Thursday, July 8, 2010

TONY ROME (1967)

The eponymous hero about to experience a little Miami mayhem.
The Setup
Miami private eye Tony Rome (Frank Sinatra) is minding his usual pursuits — cruising on his live-in boat, gambling, drinking and ogling stuffed bikinis — when he receives a call from his ex-partner Ralph Turpin (Robert J. Wilke), now working as house dick at a seedy hotel. Seems the daughter of a socially prominent businessman is sleeping off a bender at the “hot pillow shop” (so-called because of all the hookers who do business there). The hotel is on the law’s s**t list, so Turpin asks Tony to take the girl home in hopes of avoiding public scandal and official trouble. Rome smells trouble, but agrees for old times’ sake and a couple of hundred bucks.

He duly delivers Diana Pines (Sue Lyon) to her father, Rudy Kosterman (Simon Oakland), and her stepmother Rita (Gena Rowlands). While hanging about he also meets sexed-up divorcĂ©e Ann Archer (Jill St. John), who takes one look at Rome and immediately bats bedroom eyes at him. They flirt in that grown-up way that people used to flirt onscreen as Rome gives her a lift home. That same evening Rome is minding his own business when a couple of hard cases pay him a visit, give him a chloroform cocktail and tear his boat apart looking for a diamond pin they think he might have. Diana shows up the following morning and hires Rome to recover the pin, which belongs to her. Meanwhile, Rudy engages Rome to discover the reason behind Diana’s recent strange behavior. Then Rita gets into the act, asking Tony to give her first dibs on whatever information he uncovers, prompting him to quip: “If you had a bigger family, I could retire.”

Rome’s multiple investigations quickly embroil him in all kinds of Miami vice, including larceny, blackmail, bigamy, drugs, sex and murder. Along the way he gets beaten up, shot at and framed for murder. His pal on the Miami police force, Lieutenant Dave Santini (Richard Conte) pressures Rome for information, while the perpetually in heat Archer does her best to get him between the sheets. The plot has more twists than a bag of bar pretzels, but the numerous threads eventually cohere with seamless precision, Rome having traced all the trouble to a mysterious underworld figure from Rita Kosterman’s less-than-reputable past.

Rita Kosterman: a woman with two husbands — and no divorces.

The Payoff
Frank Sinatra established his reputation as a serious actor in the fifties, his Oscar-winning role in From Here to Eternity (1956) just one in a string of justly acclaimed performances. Life behind the camera wasn’t quite so swinging in the first half of the sixties, however. With the exception of The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Von Ryan’s Express (1965), Ol’ Blue Eyes alternated between Rat Pack potboilers, limp comedies and indifferent action pictures. He was still hitting high notes as a recording artist, but his cinematic endeavors more often than not came up snake eyes.

Enter Rome. Tony Rome, that is, the first of three consecutive pictures Sinatra made with producer Aaron Rosenberg and director Gordon Douglas, men well equipped to deal with Frank’s mercurial personality. Rosenberg had recently survived two films with serial ego-tipper Marlon Brando, while Douglas had worked with Sinatra twice before, and elicited good performances from the temperamental star. Douglas was a vastly undervalued craftsman whose visual flair elevated many a picture from the mundane to the memorable. He could block out action sequences as well as any other Hollywood director, and brought the most mundane dialog scenes to life through shrewd camera placement and empathetic rapport with actors.

Aided by ace cinematographer Joseph Biroc (who deftly captures Miami’s day and night contrast), Douglas fills the film with eye-catching, thematically rich compositions. In one pungent shot, Rome fills the bottom foreground of the screen lying fully dressed on a beach recliner in front of the Fontainebleau Hotel, the very picture of male entitlement and contentment. Intruding into this sybaritic tableau is Ann Archer, having just emerged from the surf like a 20th century Venus in a sexy blue bikini. The opposition of horizontal and vertical figures — one clothed and dry, one damp and nearly naked — is charged with a powerful dynamic of sexual tension and promise, dominance and submission.

“Well, Tony Rome. Don’t you ever sleep in a bed?”

Another key contributor was veteran screenwriter Richard Breen, whose tight adaptation hews faithfully to the complex narrative and hard-boiled aesthetic of Marvin H. Albert’s source novel. Breen also added a sophisticated vulgarity daring for its time. The numerous double entendres are sharp, sardonic and more than a little salacious. When Diana’s milksop husband angrily asks Rome, “Just what’s your connection with my wife?” Tony zings him with: “She’s nothing but a $200 stranger to me.” And no one who has seen the film is likely to forget Rome’s jaw-dropping reply to a homely would-be client who wants him to find out why her “pussy” (as in pussycat) no longer smiles.

The hard-edged fight scenes are cut with precision by editor Robert L. Simpson, who gives the film a visual rhythm that’s finger-snappingly brisk. The musical rhythm is taken care of by Billy May, arranger of numerous Sinatra albums, whose swinging soundtrack is as smooth as a bourbon on the rocks. Speaking of music, the title track is sung by none other than Nancy Sinatra, who applies her inimitable vocal styling to the era-defining lyrics: “Mothers lock your daughters in. It’s too late to talk to them. Cause Tony Rome is out and about. And Tony Rome’ll get ’em if you don’t watch out.”

A figure of ill will extends an unwelcome invitation.
The Lawless
Vic Rood (Lloyd Bochner), a gay drug pusher whom Rome rather gratuitously slaps around. Granted, Vic comes at Tony with a knife, and if you’re going to mess with mean dogs, don’t cry when they bite you.

Catleg, an imported hit man who pops in and out of the narrative to take pot shots at various and sundry characters, including our man Rome. Played by nightclub comic Shecky Greene, Catleg has been arrested so many times he’s able to recite his own rights when he’s nabbed by the cops.

Jules Langley, a not-quite-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is middle-aged criminal in league with a crooked jeweler-cum-fence who swapped the diamonds on Diana’s pin for imitation stones; and his younger, tougher partner Oscar. Lloyd Gough and Babe Hart put just enough ambiguity in their performances to raise the possibility their characters might be more than just partners in crime.

Lt. Santini isn’t falling for Rome’s charm.

The Lawful
In Tony Rome, Sinatra could not have found a character better suited to his own personality. The hero of Albert’s three Tony Rome novels exemplifies the ring-a-ding lifestyle the singer made famous. Comfortable in any situation yet basically a loner, Rome is a compulsive gambler and womanizer, chain smokes Luckies and drinks whatever’s handy, as long as it contains alcohol. He’s equally comfortable interacting with the cream of Miami society and the lowest rungs of its criminal underworld. Add the fact that there is no cooler name than Tony Rome, and it’s no wonder Sinatra found the role a perfect fit. For the first time in several years, the actor seemed to enjoy himself onscreen, his trademark swagger and insolent manner ringing fresh changes on the private eye genre. Some critics thought Sinatra was simply emulating Bogart, but such comparisons are misleading. Sinatra’s flip, hip detective is far removed from Sam Spade’s tight-lipped fatalism. Free of existential angst, Rome reacts to the seamy underside of life with an ironic “that’s life” shrug of the shoulders. Just one year later, Frank would reprise the role in the overtly comic Lady in Cement.

Richard Conte provides excellent support as Lt. Santini, who has no patience with Rome’s cavalier approach to legal niceties, but grudgingly admires his friend’s ability to crack the toughest cases. He and Sinatra have wonderful chemistry and convey their characters’ prickly relationship with total conviction and believability. Although Conte’s Hollywood career was winding down at this time, his charisma and talent were undiminished, and he would go on to do first-class work in numerous Italian crime films during the seventies.

Rome swings into action.

• While snooping on Diana Pines, Rome follows her to a run-down estate, where he sees her giving money to a drunken woman later revealed to be her biological mother. His surveillance is rudely interrupted when Sam Boyd, the slow-witted brother of Diana’s stepfather, sneaks up from behind and puts a chokehold on the shamus. Rome deftly cannonballs the two of them away from the wall and onto the floor, then manages to free himself and land a few vicious punches. Sam’s size advantage is too great, however, and Tony is on the point of being strangled to death when Adam Boyd calls off his sibling. They tangle again later in the film, but this time Rome gets the jump on the not-so-gentle-giant, sucker punching him in the groin, then finishing the job with a shot to the back of his neck. Impressively, the 52-year-old Sinatra convincingly does all of his own stunt work in these no-holds-barred brawls.

• Rome pays a nocturnal visit to Langley’s home, but Oscar gets the jump on him and marches him inside at gunpoint. Langley receives Rome in the bathroom, where the body of the jeweler lies fully clothed — and very dead — in a tub full of water. Captors and captive repair to the living room, where Langley asks questions while Oscar punches Rome in the kidneys and kicks him while he’s down on the floor. Langley then holds Rome at gunpoint while Oscar prepares a fresh bath for the private dick, but Tony distracts Jules’ attention, smashes a vase in his face, grabs his gun and sends a few well-aimed bullets into the path of the rampaging Oscar.

These boots were made for walking — and kicking Rome into submission.

The Vernacular
Diana Pines [to Ann Archer]: “Slut!”
Ann Archer [to Tony Rome]: “Now that I’ve been introduced, who are you?”

Ann Archer: “You know, it’s the damnedest thing. People like me are called FMs.”
Tony Rome: “F what?”
Ann Archer: “Formerly married. We’re divorced women. We can’t claim to be the town virgins, and we can’t afford to be the town tramps. What do we do?”
Tony Rome: “Well, you could hang a sign on yourself. It says ‘occasionally promiscuous.’”

Jules Langley: “We can knock you out with a gun butt if you prefer. It’s up to you. Or the chloroform.”
Tony Rome: [pointing to bottle]: “Oh, I’ll have some of this....When!”


Oscar: “The gun. Thanks.”
Tony Rome: “Why not? Yours is bigger than mine.”

Tony Rome: “You check on Oscar and Langley?”
Lt. Santini: “Yeah, I checked. You didn’t kill much.”

Tony Rome: “You won’t get far. They’ll box you in for Turpin.”
Catleg: “I doubt it.”
Tony Rome: “The crime lab’ll prove the bullet came from your gun.”
Catleg: “What gun? There’s ten billion gallons of water in Biscayne Bay. If the crime lab can find that gun, I’ll sit in the chair and pull the switch myself.”

Surveillance with style.

The End Credits
Director: Gordon Douglas; screenplay: Richard Breen; producer: Aaron Rosenberg; music: Billy May; cinematography: Joseph Biroc; editing: Robert L. Simpson

Frank Sinatra (Tony Rome); Jill St. John (Ann Archer); Richard Conte (Lt. Dave Santini); Gena Rowlands (Rita Kosterman); Simon Oakland (Rudy Kosterman); Jeffrey Lynn (Adam Boyd); Lloyd Bochner (Vic Rood) Robert J. Wilke (Ralph Turpin); Virginia Vincent (Sally Bullock); Joan Shawlee (Fat Candy); Richard Krisher (Donald Pines); Sue Lyon (Diana Pines); Lloyd Gough (Jules Langley); Babe Hart (Oscar); Elisabeth Fraser (Irene); Rocky Graziano (Packy); Shecky Greene (Catleg); Jeanne Cooper (Lorna Boyd); Harry Davis (Ruyter); Stanley Ross (Sam Boyd); Templeton Fox (Mrs. Schuyler)

Paisans, on and off-screen.