Frank Sinatra would have turned 100 today, December 12, 2015. He died at the age of 82 in 1998. For at least the last 55 years of his life, he was an iconic figure in American show business, starting out in the early 1940s as a “crooner” who sang popular tunes with big bands for audiences of wildly enthused teenage girls known as “bobby-soxers.” He starred in film musicals, but branched out in his 30s to dramatic roles (MIRACLE OF THE BELLS) and, after a career slump in the early 1950s, made a remarkable comeback in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, playing the role of Maggio, a defiant, ill-fated young soldier in the days before Pearl Harbor, and winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, launching a film career with renewed vigor that turned him into one of the biggest movie stars in the country in the 1950s and ’60s. During all this time, he made a series of best-selling record albums and cemented his reputation as one of the finest American singers of the 20th century, continually challenging himself and trying new things. His private life kept the gossip columns busy as his love life went through ups and downs and he became renowned for wild antics with a group of show biz buddies known as the Rat Pack, who hung out with him, performed with him and made movies with him. Long after he phased out his movie career, he continued making Top Ten recordings and performing live all over the country and the world.
The first Sinatra film I saw on the big screen was the Rat Pack’s only musical, ROBIN AND THE 7 HOODS (1964). It was released prior to the two Beatles movies, A HARD DAY’S NIGHT and HELP!, but I saw it in between those movies and as much as I loved the Beatles at the time, I still got a special thrill from seeing the Rat Pack strut their stuff in this parody of Chicago gangland stories given a Robin Hood twist. Bing Crosby joins them for the fun and I enjoyed seeing these icons share the screen and doing what the real men of popular music did, as seen in the number, “Style,” sung by Sinatra, Dean Martin and Crosby.
And you can see the number for yourself:
I would see another Sinatra film in a theater just five months later, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (on a double bill with THE GREAT ESCAPE). And four years later, I’d see THE DETECTIVE. Every other Sinatra film I saw in those years was on television and, in the 1970s, on revival theater screens.
As much as I’ve enjoyed Sinatra’s recordings over the decades, I’m most interested here in his movie career. I believe he took many more chances than most show biz figures in his position would have taken and while his range was limited in the ways that many great movie stars’ range was limited, his acting was superb in more than a few movies during his long career. I enjoy watching Sinatra on screen in just about anything he did and am particularly attached to the last phase of his three-phase movie career.
His first phase was dominated by all the musicals he made in the 1940s, first in all the guest spots he did in low-budget musicals at Columbia (REVEILLE WITH BEVERLY) and RKO (HIGHER AND HIGHER) and then in starring roles in musical romantic comedies (e.g. STEP LIVELY, pictured above) and finally in Technicolor musicals at MGM where he was paired with top talent in front of the camera like Gene Kelly, Kathryn Grayson, Esther Williams, and Ann Miller, and masters of the form behind the camera like Arthur Freed, George Sidney, Busby Berkeley, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Gene Kelly’s directing partner, Stanley Donen.
ON THE TOWN (1949), starring Kelly and Sinatra, along with Vera-Ellen, Ann Miller, Betty Garrett and Jules Munshin, remains one of the best movie musicals from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
His second phase, from 1953-1960, followed his career resurgence in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY and was informed by his attempts to take advantage of his newly minted popularity (which went way beyond the bobby-soxers) and craft a star persona, based partly on his continued success in movie musicals, including YOUNG AT HEART (1954), pictured above, GUYS AND DOLLS (1955), HIGH SOCIETY (1956), THE JOKER IS WILD (1957), PAL JOEY (1957), and CAN-CAN (1960), and partly on non-singing dramatic roles embodying a wide range of characters, including a professional assassin gunning for President Eisenhower in SUDDENLY (1954); a drug addict in the taboo-busting THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (1955); a medical student who befriends an ambitious colleague in NOT AS A STRANGER (1955); a cocky little bully in a western town in JOHNNY CONCHO (1956); a Spanish loyalist fighting the French in THE PRIDE AND THE PASSION (1957); a G.I. caught up in an interracial love triangle in France during WWII in KINGS GO FORTH (1958); a war vet-turned-struggling writer in SOME CAME RUNNING (1958); and the leader of a commando force fighting the Japanese in Burma in NEVER SO FEW (1959). He sings one song in the otherwise non-musical A HOLE IN THE HEAD (1959), in which he plays a single father who runs a failing Florida hotel. He worked with some high-profile co-stars during this period, including Doris Day, Robert Mitchum, Olivia de Havilland, Eleanor Parker, Marlon Brando, Cary Grant, Sophia Loren, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Rita Hayworth, Shirley MacLaine, and Gina Lollabrigida, and began what would be a decades-long collaboration with Dean Martin.
He also worked with some of the most renowned directors in 1950s Hollywood, including Fred Zinnemann, Stanley Kramer, Otto Preminger, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Delmer Daves, Vincente Minnelli, John Sturges, and Frank Capra.
The third phase begins in 1960 with OCEAN’S 11 and the Rat Pack phase of his career, with the Sinatra persona fully established on screen and Sinatra playing one variation on it or another in film after film, usually as authoritative characters who dominated the action and remained unflappable in any kind of crisis. There were the Rat Pack movies themselves, in which he shared the screen with Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and, depending on the script, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, and these were OCEAN’S 11, SERGEANTS 3, and ROBIN AND THE 7 HOODS. And then there were a couple with Sinatra and Martin only—FOUR FOR TEXAS and MARRIAGE ON THE ROCKS. There were star vehicles in the war, crime and adventure genres—VON RYAN’S EXPRESS, ASSAULT ON A QUEEN, TONY ROME and LADY IN CEMENT.
Yet in the midst of all this there were several projects that weren’t so easily classifiable, where he stepped out of his comfort zone. In John Frankenheimer’s THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962), he played a Korean War veteran troubled by nightmares shared by other members of his squad that turn out to mask a horrifying secret. The complexity of the mind games played on the characters by their communist enemies takes it almost to the level of science fiction.
Sinatra wasn’t even the chief protagonist, since the narrative is centered on another member of the squad, played by Laurence Harvey, who becomes embroiled in a far-reaching assassination plot, and it becomes Sinatra’s job to ferret out the source of the nightmares and the extent of the plot.
Sinatra chose a very unusual project for the sole film he would direct, NONE BUT THE BRAVE (1965), the tale of a unit of Marines who crashland onto a Pacific island during the war and find it occupied by a platoon of Japanese soldiers cut off from contact with their command. An unlikely truce develops and we get a rare war film that seeks to humanize the enemy. It was a co-production with Japan’s Toho Pictures and Sinatra cast himself in a supporting role as an alcoholic medic with the Marine unit, probably so he wouldn’t have to do double duty carrying the film as its star and director, a shrewd choice, as it turns out. (The lead characters are actually the marine captain and his Japanese counterpart played, respectively, by Clint Walker and Tatsuya Mihashi.)
Finally, THE DETECTIVE (1968) offers a gritty New York police drama that tackles a number of social issues while taking advantage of the new freedoms in language and subject matter being allowed by the Production Code on the cusp of the ratings system that year. Sinatra plays a much more introspective character than usual and one who loses two important battles in his life in the course of the film.
And he did all these films while turning out best-selling albums and Top Ten hits and performing concerts and appearing regularly on television. Not to mention all his drinking, carousing and partying, and palling around with John F. Kennedy and various other public figures. How’d he do it?
Sinatra biographers and commentators tend to focus more on his music career than his films and I can’t really blame them, since his music was so timeless and so wonderful. But I think they give short shrift to his movies. Just this week, columnist Pete Hamill, author of Why Sinatra Matters, appeared on the Don Imus radio show and dismissed Sinatra’s film career with this remark: “He gave his music his full focus unlike, say, his movie performances.” When I watched seven of Sinatra’s movies this week, I saw a man who took being a movie star very seriously and turned out excellent work in film after film. In looking over his filmography, I have to say that I don’t see anything listed that contains a bad or even careless performance by him. While some of his films are weaker than others (e.g. SOME CAME RUNNING and SERGEANTS 3, to name two I don’t care for), and his Spanish accent in THE PRIDE AND THE PASSION is cringeworthy, I enjoy watching Sinatra in all of them and there isn’t a single one I wouldn’t happily re-watch if I had to.
In picking films to re-watch for this piece, I chose films from my library that I really wanted to re-watch and ones I felt best exemplified Sinatra’s appeal as a star.
First off, I want to single out YOUNG AT HEART (1954), which I consider the first film of his to really capture his blossoming star persona and the essence of Sinatra as both a movie star and musical performer at that moment in his career when he was truly becoming “Sinatra.” He sings four songs on camera in the film and a fifth one (the title one) over the opening and closing credits. Three of those songs are time-honored standards and he performs them while sitting at a piano in a bar, working for pay.
The character he plays is Barney Sloan, a singer, piano player and musical arranger who is always broke and one step away from being homeless. He’s got a huge chip on his shoulder and compulsively alienates anyone who reaches out to him. He wallows in self-pity, lamenting the fact that others get all the breaks, but not him. Only when he meets a perky suburban Connecticut family with three grown blond daughters, one of whom, played by Doris Day, girlfriend of Barney’s musical collaborator, played by Gig Young, does he start to warm up and behave like a socially skilled human being. He falls in love with Laurie (Doris) and when she announces her engagement to Alex (Gig), Barney stays out at the bar after closing and, in the scene I consider the standout in the movie, sits alone and plays the piano and sings Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things,” infusing it with a feeling of melancholy that you tend not to hear in most renditions of this favorite from the American songbook. The camera just sits there taking it all in. In my opinion, it’s one of the most deeply affecting moments Sinatra has given us on film.
And here is the scene itself:
And it’s not the only great song he sings in the film. We also hear him do “Someone to Watch Over Me,” by George and Ira Gershwin, and “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),” by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. He also does a duet with Doris of a song called “You, My Love,” by Jimmy Van Heusen and Mack Gordon, which I believe was written for the film.
I was impressed with the chemistry between Sinatra and Day in this film and wonder why they didn’t reteam again later in their careers. How great would that have been? Here’s what I wrote about YOUNG AT HEART in my IMDB review:
At the time they made this movie, Frank Sinatra and Doris Day were both on the cusp of filling out the iconic images they’d become in a few short years and show remarkable chemistry as (potentially…seemingly?) ill-fated lovers in a picture-postcard Connecticut town who get married and move to a tenement in Manhattan. It’s too bad they didn’t make another film together. YOUNG AT HEART (1954) is an oddball family drama, incredibly downbeat in parts, with an ending that’s 180 degrees away from the one in FOUR DAUGHTERS (1938) which, like this film, was adapted from Fannie Hurst’s novel, “Sister Act.” (Sinatra plays the part John Garfield played in the earlier film.) Except for a beach scene, it was all shot entirely on Warner Bros. soundstages and backlots.
Sinatra and Day sing a lot but don’t duet till the end. Sinatra sings more than Day and gets better songs, including some Gershwin and Cole Porter standards. Sinatra’s solos are quintessential Sinatra. It’s just him sitting at the piano, with his hat on, playing and singing to his heart’s content, usually in a shabby club just before closing. Musically, it rarely gets better than this. I wish there’d been more of these numbers. The strange but colorful supporting cast includes Ethel Barrymore, Gig Young, Robert Keith (Brian’s dad), Dorothy Malone, Lonny Chapman, and pre-Skipper Alan Hale Jr. These actors are all fine, but I would have preferred to see the two stars in something that wasn’t cluttered with so many other people.
This was only the second film Sinatra made after his incredible Oscar-winning comeback in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953). (In the interim, he’d played a presidential assassin—part of a hit team working for a high-level conspiracy—in SUDDENLY, 1954.) Sinatra’s still a notably skinny guy here and looks much younger than his 38 years. He plays a talented musician who doesn’t believe he has a chance at success. He mopes a lot and browbeats himself and resents others’ success and always has a cigarette dangling from his lips. Plus, he keeps his hat on in the house. Doris almost weds Gig Young but dumps him at the last minute for his much needier friend, Sinatra. She tries to change the grumpy Sinatra, to make him happier. Good luck. Why didn’t these stars ever reteam? Especially late in life, guided by a master director at the top of his game. What a film that would have made.
Of the films I re-watched for this, the most fun, in terms of basking in Sinatra’s star persona, were VON RYAN’S EXPRESS (1965) and TONY ROME (1967). In the former, he plays an American Army Air Corps officer, Colonel Ryan, who crashlands in Italy in 1943 and gets thrown into a prison camp with a large contingent of defiant English soldiers who think it their sacred duty to dig escape tunnels even though all the men get punished for it (no showers, no soap, no razors, no new clothes, no Red Cross packages and only half-rations for food). Ryan, now the ranking officer, takes command of the prisoners and immediately puts a stop to the tunnels, revealing the locations to the corrupt Italian commandant (Adolfo Celi) and, in return, demanding back all the privileges that had been revoked. The English lieutenant (Trevor Howard) is furious, but it’s all a moot point when Italy surrenders to the Allies soon after and the camp guards all flee, leaving the prisoners a brief respite to escape the camp before the Nazis come in and take it over. With the help of a sympathetic Italian officer (Sergio Fantoni) and the convenient ability of the English chaplain (Edward Mulhare) to speak fluent German, the prisoners manage to commandeer a freight train and make a mad dash for the Swiss border.
Shot mostly on location in Italy, the film is a rousing WWII adventure produced on a large scale with working period trains traveling throughout picturesque Italian locations, from Rome to Florence, Bologna, Milan and beyond, with the finale being shot in Spain. There are many excellent co-stars, but Sinatra’s Ryan manages to command the proceedings and exercise the kind of pragmatic authority that did not come naturally to the British characters. Not bound to the book, Ryan is able to improvise in any given situation and move a large number of allied men to freedom under the Nazis’ noses.
And he did this the same year he made another World War II film, NONE BUT THE BRAVE, also on location, but halfway across the world (Hawaii), and sitting in the director’s chair as well! All while recording music, but perhaps not doing concerts, since there is a gap in his tour schedule from October 1963 to November 1964 that probably coincides with his shooting of these movies.
TONY ROME is Sinatra in his loosest, ring-a-ding-ding sixties swinger mode, but still in service to a very specific character. He’s a Miami private eye who lives on a boat and drives an old Ford and drinks a lot and ogles one much younger gorgeous woman after another. When he’s accused by a beautiful client (Gena Rowlands) of not working hard enough, he responds with this line: “Do you know that since I took this job I’ve had to turn down two offers to go to bed? And I never want to work that hard again. Never.” The plot involves a missing diamond pin and we gradually learn why it’s missing and the various characters involved in its disappearance and reappearance and fluctuating value and the family secrets exposed, etc., but none of it is all that important.
What’s significant here is the interaction between various characters in different levels of Miami society and Tony Rome’s ability to negotiate with all of them, all while maintaining a strong ethical sense and flirting with a soon-to-be divorcee (Jill St. John), yet never managing to sleep with a single woman in the course of the film. In this regard, the film reminds me of Howard Hawks’ private eye noir classic, THE BIG SLEEP (1946), which starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and was based on a novel by Raymond Chandler that is echoed somewhat in this film. The plot mattered less than the quality and richness of the character interactions in one expertly constructed scene after another. Furthermore, while Tony Rome maintains his integrity in his dealings with a powerful Miami real estate tycoon (Simon Oakland) and his wayward family and preserves his clients’ confidentiality when his pal on the force, Lieutenant Santini (Richard Conte), comes nosing around, he also regularly indulges in various vices—drinking, smoking and, thanks to constant phone calls to and from his bookie, gambling. It’s a rare scene that doesn’t have drinks in the characters’ hands.
Rome is also seen on his boat a lot, wearing casual yachting clothes, as opposed to the suit and tie he sports when conducting business. I was worried that Jill St. John, who’s funny, charming, sexy, and delightful throughout, was going to turn out to be a villain…
…but, thankfully, no, she just decides to get back with her husband at the end, leaving poor Tony high and dry on the sea once more.
The sequel, LADY IN CEMENT (1968), while moderately entertaining, is somewhat less interesting because Tony is more buttoned-down and no-nonsense, with the plot, about a search for a missing woman, taking up way more prominence here (and recalling another Raymond Chandler novel, Farewell, My Lovely). He wears his suit and tie all through the film and hardly ever gets on his boat. At least by the end, he’s got his arm around the leading lady, Raquel Welch, and is taking her below deck to the sleeping quarters.
Both TONY ROME and LADY IN CEMENT have much edgier material than we got in earlier Sinatra movies, reflecting a loosening of the production code, which would be replaced by a ratings system that went into effect by the time LADY IN CEMENT was released, giving it an “R” rating, the first of two that Sinatra’s films would get. There is rough language in both films and I’m guessing Sinatra was the first major Hollywood star to say “ass” on the screen. There are several gay characters, with a lesbian couple featured prominently in one notable sequence in TONY ROME and a gay male couple figuring in the disappearance of the title character in LADY IN CEMENT. (Elizabeth Fraser plays the “butch” lesbian in TONY ROME. She had played Doris Day’s older sister in YOUNG AT HEART.) There’s an abortion doctor in TONY ROME and a double entendre dialogue scene involving a crazy woman coming to Rome’s office to demand that he investigate why her cat isn’t smiling anymore, leading to his bewildered response, “You got a pussy that smiles?” In LADY IN CEMENT, the title character is seen nude underwater and there’s some brutal violence by big Dan Blocker, Rome’s client, as he roughs up cops and various thugs.
Of course, Sinatra had broken ground before when he starred in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM in 1955, when the Production Code explicitly forbade the depiction of drug addiction.
Sinatra’s daughter, Nancy Sinatra, sings the title song for TONY ROME and it includes these astonishing lines, “Mothers lock your daughters in / It’s too late to talk to them / ’cause Tony Rome is out and about / and Tony Rome will get ’em if you don’t watch out.” I guess if you could imagine any daughter willing to sing such lines about her father, it would be her.
The Tony Rome films were shot in Miami and Sinatra did concerts at Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel while he was making the films there, just as he and the Rat Pack were doing concerts in Las Vegas when they were shooting OCEAN’S 11 there. The man sure loved to multitask.
I was surprised at the amount of physical action that Sinatra undertakes without a stunt man in VON RYAN and the two Tony Rome films. As Ryan, he jumps on and off moving trains and runs around train trestles and tunnels on location while shooting at Nazis with great vigor. As Tony Rome, he runs a lot, gets into fights, and gets knocked across rooms, mostly without a stunt double. He was in his 50s by then, yet he still takes a lot of punishment.
There’s even a lengthy foot chase involving Sinatra and co-star Richard Conte (who was five years older than Sinatra) around the grounds of the Fontainebleu Hotel.
Ordinarily, a star who wasn’t known for being athletic would get a stunt man for a scene in which he gets knocked to the floor by Dan Blocker (LADY IN CEMENT). But not Sinatra.
I was impressed.
He also engages in a grueling fight with Henry Silva, partly involving karate, in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962), with minimal use of stunt doubles.
IMDB insists that no stunt doubles were used, but there’s at least one shot requiring a double, when Silva throws Sinatra’s character across a room and he lands on a table and smashes it.
I’d like to say a few more words about NONE BUT THE BRAVE (1965). Sinatra has an excellent scene about midway through the film where he’s been asked by the Japanese Lieutenant (Tatsuya Mihashi) to treat a wounded soldier with a gangrenous leg, a service for which they will provide the Americans with water from the Japanese-controlled well. In the scene, Sinatra is the sole American in the barracks and is surrounded by enemy soldiers, only one of whom speaks English, and he’s being asked to amputate the leg, an operation he’s never performed in his life. He knows he shouldn’t be attempting this, but he’s in a situation where he can’t afford to fail. All the Japanese soldiers are played by Japanese actors, supplied by Toho Pictures, and not Hollywood transplants, so there are no familiar faces like James Shigeta, Mako or George Takei to take the edge off his discomfort. The fanatical Sergeant Tamura (Takeshi Kato) comes off as especially hostile to the American. It’s a simply staged but powerful scene, all the more remarkable when you consider the language barrier in directing it. Most of it was shot from one angle with all the actors in the frame.
While it wasn’t unusual for a 1960s war movie to soften its view of the Japanese, especially after Japan’s coming-out party at the Tokyo Olympics the year before (1964), it was still quite courageous to make a film that went as far as this one did. Even in the trailer for the film, which is featured on the DVD, Sinatra addresses the camera and expresses his intent to show the enemy as human beings. While the enactment of the truce does seem far-fetched, given what we know about the heat of combat in the Pacific, it’s only a matter of time before the tide shifts in the film and the two sides are again squaring off against each other. There is a sad and painful tragic ending—a quite plausible and honest one–and it concludes a film that took great pains to avoid showing war as something exciting and adventurous the way so many 1960s war films did. (Three years after NONE BUT THE BRAVE, John Boorman’s HELL IN THE PACIFIC, 1968, showed enemy soldiers, one American and one Japanese, stranded by themselves on a Pacific island, neither one speaking the other’s language, and the peculiar relationship that develops. They were played by Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune, actual veterans of the war, but from opposite sides.)
And now I come back to THE DETECTIVE (1968), which I actually saw when it came out, and which had the tag, “Suggested for Mature Audiences,” although I’m quite certain it would have been rated R had it come out later that same year. At the time, this film was quite an eye-opener and a police drama like none I had experienced up to then. And this was a year that boasted three classic police thrillers—Peter Yates’ BULLITT and two from Don Siegel: MADIGAN and COOGAN’S BLUFF, two of which I also saw in theaters at the time, BULLITT and COOGAN’S BLUFF. The big difference, of course, is that those three were action films and THE DETECTIVE, based on a best-selling novel by Roderick Thorp, is a drama, with only about three short bursts of action in its 114-minute running time. THE DETECTIVE is about the process of police work and the nuts and bolts of investigation, with unexpected revelations emerging long after the fact to unravel the conclusions made in the course of a murder case that got a man convicted and sent to the electric chair. It’s also about the toll this kind of work takes on a man’s personal life and marriage, issues touched on in MADIGAN, but treated much more in depth here. Indeed, one can argue that the scenes showing the marital problems of the protagonist, Joe Leland (Sinatra), and his wife Karen (Lee Remick), who’s revealed to be a nymphomaniac (although that term is never spoken), tend to slow the narrative down in parts.
Coming out between TONY ROME and LADY IN CEMENT, THE DETECTIVE is a far cry from those films. The “edgy” elements in the Tony Rome films come off as more of a commercial stroke designed to attract younger audiences and scandalize hidebound newspaper film reviewers who preferred the Sinatra of GUYS AND DOLLS and THE TENDER TRAP. They take an old Hollywood archetype (the private eye) and try to make him relevant at a time when the counterculture was working its way into mainstream popular culture. THE DETECTIVE had a screenwriter, Abby Mann (JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG), who pulled material from the headlines and sought to make the story genuinely relevant. The trailer calls the film “as adult and revealing as any film can be.” The language is rough (lots of “ass,” “bitch,” “bastard,” “faggot” and “balling”); the description of the murder victim, who’s been castrated, quite graphic; and the depiction of Karen’s infidelity and sexual promiscuity quite open.
A lot of lip service is paid to social causes and liberal positions, with Leland openly questioning police tactics at several points in the film, including his anger at the vice cop’s (Robert Duvall) brutal rousting of gay men at a waterfront hot spot (with one victim shouting defiance, just a year before Stonewall), and his confrontation with his boss over police treatment of black “agitators.” At one point, he even finds his younger partner (Al Freeman Jr.) forcing a murder suspect to sit naked during interrogation, a tactic he claims to have gotten from German newsreels of the concentration camps, an explicit attempt to link police behavior with fascism at a time when the word “fascist” was being routinely tossed at law enforcement. Then, when Leland and another cop, Dave Schoenstein (Jack Klugman), get hold of ledgers hidden away by a man who committed suicide, they uncover a massive real estate scam by public officials seeking to bilk the taxpayers out of money for land purchases by the city at inflated prices, thus enriching these same public officials. There’s a lot more, but I was surprised to see so many issues like this pop up in a film starring a man who would side politically in the coming years with President Nixon and, later, President Reagan. (Of course, this is the same man who once campaigned for President Kennedy and this film may just be a holdover from that period.)
Also, unlike Tony Rome, Joe Leland isn’t having any fun. He’s an honest and ethical man facing corruption on all sides of the social fabric, whether it’s in the bribes that some of the men in his unit collect or the disdain for the police by the elite, as evidenced by a chance remark, “A little learning in a policeman is a dangerous thing,” by one of Karen’s high society friends. It’s in the vulnerability of young people to a drug subculture as seen when a teenage female junkie pleads with Leland for help. It’s in the way a gay man suffering from psychosis is railroaded into a murder conviction and the electric chair after a false confession and the way a closeted gay man erupts into a fury that propels him to murder and mutilate the man he met at a gay bar and went home with. At the end, Leland has lost his wife, his career and his self-respect. He has gotten some justice by sending the ledgers to the District Attorney, but has refused to reopen the murder case in order to avoid hurting the murderer’s young widow. At the end, he rides off alone in his car into the night to an uncertain future.
Sinatra has a lot of scenes where he erupts in self-righteous fury, something he was quite skilled at conveying, but he also has a lot of scenes where he’s in quiet pain and he conveys that subtly but effectively, whether it’s witnessing the execution or agonizing over his marriage or learning the truth about the murder for which an innocent man was convicted. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another Sinatra performance quite like it, with the exception of his Barney Sloan in YOUNG AT HEART, who experiences a lot of pain in his own right, and, of course, Frankie Machine in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM.
I would argue that THE DETECTIVE contains Sinatra’s finest performance, although it has a lot of competition from films like YOUNG AT HEART, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.
Getting back to ROBIN AND THE 7 HOODS, I must say that in re-watching it for this piece, I was disappointed that it doesn’t quite hold up. “Style” and Sinatra’s one solo, “My Kind of Town,” are really the only decent songs in the whole film. Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. have one solo apiece and I don’t feel they got enough to do in the film. (Of course, this bothered me even when I saw it at the age of eleven.) The Maid Marian character, played by Barbara Rush, turns out to be a villain. The script tends to fall apart in the final sections, with an ending that seems more of an afterthought than an actual resolution. Peter Falk, doing some expert schtick as rival gangster Guy Gisborne, steals the show, but he needed much funnier dialogue than he was given.
I’ve now covered all five Sinatra films that were directed by Gordon Douglas —YOUNG AT HEART, ROBIN AND THE 7 HOODS, TONY ROME, THE DETECTIVE, LADY IN CEMENT. Douglas was a studio workhorse whose career as a director in Hollywood lasted from 1935 to 1977. Once he became a star, Sinatra could be difficult with directors, particularly strong-minded ones like Robert Aldrich, with whom he feuded on the set of 4 FOR TEXAS, resulting in Sinatra’s refusal to speak to him during the shoot. Douglas is the only director that he worked with so often. He reportedly made demands during the shoot of YOUNG AT HEART and he didn’t work again with Douglas for ten years, but then he made four films with Douglas in the space of four years. I imagine that Douglas, who worked with as wide a range of talent as anyone in Hollywood, from Our Gang, Laurel & Hardy and Bela Lugosi to Eddie Cantor, Jerry Lewis and Elvis Presley, was able to accommodate Sinatra’s working methods and unique schedule sufficiently to insure a smooth and productive operation. And the films are all well-directed. I’m a big fan of Douglas and I plan to devote an entry to him in the near future.
But Sinatra could often be hard on directors and producers. I remember reading The Industry, by Saul David, producer of VON RYAN’S EXPRESS, and he described the difficulties he had with Sinatra during the shoot. As I recall, it was something about Sinatra demanding that the shooting schedule be adjusted to accommodate his personal schedule, which proved problematic when dealing with train lines and Italian authorities. I don’t have the book handy, so I can’t quote it. But I wouldn’t be surprised if this kind of thing repeated itself on many of his sets.
One last word on 4 FOR TEXAS. I’ve always liked this movie, although it’s seriously flawed. It has an excellent 20-minute opening section, taking place after an aborted stagecoach robbery (led by Charles Bronson), in which Sinatra and Martin spar over the $100,000 in cash which the stage was carrying, with one getting the drop on the other and then vice versa and then vice versa again. It reminded me of Aldrich’s earlier western, VERA CRUZ, which also had two stars battling over money hidden in a stagecoach, and it also looks forward to various Italian westerns that would be coming out a few years later.
I’ve always felt that this film was ripe for a remake. In fact, when I saw the 2001 remake of OCEAN’S 11, I was impressed with the interplay between the two leading cast members, George Clooney and Brad Pitt, in an otherwise mediocre film, and wondered if the two might not be better served by co-starring in a western. And then it occurred to me that a remake of 4 FOR TEXAS might be a perfect vehicle for the two of them, with Clooney in the Sinatra role and Pitt in the Martin role. Alas, fourteen years have gone by and there are probably younger versions of Clooney and Pitt nosing around for a Rat Pack remake. (Hugh Jackman and Bradley Cooper, anyone? Will Smith and Jamie Foxx?)
I still have other unseen Sinatra movies to watch, including THE PRIDE AND THE PASSION, a historical epic set during the Napoleonic Wars and co-starring Cary Grant and Sophia Loren; THE NAKED RUNNER, a British spy thriller from 1967 that looks like quite a change-of-pace role for him; and his last starring role, another police drama, THE FIRST DEADLY SIN. In addition, I want to re-watch HIGH SOCIETY, PAL JOEY and THE JOKER IS WILD, none of which I’ve ever seen in their entirety.
Finally, a note about an amusing connection between Sinatra and my favorite Japanese pop group, Morning Musume. In April 1985, on the 17th, 18th, and 19th, to be exact, Sinatra performed at Nippon Budokan, a massive arena in Tokyo. A week earlier, on April 12, 1985, a future member of Morning Musume was born in Miyoshi, a town not far from Tokyo. She was Hitomi Yoshizawa, aka “Yossie,” and her first concert after joining the group would be at Nippon Budokan, 15 years after Sinatra performed there. (I interviewed her in Los Angeles in 2010 for Otaku USA.) In 2001, the group recorded “Mr. Moonlight Ai no Big Band,” a song that deliberately harked back to the musical era which gave Sinatra his start, and Yossie dressed in male clothes for the music video that accompanied the song, as did her song partners, Natsumi Abe and Maki Goto. (Yossie’s in the yellow suit.)
Dare I say that there was something a tad Sinatraesque about Yossie’s appearance?
And here’s the complete music video (please note the actual big band employed for the shoot, composed entirely of westerners):
In any event, Sinatra’s centennial is the first one I’ve covered on this blog that is getting so much coverage elsewhere in the mainstream media. (I think I’m the only one who noticed when Frank Lovejoy, John Payne and Barry Sullivan had their centennials.) Sinatra still matters. And of all the iconic show biz figures that come to mind when we think of the 20th century, Sinatra had the longest career and the most long-range impact of any of them.