A rare Twilight Time Limited Edition double feature (in conjunction with Twentieth Century-Fox Home Entertainment) is available for one’s viewing pleasure, via the video nasties 1960s twofer of Frank Sinatra neo-noirs TONY ROME (1967) and LADY IN CEMENT (1968).
Based on the Marvin H. Albert pulps (and scripted by Richard Breen and then Jack Guss, with assist from Albert himself), these tawdry, sun-drenched, Florida-based gumshoe shows unfold against a changing America, whose protagonist is an aging, semi-anachronistic private eye coming to terms with shifting mores while specifically embracing the sexual revolution.
Tony Rome (aka Frankie Sinatra) is a former Miami police detective turned indie shamus, with an allegiance leaning more toward the underworld’s lovable cast of characters than to Establishment law and order. That his closest pal is a top lieutenant muckety-muck (the wonderful Richard Conte) gives the weary, snarky bedroom dick an edge – although sometimes straining the limits of friendship (Rome gets chastised for leaving the precinct telephone number on his bookies’ contact sheets).
While Tony is old school, he does attempt to culturally bring himself up to date with the new kind of violence (with relish), the burgeoning gay community (with vinegar), and the preponderance of free love (with honey), but is savvy enough to know that flashy, glitzy 1960s Florida crime is fueled by classic bloodletting. But, still, it’s a tough pill to swallow; after all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
As Dean Martin once famously said, “It’s Frank’s world, we only live in it.” This brilliant assessment of post-Camelot America is underlined by Tony Rome’s universe – a place where Playboy 20-something hotties can’t wait to get it on with a nearly 55-ish crumpled sleuth. It’s a cinematic haven where the human background comprises Frank’s real-life cohorts, buddies, hangers-on, etc. (some, admittedly, quite delightful: Hank Henry, Steve Peck, Joe E. Ross, Joe E. Lewis, Joe E. ANYBODY, B.S. Pully, Jilly Rizzo, Shecky Greene, Michael Romanoff and punch-drunk Rocky Graziano as essentially, well, punch-drunk Rocky Graziano). The movies were slickly directed by Gordon Douglas, a veteran known for his quicksilver shooting (even though it’s likely Frank was calling some of the shots). It was far enough away geographically from Fox and Hollywood for Sinatra to pretty much wreak havoc upon the denizens and traditions of the Sunshine State. A vacation outing (with pay), if ever there was one.
Frank, as it’s well known, was great movie fan, and both these thrillers are packed with supporting actors from the Golden Age, an era where Bijou-addicted Sinatra was just coming into his own. Thus, it’s a joy to see such wrinkled faces as Robert J. Wilke, Jeffrey Lynn, Lloyd Gough. And of course, there are the women. Pin-up pulchritude come to life, in the shapely forms of Sue Lyon (an unfairly maligned Lolita), the great Gena Rowlands, Jill St. John, Raquel Welch, Lainie Kazan, Deanna Lund, Tiffany Bolling, Joan Shalwee, Lynn Dano…the beat goes.
True, the bikini-clad St. John in the first installment is “the” Frank fantasy: a beauteous, rich bimbo who covets him; in the second, she is replaced by Welch, in virtually the same role and, likely, the same bikini. Frank’s reaction to initially meeting St. John on a beach is trademark Italian urban smart-assery: “Oh, yeah, you gonna be my next case.” Of course, it’s a female turn-on.
The movies themselves show the underbelly of one of our country’s highest rated winter getaways and retirement communities. It’s rife with murderous hookers, drug dealers, pimps, psychos, illegally practicing doctors, corrupt detectives and more. They are shot in appropriately garish DeLuxe Color and 2.35:1 Panavision (Fox having only recently abandoned their CinemaScope process). The pics were exquisitely shot on-location by Joe Biroc (both movies, served on one 1080p platter, look terrif). The music, too, is integral to the appreciation of the onscreen narrative; not surprising, considering its star. TONY ROME is scored by Johnny Mandell. The jewel of this lounge-music crown is the title song, belted out by no less than the star’s daughter Nancy (and penned by her mate Lee Hazelwood). It’s a masterpiece. While I and my fellow Boomers weren’t allowed to see these movies when released, for some reason, we were all familiar with the title tune. I clearly remember that often, during the summers of ’67 and ’68, whenever an adolescent decision was circumspect, the unanimous response was “Tony Rome’ll get cha if ya don’t watch out!” Indeed, if Nancy’s boots were made for walking, TONY ROME added some kickass cleats. The music in LADY IN CEMENT, sans a vocal, is nevertheless superior to its predecessor. The score, by Hugo Montenegro, is one of my favorite 1960s soundtracks, one I searched for decades to find on vinyl and/or CD (to no avail). Thanks to Twilight Time, I can now access this quintessential sly, naughty Bob Crewe-esque, Herb Alpert parody as an IST, where it is played often. Wah-wah-wah.
The plots are nearly interchangeable, but certainly in need of a mention. In his debut, Tony is ostensibly hired to retrieve jewelry, lost by a doped-up heiress (Lyon) found in a fleabag hotel. The sleazy house dick (Robert J. Wilke) is none other than Rome’s former partner, pretty much the same relationship Robert Mitchum had with Steve Brodie in Out of the Past. Wilke ends up the same way as Brodie, too. The whole jewelry deal is merely a pretense for what is to follow; soon, enough additional bodies to turn up to start a private morgue. As Rome correctly figures, the rich are always the dirtiest. This holds true for the sequel, featuring a former mob kingpin (Martin Gabel in a concurrently menacing/hilarious performance) determined to become a legitimate businessman. The Barbara Nichols-type title corpse found at the bottom of the ocean (“She’s one blonde I know didn’t have more fun,” cracks Tony) holds a key to a conspiracy involving mucho greenbacks and a slew of unsavory deals and folks.
Both pics owe an unpayable debt to classic film noir (CEMENT even has a Moose Malloy character, ably played by Rat Pack fave Dan Blocker). More importantly, Tony mouths a lingo of pure Hammett/Chandler speak, with 1960s codicils. Tony may have been the coolest peeper post-WWII and through the 1950s, but, by the late 1960s, he was losing his grip on the rapidly evolving culture. This isn’t too different from what Sinatra himself was experiencing, desperately trying to keep ahead of the lingo curve, with sad results; remember his special, Francis Albert Sinatra Does His Thing? Even Rat Pack Confidential author/fan Shawn Levy was forced to honestly comment on Ol’ Blue Eyes donning a Nehru Jacket in the early 1970s (“He looked like an idiot”). Yet, there’s enough iconic noir in the Rome flicks to warrant admiration for the aging gumshoe. “Do you really care?” asks a jaded mouse, suspicious of Rome’s motives. “Sometimes I do,” replies a solemn Tony, in a beautifully acted response that reminds us of how good a thespian Sinatra was.
Rome’s phone calls with unseen bookies, fixers, and various other nefarious characters virtually constitute a string of amusing running gags. (“A pox on that horse!” shouts Rome, slamming down the receiver. “I’m working for free again this week!”). The lechery, so much a part of Rat Packery, is also on display. The leer Rome initially gives Raquel Welch in CEMENT gives the actress her best line, “Shall I scream ‘rape’ now?”
LADY IN CEMENT was every bit as successful as TONY ROME, and had fans of the possible franchise wondering and champing at the bit for a third installment. It was not to be. By 1970, the anachronistic private eye was just too far gone to matter. The rule-breaking tough dicks were now actually on the force. Of course, I’m talking about Dirty Harry, Hustle and other 1970s thrillers (ironically, in a show of WTF could they have been thinking, Sinatra and John Wayne were initially offered Harry).
I gotta say, though, as much as I keep Tony Rome high on my guilty pleasure list, I’m sorta glad there wasn’t a third chapter. Alas, by the Watergate Era, the toups were getting worse, the waistline fuller. Not a good combination. That said, I kinda wonder what Tony Rome would be up to today. I envision him residing in a second-rate Florida retirement home, using the computer work stations in the library to engage in online gambling…with the usual outcome. I can practically hear him sneering with glee, “Try and collect, you bastards! I’m 103 fucking years old!” An internet virus pox on them all.
TONY ROME/LADY IN CEMENT. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HA MA. Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment. CAT # TWILIGHT234-BR. SRP: $29.95.