelly’s ‘Jeff’.
Sinatra absolutely detested the persona and would spend the rest of his career endeavoring to shatter this early-cast studio handcrafted image. It would happen - eventually, thanks in part to the onset of middle age mellowing, softening, and finally, filling out his gaunt frame. This is exactly what the kid from Hoboken needed to be taken seriously in Hollywood. Sinatra’s Oscar-winning turn in From Here to Eternity (1953) closed the book on a still very curious dry spell that, in retrospect, nearly put a period to his career; the New York Telegram running a ruthless hatchet job headline, reading “Gone on Frankie in ’42 – gone in ’52!” It also flattened the notion Sinatra could only do musicals. Some say, his friends in the mob (if, indeed he had any) helped break the invisible blacklist. Whatever the reason, Sinatra re-emerged in the fifties and sixties as one of the most diverse all-around entertainers of his generation; starring in a string of hit musicals, dramas and film noirs; all while keeping up a breakneck pace as one of the premiere recording artists and tirelessly (high on life…and other things) appearing at the Sand’s casino in Las Vegas: the iconic swingin’ ringmaster for cohorts, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop.
It helped that Sinatra never took himself or life – outside of work – too seriously; his ever-present underlying nervousness masked by a brash swagger, optimism and good humor. Fastidious in his appearance, and self-possessed with an incorrigible drive to succeed, Sinatra’s workaholic betterment often caused him to lose his temper with others who, perhaps, were not as invested in their craft. Fiercely loyal to his friends, Cary Grant once suggested, “Frank is the most honest person I’ve ever met. He speaks simple truths and without artifice…I think that scares a lot of people.” Peeling back the layers to Sinatra’s personality is like trying to analyze why we love onions. They leave a great taste behind but can make us cry. As for Sinatra, he could bring an audience to the edge of elation or to tears; becoming bitter when drunk and with a penchant for violence against anyone he believed had crossed him. And yet, Sinatra was generous to a fault, willing and able to admit to his own when sober, and, at least attempt restitution on his own terms when and where he believed it was warranted. No doubt about it, Frank Sinatra was a very interesting fellow.
Sinatra brings so much of this personal baggage to the role of Floridian detective, Tony Rome (1967), and with such an infectious blend of charm, rank cynicism and devilish scab-picking, that really gets under the skin of those he dissects, it is perhaps more than a little difficult to decide where Sinatra – the man – leaves off and his alter ego kicks in. One gets the distinct sense – and pleasure to be derived from watching a consummate pro enjoying himself (and taking the rest of us along for the ride), particularly in this, the first of two movies to star our decidedly unenlightened protagonist, not above ogling a woman’s ass (with a celebrated punctuation of underscore by Billy May) or acting ‘sweet’ and effete as he gay-bashes some horrendous stereotypes. We get everything here (and in the follow-up, Lady in Cement, 1968) but the proverbial flash of a ‘limp wrist’. “Oh, my stars!” As time capsules from another epoch in movie-making, far more liberated and unafraid to take such blue artistic chances, both pictures are highly enjoyable; Tony Rome, decidedly the better of the two, thanks to a brisk and flashy screenplay by Richard L. Breen (based on Marvin H. Albert’s novel) – loaded with juicy dialogue and pithy one-liners Sinatra punctuates or merely casts off in his inimitably wry and deadpan trademark style.
This, plus a very good cast to include Shecky Green (as goombah thug muscle, Catleg), Gena Rowland (feline fatalist, Rita Kosterman), Simon Oakland (her brutish construction magnet/hubby, Rudy), Richard Conte (looking a little worse for the wear as all-around good guy, Lt. Dave Santini), Lloyd Bochner (Vic Roon - a lounge-lizardy drug dealer) and, as the sultry sexpot who playfully introduces herself to our eponymous…uh…hero as ‘slut’ – Ann Archer, the scintillating, Jill St. John. Tony Rome is set in uber-chichi Miami, toggling between the high rolling and moneyed playgrounds of the more affluent neighborhoods, like the Fontainebleau (playground of the rich) and the dirty little backwaters, seedy strip clubs and moodily-lit bungalows, overgrown in swaying palms and wild creepers (barely, to hide the real ‘creeps’ lurking inside). Tony Rome has a lot to recommend it beginning with the swingin’ sixties lux- plushness of its visuals; vacuous to a fault, like a lush bonbon with a sexy hardcore center of smut passed off as googly-eyed sin.
Sinatra slips into the trappings of a Humphrey Bogart-seque gumshoe with a surprising presence of mind. He knows he is not Bogart and, frankly, does not try to be. But he comes across with enough cynicism and contempt for humanity at large (most of it very well deserved indeed) to make us care about what happens, both story wise, and, more directly, to Tony – just a ‘good time’ fellow who does not muck around when the stakes are high. Director Gordon Douglas is no John Huston, and nothing about Tony Rome could ever measure up to or confuse it with such classic noir crime capers as The Asphalt Jungle (1950). But Tony Rome holds its own with a genuine verve for good solid plotting, character development and enough hairpin twists and turns to leave the audience stumped until the inevitable conclusion. Despite coming late in the noir cycle, Douglas and Sinatra still endeavor to bottle the ends in the best ‘crime doesn’t pay’ tradition. So, no over-the-top stuff here. Just serious storytelling, some razor-back dialogue, a hero who acts (or reacts), for the most part, like he really does not care whether we choose to like him. Such stubborn arrogance alone makes Tony Rome a lovable heel; missing out on great sex and always indebted to his bookmaker. What a sweetheart. Can we kiss him now? More prudent question…will he let anyone get this close?
Tony’s foil here is Jill St. John’s sultry and self-professed trophy gal who effortlessly slips in and out of ‘polite society’ as easily as into a kinky black negligee she greets Tony in at her apartment, and, with a penchant for very nice things and the rotten-to-their-core sugar daddies who can get such trinkets for her wholesale. Miraculously, St. John’s Ann Archer never plays the field for all its worth. As such, her character refrains from getting a bad rap. So, no tattooing with the scarlet brand as a mean-spirited gold digger. Like Tony, Ann remains loftily ‘above it all’ and in possession of one sharp mind that can take care of itself without anybody’s help. Every guy should be so lucky! Ann gradually becomes ‘his gal Friday’ on a lark and a spree. Like everything else about Tony Rome, the plot is not nearly as sinister as it is slinky and fun. Is our boy hired to track a lost hubby, escort a spoiled lush, Diana Pines (Sue Lyons) back to the relative safety of her super-wealthy parents, or sent on a fool’s errand to unearth the whereabouts of a supposedly valuable piece of jewelry after the girl has awakened from her face plant inside a seedy motel, only to realize the priceless heirloom has gone missing?
Nancy Sinatra belts out Lee Hazlewood’s clumsily botched title tune with heavy-handed appeal under the main credits. Tony sails his boat into Miami Beach, witnesses the marriage of a young oversexed couple dockside, before turning his attentions to the luscious booty of a bikini-clad babe wading into the sea. Gordon Douglas needlessly punctuates this moment with a ‘whamo!’ music chord and zoom lens that fills the girth of the 2.35:1 Panavision frame with vintage white panties. We wander a bit through Tony’s meandering life, gambling at the fights and losing – badly – on the hook for money he has yet to earn for doing his job. An unlikely reprieve arrives when Tony gets a call from his ex-partner, Ralph Turpin (Robert J. Wilke) to collect the unconscious body of one Diana Pines; a rich girl, not above slumming with decidedly the wrong crowd. Diana has since turned up from her previous night’s frolic inside a seedy motel room. The establishment is operated by Turpin. Not good. So, for a small retainer, Tony takes on the responsibility of returning the girl to her father, construction magnate, Rudolph Kosterman.
Rudy and his second wife, Rita live palatially. Mrs. Kosterman is concerned for Diana’s welfare…well…sort of, and, tries to hire Tony to ‘keep her informed of his findings’ after Rudy has already put him on a retainer to get to the bottom of Diana’s recent moodiness. It’s no soap. Besides, it’s also a conflict of interest. Tony takes an immediate dislike to Diana’s milksop/fiancée, Adam Boyd (Jeffrey Lynn). Not that he suspects Boyd of anything, except being an elegant sponge with his eye on the real prize – Kosterman’s cash, should he ever get Diana to accept a wedding ring. Eventually, Tony extracts a secret: somewhere between the previous night’s house party and Diana’s turning up at the motel, she has mislaid a valuable diamond brooch. Diana would like it back. Now, she hires Tony for its recovery. The plot thickens when Tony returns to his boat later that evening, only to be chloroformed and tossed by a pair of thugs in search of the same pin. Much later, he is nearly strangled by the girl's imbecilic step uncle. At a dead end for clues, Tony returns to his seedy downtown office only to discover Turpin’s body lying on the floor.
Now, Tony decides to pick divorcée, Ann Archer’s mind for evidence. Ann’s not all that beloved by the Kostermans and yet she keeps getting invited to their soirees. Gradually, Tony pieces together a dirty little secret: Diana has been giving her estranged alcoholic mother, Lorna Boyd (Jeanne Cooper) part of her allowance to keep her in booze. Boyd lives in a dilapidated mansion on the outskirts of town with her disgraced ‘doctor/husband’, Sam (Stanley Ross). Retrieving the pin in question, Tony is shocked to find it a relatively worthless piece of ‘costume jewelry…or is it? No, it once had real value. But more recently the real gemstones have been removed by a wily con artist/jeweler working for crook, Jules Langley (Lloyd Gough). Langley plays for keeps and proves it when he reveals to Tony he and one of his henchman have only just drowned the frightened old man in their bathtub. Using his wits, Tony dispatches with the pair in short order. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Santini of the Miami police, and a good friend of Tony’s, is forced to consider Tony’s claim of self-defense might, in fact, be a good story to cover up the crime of murder. Actually, Santini doesn’t buy this story for a moment. But the law is the law, and Tony has crossed the line. Whatever his intentions, he is guilty of very bad judgment.
Tony runs through a series of spurious contacts before Santini can have him arrested. After Kosterman narrowly falls prey to a drive-by shooting, Tony discovers Turpin was actually murdered by a man named Nimmo (Robert ‘Buzz’ Henry). But why? All suspicions are cast on Rita, after Tony discovers she was paying off Vic Roon; a drug dealer helping to fence the jewels on Nimmo’s behalf. But what of Nimmo? Well, Tony confronts Rita, who spills the beans. Nimmo is actually Rita’s husband. Their divorce was never finalized. Hence, in marrying Kosterman she is guilty of bigamy. Meanwhile, Nimmo dies of wounds inflicted by Turpin. Adam Boyd explains how, after he lost his license for performing illegal abortions, his one hope for survival was to continue milking Diana for sympathy about her mother and cash to keep her boozing a secret from her fiancée. So, it was Boyd who tried gunning down Kosterman, leaving Diana to inherit the estate and thus, pass along a good chunk of it to him in exchange for his silence. Lt. Santini arrives and arrests the lot as they begin to bury Nimmo in an unmarked grave. A short while later, Tony returns to his boat with plans to vacation abroad with his broad - Ann. Regrettably, she has decided to go back to her estranged husband instead. So, no love/no nothin’ for our Tony Rome.
Tony Rome was a fairly solid hit for 2oth Century-Fox, enough to launch a sequel; Lady in Cement. This time the source material belongs to Marvin H. Albert’s 1961 novel of the same name. Alas, any similarity between the novel’s ‘ingenious’ machinations and the screenplay co-authored by Albert and Jack Guss is purely coincidental; this ‘Lady’ submerged – figuratively as well as literally - in a fairly tepid whodunit with enough loopholes to stymie and foreshorten most any attention span. We trade a lot of the novel’s harrowing twists and turns for remedial red herrings aplenty. The casting of Rachel Welsh as Kit Forrester is problematic as she is neither half the actress Jill St. John is, nor does she manage to convey anything better except elegant eye-candy that, strangely enough, is more an anathema to her otherwise transparently obvious sex appeal. In a pseudo-comedic departure from his role as Hoss on TV’s Bonanza, Dan Blocker gives a modestly charming performance as goon, Waldo Gronsky. Lainie Kazan peaks in from the peripheries as Maria Baretto, a boozy go-go dancer, working the room for her effete pimp/boss, Danny Yale (Frank Raiter).
While diving off the coast with a friend in search of sunken Spanish galleons (the old ‘fortune and glory’ fool’s errand), Tony Rome discovers the body of the newly deceased Sandra Lomax (Christine Todd) lazily bobbing in the plankton, feet weighted in a block of cement. Given the efficiency of the sharks in these shallow waters it is a genuine wonder Lomax is perfectly preserved for the identifying. Rome casually reports the incident to Lt. Santini, but gets pulled back into the investigation when lumbering, Waldo Gronsky decides to browbeat Rome into taking the case. As there is virtually no ‘fortune’ or ‘glory’ to be had in this undertaking, Rome agrees to do it practically ‘pro bono’ – Gronsky, tossing him an expensive watch he can pawn to cover expenses. Peddling Sandra’s mug shot around town, Tony is soon pointed to Jilly’s strip club, and told to investigate model/hired girl, Kit Forrester after go-go dancer, Maria Baretto suggests the two were seen together at a house party. Alas, Kit plays dumb, then calls on ‘reformed’ racketeer, Al Mungar (Martin Gabel) to protect her from Tony’s prying questions.
Certain his investigating will yield a connection between Lomax, Forrester and Mungar, Rome doggedly pursues every clue while embarking upon a romantic frolic with Kit. Jilly’s owner, Danny Yale threatens Tony and proves he can at least interrupt his investigation, as Maria turns up dead and Gronsky is nearly murdered a short while later. Regrettably, Danny is also murdered, with evidence planted to suggest Tony is the killer. Forced to ‘take in’ his old pal, Lt. Santini is momentarily delayed in his chase to make an arrest. Tony eludes police, taking everyone on a wild foot chase through the courtyards of the Fontainebleau, returning to Kit’s bungalow unharmed. Now, Kit reveals to Tony she passed out at the party, only to awaken hours later with a paper knife clutched in hand and Sandra’s stabbed-to-death remains lying at her feet. It’s an obvious frame-up, for sure. Eventually, Tony reveals Mungar’s son, Paul (Steve Peck) is the real killer; Sandra, having found out Paul’s embezzlement of some of daddy’s ill-gotten gains right under the old man’s nose. Racing to Kit’s bungalow in the nick of time, Tony and Gronsky foil Paul’s latest plan to silence Kit, the only other witness to his crimes. Santini arrives to make the arrest. Tony is exonerated of any wrong doing, and, Tony and Kit take off in his boat, presumably in search of sunken gold.
Lady in Cement is a middling crime caper at best. Chiefly absent this time around - a good script. The Albert/Guss screenplay just goes through the motions with perfunctory dialogue and connect-the-dots plotting that grows ever more tedious and predictable as it tries to hint at the sort of hairpin twists and turns that made its predecessor so gosh darn exhilarating. The other oddity here is a complete absence of visually atmospheric touches. It’s bizarre too, considering cinematographer, Joseph F. Biroc shot both movies. But Lady in Cement’s flat visuals cannot hold a chiaroscuro-lit candle to Tony Rome engagingly dark and brooding interplay of light and shadow. In the afterglow of Tony Rome, Lady in Cement plays like a pedestrian rip-off of situations and comedy better peddled in the first movie. Even Sinatra’s performance acquires a vague ‘phoned in’ quality. At intervals, ole blue eyes appears genuinely bored with the plot and only mildly more amused with his co-stars. Style can often trump substance. Alas, Lady in Cement lacks either virtue to recommend it. It is important to remember between Tony Rome and Lady in Cement, Sinatra appeared one more time as a police investigator in The Detective (1968) – a deadly severe crime/drama bearing virtually no other resemblance to these two crime/caper movies. In this light, Lady in Cement plays almost as a featherweight apology for all the seriousness played out in The Detective. While Tony Rome offers up a perennially amusing smorgasbord of plush and pleasing vignettes, sure to invite renewed viewings (I’m still chuckling over the ‘smiling pussy’ sequence. It has absolutely nothing to do with anything else in the story), Lady in Cement unravels its tawdry little yawn (excuse me – yarn), once seen, likely discarded, or worse, entirely expunged from the subconscious as soon as the house lights have come up.
The heart of each movie is Frank Sinatra doing what he does best, playing to the persona he trademarked for himself after two decades servitude in all those ultra-glossy MGM musicals to have made him a star. We are on the other side of the looking glass here. Sinatra’s Tony is tough; not in the implacably bitter way of Bogart’s Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, but with the proverbial ‘chip’ on his shoulders leaning against some smug superiority and an even more delicious and versatile jadedness. It’s almost a cliché to think Tony Rome is Frank Sinatra or vice versa; the ensconced image we have of Sinatra’s Vegas performer, oozing a sexualized arrogance from every pore, stilled from becoming a complete bastard by that enviable streak of sincerity for which he was as well known, and voila – I give you, Tony Rome: the poet laureate of crime-sucking scumbags and their lovably obtuse follies, soon to be foiled by Sinatra’s precisely intelligent deconstruction of their crimes. The other characters in these conjoined murder mysteries are ‘characters’ in their own right, prone to self-deprecating mood swings, a laconic slip into sexual frigidity, but ultimately suffering the thaw of rawer human emotions forced to the surface.
Twilight Time has consolidated Tony Rome and Lady in Cement on a single Blu-ray. Personally, I would have preferred each housed on a separate disc with more disc space allotted each transfer. Tony Rome runs nearly 2 hrs./Lady in Cement, barely 1½ hrs. So, compression artifacts should not be an issue. And yet, we get some minor edge effects and aliasing in background detail on Tony Rome. It’s not a deal breaker, but it is present and, at intervals, moderately distracting. The 2.35:1 Panavision looks fairly impressive in 1080p with Tony Rome edging out Lady in Cement by a few notches in overall video quality. Neither is a perfect restoration, but both appear fairly solid with minor age-related blemishes scattered throughout. The DeLuxe color is a bit more refined on Tony Rome, especially the main titles. These appear considerably washed out on Lady in Cement, as though sourced from a dupe. Film grain has been adequately and consistently reproduced and both movies reveal some very nice detailing. Colors pop and flesh tones have an appropriate sun-kissed orange appeal, indigenous to the Florida climate. Contrast is more of an issue on Lady in Cement than Tony Rome, black levels much weaker than anticipated. Still, sequences shot during the day are truly impressive.
Each movie features 1.0 DTS mono with an organic sense of space and dimension. Nancy Sinatra’s title track for Tony Rome contains a bit of grating reverb. Otherwise, nothing to complain about, as dialogue is crisp and effects sound good too. Apart from the isolated score and effects tracks we get for both movies (a TT main staple), we also get an audio commentary from historians, Eddy Friedfeld, Anthony Latino, Lee Pfeiffer, and Paul Scrabo on Tony Rome. It’s light, but charming and fairly informative too – well worth a listen. A word about the isolated scores; Billy May’s for Tony Rome is the better of the two. Hugh Montenegro's for Lady in Cement just sounds like a reject of an Annette Funicello/Frankie Avalon beach blanket movie. Bottom line: neither Tony Rome nor Lady in Cement is high art. That said, each is entertaining in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. TT delivers a good solid rendering of both, albeit on a single disc. While not likely to win any awards for ‘best in show’, this two-movie set nevertheless reveals competent mastering from Fox Home Video. Recommended. Enjoy these for what they are – light-hearted and fun. Frug…anyone?
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Tony Rome – 4
Lady in Cement – 3
Tony Rome – 3.5
Lady in Cement – 3