Tony Rome

 This isn’t a family. It’s just a bunch of people living at the same address. 

Trends in cinema are constantly changing with genres rising and falling in popularity all the time. Despite that, the detective story has never really gone out of fashion, in the same way that the literary version stretching back to its earliest appearance in the works of Poe and Dickens remains consistently popular. Sure the style has altered over time, the snappy sophistication of the Van Dine and Queen influenced movies of the 30s giving way to the tougher hard-boiled dialect of the Hammett and Chandler adaptations of the 40s and so on. While the trappings and presentation may shift according to the mood of the times, the central figure of the detective is always with us. Whether these characters happen to be public servants or private investigators they are seekers after truth, and occasionally justice gets a look in too. By the 60s the gumshoe or shamus had passed through the period of post-war cynicism and, though some vestige of that weary attitude was still to be found, taken on an air of cool detachment. Under the circumstances, it’s hard to think of a better choice than Frank Sinatra to play the title character in Tony Rome (1967), a private eye yarn retaining most of the familiar motifs of the sub-genre and blending them into the more permissive atmosphere of the late 60s.

Tony Rome (Frank Sinatra) is a Miami based investigator, just about getting by, making enough to eat and pay off the gambling debts he’s fond of running up. A phone call from his ex-partner, Turpin (Robert J Wilke), lands him a job he’s not especially keen on but it doesn’t look like it’s going to require any great effort on his part either. A young woman (Sue Lyon) checked herself into the flea-pit hotel where Turpin is working as the house dick and promptly passed out under the influence of copious amounts of alcohol. Well so what? The thing is the hotel doesn’t need any further hassle from the law and the young lady just happens to be the daughter of Rudy Kosterman (Simon Oakland), an influential construction magnate. Rome stands to earn some easy money by simply delivering the tycoon’s daughter back home and ensuring no awkward questions are asked. Kosterman’s naturally happy to have the girl back but he’s also worried about her recent behavior – she’s been spending prolifically and it’s increasingly difficult for either her father or her incompetent milquetoast husband to control her. Firstly, Kosterman hires Rome to look into his daughter’s activities, then before he gets out of the door the millionaire’s wife (Gena Rowlands) wants to retain his services for an investigation of her own. When the motor launch that doubles as his home is ransacked by a couple of toughs convinced he must know the whereabouts of a jeweled pin the last thing he needs is another client. And yet that’s exactly what he gets the following morning as the Kosterman girl turns up and wants him to locate the jeweled pin (yes, that one) she mislaid in the course of her date with the whiskey bottle. Aside from the potential conflict of interests involved, an apparently straightforward assignment is beginning to turn into fairly complex mess. And that’s only the beginning; after Turpin turns up dead in Rome’s office the bodies start piling up with almost depressing regularity, threatening to sour his long-standing relationship with the police in the shape of Lieutenant Santini (Richard Conte), not to mention a potential relationship of another kind with divorcee Ann Archer (Jill St John). By the time the case is concluded Rome will lay bare the secrets the Kosterman family would prefer to keep under wraps – to reach that point he’ll have to pick his way through a maze peopled by a lesbian stripper, an effete drug pusher, a crooked jeweler and blackmailers.

This was the first of three crime movies director Gordon Douglas would make with Sinatra, the others being Lady in Cement (reprising the Tony Rome character) and The Detective. The latter is clearly the best and most layered of the trio, but Tony Rome is probably the most entertaining. The story derives from a Marvin H Albert novel – a writer whose work I’ve never read despite the fact I’ve seen a few movies now based on his books – and treads a fine line between glamor and seediness, intrigue and humor. Douglas, along with cameraman Joseph Biroc, makes the most of the Florida locations and there are some nicely composed setups (see above) which evoke the look and mood of the classic private eye movie. The plot does become pretty complicated but Douglas keeps the pace even and there’s enough incident to ensure interest never drifts. A good deal of the humor comes via the by-play between Sinatra and Jill St John; although there’s also a glorious, innuendo-laden interlude in Rome’s office, when a frumpy middle-aged woman tries to get him to look into the matter of her depressed pussy and see if he can make it smile again.

Sinatra was well cast as Rome, boozing, smoking and wisecracking his way around Miami and the Keys, mingling effortlessly with both high society and a range of lowlife characters. As a singer he was always capable of going from a buoyant cockiness to almost painful self-awareness, and he brings the same quality to his performance here. The smart, assured dialogue rolls of his tongue as he trades threats and jibes with equal ease, and yet there’s also the honest acceptance of his own weaknesses and failings as a human being. Recently, I’ve been chatting elsewhere about the nature of the detective in crime fiction/filmmaking, and I think Sinatra does well conveying the image of an imperfect but essentially honorable man surrounded by violence and deceit. Jill St John is fine too as the woman looking for a few laughs and finding herself regularly fobbed off as Rome’s investigation takes another interesting turn at just the wrong moment for her. The supporting cast is packed with familiar faces – Simon Oakland, Gena Rowlands, Robert J Wilke, an increasingly exasperated Richard Conte, Jeffrey Lynn, Lloyd Bochner, and cameos for boxer Rocky Graziano and restaurateur Mike Romanoff.

Tony Rome is a 20th Century Fox production and the DVD form that studio is very good – I have the UK box set containing the three Sinatra/Douglas crime films. The movie is presented in anamorphic scope and comes from a nice clean print, the colors are natural looking and I can’t say I’m aware of any significant damage. The movie itself is a good, solid detective story with a well-judged central performance by Sinatra. In fairness, it’s not the star’s best movie, not even his best with Douglas, but it is a good one, entertaining and engaging from beginning to end. It ought to be more than satisfactory for anyone into mysteries, detective stories or Sinatra.

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50 thoughts on “Tony Rome

  1. I always get a bit annoyed when people make off-the-cuff smart remarks about singers always making poor actors. It’s quite plain to me the the exact opposite is usually true. Singers are performers and many of the requisite skills (needed for good screen acting) have been acquired during their singing careers. Elvis Presley was a very good actor although, sadly, he was rarely given decent material to work with. Sinatra leads the field in my view as a ‘singer turned actor’. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him give a bad performance and some, like “The Manchurian Candidate” and “The Man With The Golden Arm” are excepionally good. I remember being very impressed by his performance is a little-seen 50s western called “Johnny Concho” many years ago. “Tony Rome” as well as its sequel and “The Detective” are DVDs that I regularly take from the shelf to watch. Not classics by any means but, as you say Colin, hugely entertaining. And in the late 60s, it was still possible to conjure up a convincing memory of that film noir feeling, even in the bright Miami sunlight and its vivid colours.
    We shouldn’t forget daughter Nancy’s famous title song of course! “Mother 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!” She could easily have been singing about Philip Marlowe in “The Big Sleep”!

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    • I agree, Dafydd, I’ve never really understood the need by some to make sniffy remarks about the acting abilities of singers. As you say, there are plenty of examples around to disprove that particular prejudice.
      And I really should have mentioned Nancy Sinatra’s theme song which plays over the opening and closing credits, as well as Billy May’s score throughout – all great stuff.

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  2. Another good choice and worthy review of an entertaining movie. Colin you are very prolific in your posting this year. Keep them coming, the more the merrier. Best regards.

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    • Thank you, Chris. I’ve been lucky enough to have had a little more time lately and so I’ve been able to post more regularly – don’t know how long that will last but I’m making the best of it while I can.

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    • Yes, Lady in Cement is the weakest of the trio but it does look very nice – can’t honestly complain about any of the transfers though. And since these are Fox properties, any potential upgrade to Blu-ray runs the risk of the dreaded teal effect being applied.

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  3. I do enjoy this movie quite a bit as it is a nice update of the classic noir style (and of course is very, very obviously modelled on THE BIG SLEEP, much as LADY IN CEMENT is was a very close fit to FAREWELL MY LOVELY). Douglas and Biroc do a very nice job here and the cast is certainly impressive.

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    • Yeah, it’s one of those post-noir movies, after the classic era but a little too early to be categorized as neo-noir, I think.
      The allusions to The Big Sleep are certainly there and I’d love to track down a copy of the novel to see if it’s more or less noticeable there.

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      • Well, because it trades on the 40s milieu to a certain extent it is certainly easy to class as neo-noir and I do tend the part line with classic film noir stretching throughout the 40s and 50s – after that the style does seem to be a bit self-referential

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        • Which is fair enough – there is a degree of self-awareness in the later/post-noir movies that does set them apart from the classic era variety. I don’t suppose it’s gone unnoticed that I have a fondness for the tracing the connecting lines in the development of genres – a weakness of mine perhaps, but I find it fun.

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            • Aye, hindsight can be a double-edged sword, leading you off in odd directions. Still, so many artistic endeavors do build on or borrow from what came before that it’s hard, probably even wrong, to ignore.

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  4. I absolutely agree with comments above re sniffy attitudes to singers as actors. I can think of several who were more than competent at both skills and, for me, Sinatra was very high up the list. I still think he was maybe the greatest song stylist who ever lived but he was also a terrific actor, certainly in a particular type of role.

    Good review, Colin, and it makes me want to re-view it now you have mentioned location work in the Florida keys. I have (twice) driven down from Miami through the keys to Key West and would love the reminder of those beautiful parts.

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    • That’s one up on me, Jerry (or maybe that should be two under the circumstances) as I’ve yet to have the pleasure of taking in that part of the world.
      As for Sinatra, I’ve been a huge fan of his work as a singer for a long time – In the Wee Small Hours is close to a noir album. And his acting always draws me.

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  5. It’s certainly worth the trip, Colin, although you have to choose the right season as it can be very HOT. But driving down over the 7-mile bridge towards Key Largo is awesome as you can see the original bridge running parallel and visualize that big sedan containing Edward G and his gang driving along it at speed for their date with both a hurricane and Bogie.

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    • Sounds tempting, Jerry. I used to heat, summer temperatures here in the city regularly hit and stick around 40 degrees and above – I remember a period of maybe 10 days a few years back when it never dropped below the mid-forties and even the streets started to feel spongy under your feet.

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      • I must be a true Brit as those temperatures agree with me only for so long before I welcome a bit of rain!! Spring in England and its attendant temperatures are favourite with me.

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        • I don’t think anyone actually “likes” the kind of high temperatures I was talking about, Jerry – especially not if you’re stuck working in the airless, smog-ridden city center! The last few days here have been hovering around 20 degrees with clear blue skies, and I’m OK with that.

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  6. Great posting in Sinatra’s centenary year! I saw this film a while back and remember enjoying it – he’s perfect for a world-weary private eye, and all that 60s glamour/seediness makes an interesting mix with the noir style, as you show here. I was disappointed when I went on to Lady in Cement, as I really didn’t like that one much. Must confess I still haven’t seen The Detective – I must put that right, maybe by getting the box set you mention and revisiting the others too.

    I’m a big fan of Sinatra as a singer and definitely agree he was a fine actor too. Must agree that it’s odd how singers – and dancers – tend to get underrated as actors, as though people don’t believe that it’s possible to do two things well. Gene Kelly was also a good actor in my book (made a great psycho in Christmas Holiday), but reviews of his acting performances often tend to be a bit sniffy. And even Marlene Dietrich’s acting possibly tends to be underrated by some just because her singing is so iconic. Come to think of it, quite a few of my favourite actors are singers too.

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    • Thanks, Judy. Kelly and Dietrich are good examples of similarly multi-talented people – you may well be right about the tendency to expect performers to only excel at one discipline. Personally, I don’t subscribe to that view myself but it would certainly explain odd habit of undervaluing such individuals’ contributions.

      Also, I agree on Lady in Cement – not a bad film by any means but much less satisfying than this one.

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  7. Great review – I haven’t seen the film but would definitely echo others’ comments about Sinatra as an underrated actor. Great in The Manchurian Candidate and I recall his fine work in From Here to Eternity also. The ‘sniffiness’ over singers as actors is a little weird as so much about being a singer is essentially acting through performance; it’s not enough just to be able to get up and do your turn but also to project an image, the emotions of the words you’re singing, which is basically acting, no? I’ve been watching a few Beatles films lately and really enjoy the way the ‘Fab Four’ brought their individual personalities to bear through acting performances.

    As for the heat, speaking from the point of view of someone who’s yet to see more than a few days that have hit double figures this year, it’s difficult not to be envious!

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    • I think you’d like this movie, Mike. The role here fits Sinatra like a glove, trading on all the best aspects of his personality. And again, I agree on the actor/singer aspect – it’s all performance in the end and I tend to see the talents/skills as naturally overlapping rather and being mutually exclusive.

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  8. I’d like to add Doris Day to the mix. A very natural and affecting actress (as well as fine singer). I thought she and Sinatra were terrific together in “Young At Heart”.
    And I was amazed at how good the great Peggy Lee was in “Pete Kelly’s Blues”, especially considering how little acting experience she had.

    This is an interesting thread, Colin.

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    • Yes, good call on Doris Day. She was equally adept in musical, comedy and dramatic roles.
      Just to go back to Gene Kelly for a moment, I’ve always been impressed by his work in Inherit the Wind. The movie is obviously dominated by March and Tracy, but Kelly does very well in the presence of those two heavyweights.

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  9. Yet another reason to see ‘Inherit the Wind;, one I’ve been meaning to catch up with. I think Kelly gives a moving performance in ‘The Cross of Lorraine;, as a soldier who is scared to go back to battle after being injured, and also liked him in ‘Marjorie Morningstar’ as a womanising dance teacher – the hard element to swallow in that film is that his dancing is supposed to be second-rate! I also think Bing Crosby could be a fine actor in the right film, such as ‘The Country Girl’.

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    • A few Kelly films I’m not familiar with there, Judy – more to look out for.
      Crosby didn’t have so many straight dramatic roles but The Country Girl showed what he could do given the opportunity.

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  10. Good choice to cover, Colin! This is the most entertaining of the three Sinatra detective films, to be sure. Sinatra, with his casual delivery and brusque demeanor, seems ideally suited to these kinds of roles. You just gotta love the 60s – that final camera zoom-in on Jill St. John’s bikini-clad derriere, matched to the title song lyrics, “Tony Rome’ll get ya if you don’t watch out!” – priceless. LADY IN CEMENT is pretty good, too, Raquel Welch perhaps a shade more interesting and ambiguous as the leading lady there. I haven’t seen THE DETECTIVE in a long time, but remember it fondly. I believe I heard a rumor somewhere online that all three of these are heading to Blu-Ray in the near future…have to see if I can track that info down to confirm it.

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    • Thanks, Jeff. Yes, that final shot of the movie always leaves me with a big grin on my face too.
      The trio of films are all pretty good, you seem to have a better opinion of Lady in Cement but I felt it was disappointing overall; still it’s been some time since I last saw it and maybe I need to look at it again.
      And I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see these come out on Blu-ray.

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      • Oh, don’t get me wrong, Colin – it is indeed the weaker film of the three, no argument from me there…but it does have its good points. I do remember being a bit surprised when Tony finds the topless “Lady in Cement” when I watched the DVD for the first time…never saw those shots on U.S. TV!

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        • I imagine the TV versions would have cut some of the more permissive elements, although I can’t recall specific incidents off the top of my head now. That kind of stuff is what most noticeably differentiates the films from the 40s and 50s detective movies they otherwise resemble.

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  11. Among singer/actors, how about Sinatra’s pal Dean Martin? He gave one of the great performances in all cinema in RIO BRAVO and pretty close to that in SOME CAME RUNNING (in which Sinatra too was excellent).

    I agree with what’s been said by you and everyone else on this subject.

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    • Indeed – I just watched Some Came Running again not so long ago and both Sinatra and Dean Martin gave strong, persuasive performances. I think in the case of the latter, his carefully cultivated aura of nonchalance was too successful in a way and leads many to believe he really didn’t take anything seriously.

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  12. I’d agree on Dean Martin being a good actor. I just recently saw him with Kim Novak in Billy Wilder’s ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’, which I really liked – he plays a sort of larger than life version of himself in that, as ‘Dino’, which I’m sure contributed to that view of him as taking nothing seriously.

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    • Yes, the “Dino” persona really took over in a way, and the role in Kiss Me, Stupid certainly plays that aspect up – pure self-parody, which takes quite a bit of skill in itself.
      As Blake noted above, his work on Rio Bravo is truly excellent and proves how good he could be. I must give Dmytryk’s The Young Lions a spin some time soon as I seem to recall he was pretty good in that too.

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      • Totally agree, Colin. This is a case of from the sublime to the ridiculous, but I keep meaning to say in this thread that the woman worried about her ‘pussy’ in this film was 5 years before Mrs Slocombe in Are You Being Served – wonder if there is a connection? Not that I’m a fan of that series, I hasten to add.

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  13. I love this movie. Sometimes I wonder why, but I do.

    I (Toby Roan) am very, very often called Tony Rome. I don’t bother correcting people anymore.

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    • Well there is much to enjoy in it, and not much to complain about so I quite understand your feelings for it.

      Love that about the name mix-up too – I don’t think I’d bother correcting it either.

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  14. I must admit to not being a fan of this film. I just found it hard to take Frankie as any sort of a hard case. So I will say no more and thank you for the review. (Not trying to be an arse, it just did not work for me)

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