The year 1967 at the movies seemed to kick into a higher gear in terms of adult content with bolder depictions of violence and sexualized behavior. Urban criminal activity was forcefully addressed with rawer-than-usual nastiness in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Point Blank and The Incident (a Twilight Time title), while heartland-set button-pushers Bonnie and Clyde and In the Heat of the Night roused audiences and critics with their bolder takes on lurid police investigations and outlaw banditry. Ulysses, Accident and Reflections in a Golden Eye expanded the boundaries of sexually charged stories being told. Even the mainstream summer box-office blockbuster The Dirty Dozen seemed more brutal than similar all-star war epics that had come before.
Fifty-one years ago today, Twentieth Century Fox launched into this bubbling cauldron a star-filled genre update on the cynical detective caper, Tony Rome (1967), with Frank Sinatra, attempting to stake out new cinematic territory, in the persona-friendly sleuthing title role of a Miami gumshoe up to his ol’ blue eyeballs in hotbed of sun-baked and night-shrouded intrigue under the no-nonsense direction of studio veteran Gordon Douglas, who’d helmed three previous Sinatra efforts. Co-starring Jill St. John, Richard Conte, Gena Rowlands, Simon Oakland, Lloyd Bochner and Sue Lyon, it is, in one sense, “a witty and thoroughly enjoyable attempt to revive the cynical, corpse-laden, bafflingly plotted Chandler thrillers of the ’40s,” in which “Sinatra, standing in ably for Bogart as the tough private eye, times his deadpan cracks perfectly, takes his beatings like a man, and batters his way to some sort of solution” (Tom Milne, Time Out Film Guide). In another sense, it was a nod to harder times and edgier subject matter, and the studio decided to go all out to make sure this wasn’t perceived as just another Sinatra vehicle but also quite racy and relevant. For evidence, one need only look to the opening week reviewer blurbs that appeared in the newspaper ads:
“Reminiscent of The Maltese Falcon. In this hard-nosed mystery film Sinatra is a cool and sophisticated loner. He gets hit, kicked, cut up and shot at, betrayed and almost seduced. All in all there’s enough demonstration of social vulgarity, degeneracy and crime to satisfy the most lurid taste. It’s put forth with speed, dexterity, and a nice running of patter and gags. For those who like their screen detectives recognizable and raw, Sinatra should satisfy” (Bosley Crowther, The New York Times).
“This tough movie with rough people was not made for the family trade. The great American product, the cool cynical private eye, makes a forceful return to the screen. Characters are for the most part low-lifers, dope pushers, addicts, blackmailers, bawds, homosexuals, lesbians, a stripper, a sizzling divorcee, a millionaire’s beautiful wife. A tour de force for Sinatra, who keeps the action moving fast and furiously” (Wanda Hale, New York Daily News).
“Frank Sinatra has been a talent in search of a role ever since The Manchurian Candidate, and at last, in Tony Rome, he has found himself one. He has had to fit himself into a type molded by Humphrey Bogart and Dashiell Hammett. The fun is in the chasing around, the swift development of incident, and the raffish dialogue, much of it uttered with straight-faced aplomb by Sinatra. Lively and entertaining, and for this we must thank both the capable Mr. Sinatra and the persistent ghost of Mr. Bogart. The film calls for an encore” (Hollis Alpert, Saturday Review).
“Tony Rome is a private eye with a difference. Very adult treatment of sex and sex with violence. Oh boy, do we have sex. Lesbianism, homosexuality, prostitution, you name it, they got it. Classic double meaning lines that everyone knows about, but no on expects to see in a movie. Go with your friends and nudge each other with your elbows as you recognize the private gags and the dirty jokes. So outrageous it turns out to be fun” (David Goldman, WCBS Radio).
Sign of the times, indeed. And the above-noted Mr. Alpert got his wish, a follow-up, equally titillating release that opened precisely one year later, Lady in Cement (1968), with Sinatra, Douglas and Conte back on board, plus Raquel Welch, Dan Blocker, Martin Gabel and Lainie Kazan. This film, adorned with with the MPAA’s newly instituted R rating, played a bit cruder if more compact, and the quotes sourced in the ads this time reflected that:
“Have a ball watching it! All the girls are bosomy and more than willing!” (Bob Salmaggi, WINS Radio).
“Offers a raw introduction to Miami’s sub-subculture. A world of broads and booze, homosexuals and hoods” (Kathleen Carroll, New York Daily News).
“A perfect blending of material and milieu like widescreen graffiti. Sinatra has a very fine and wide-ranging talent” (Vincent Canby, The New York Times).
Whether you find this pair of salacious investigations solid or squalid, bodacious or deficient, emblematic of their era or hopelessly incorrect in any era, Tony Rome and Lady in Cement (later rerated PG) comprise a dynamic double-feature TT hi-def Blu-ray of scintillating Sinatra that will form the basis of your own critical bouquets or brickbats.