Tony Rome/Lady in Cement (Blu-ray Review)26 Sep, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Tony Rome Not rated
Lady in Cement rated ‘R’
Stars Frank Sinatra, Jill St. John, Raquel Welch, Richard Conte.
There’s at least one live recording in the 1960s in which Frank Sinatra kiddingly chides one of his orchestral-backup colleagues for having “a beat like a cop” — and then there’s that aside in From Here to Eternity where, playing Angelo Maggio, he tosses something out a saloon window and expresses hopes that there’s a cop under it. And yet: Spot-check Sinatra’s later movie-TV acting credits, and you’ll find Tony Rome, Lady in Cement, The Detective, Contract on Cherry Street, The First Deadly Sin plus his final screen acting assignment on a “Magnum, P.I.” episode. In all of these, he was either a private eye or a member of (or retiree from) the force — and don’t forget that he was the original casting choice to play Dirty Harry before his hand injury forced a bow-out that changed movie history.
Obviously, Sinatra felt comfortable on screen carrying a badge or at least self-employing himself on the crime beat. And 1967’s Tony Rome did well enough at the box office (and even with film critics) that 20th Century-Fox got its Cement sequel on the screen almost exactly a year later — with both the star and director Gordon Douglas shoehorning The Detective (a movie that’s far less of a lark) in between them. Tony is halfway-good grindhouse/drive-in fodder that remains guiltily entertaining, while Cement is a conspicuously ragged toss-off that arguably plays a little breezier than it did at the time — even if both are necessarily relegated to artifact-of-an-age status due to their Trump-ian attitudes toward women and also their gratuitous gay slurs. (Unusually for the major studio day, The Detective is in some ways sympathetic to gays, even as it treats them in grotesque fashion.)
Living on his boat and also apparently check-to-check, Sinatra plays a Miami private eye and former cop whose name reads “Anthony Rome” on his office door, an amusement I’d forgotten until my recent gander at this inspired twofer release whose impressive transfers make Fox DeLuxe Color look a lot more robust and rich than it often did. In Tony, Our Mr. Rome gets called in for a favor when the mixed-up blonde daughter (Sue Lyon) of a self-made wealthy father is found passed-out in a seedy motel. This gets him involved, Big Sleep style, with the rest of the family, which includes a stepmom (Gena Rowlands) who oddly resembles the real-life Barbara Sinatra (Frank’s fourth and final real-life spouse) and an affable, much-wed ditz (Jill St. John) who even by Miami standards is something of a party girl. Corpses then pile up, ‘C’-list nightclub dancers get beaten up and Rome’s friendship with a longtime cop buddy (Richard Conte) gets tested. Meanwhile, Sinatra even got Ella Fitzgerald to sing the jaunty title tune on the best of his CBS-TV specials from the ’60s.
It’s a template that basically holds in Cement, a Raquel Welch showcase (though her screen time isn’t all that expansive) that begins with Rome’s discovery of a dead blonde in and under the Atlantic while he’s dodging a school of sharks. Well, actually, it’s a stunt double who’s mixing it up with these toothy dudes because if Sinatra balked at doing more than one take in the Gordon Douglas stage of his career, he surely didn’t have it in his contract that he’s have to take on Jacques Cousteau roles. The blonde, by the way, actually is in cement (as in cement shoes).
Sinatra is so natural even in ’60s potboilers (and so taken for granted in terms of this, still) that you have to wonder how good he’d have been here with a second take. Even so, he’s the actor you keep watching despite the bikini garbs of his respective love interests — and in the entertaining, factoid-filled Tony commentary, historians Eddy Friedfeld, Anthony Latino, Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo note that even in the beach scene with St. John (which became the source of the advertising art), Sinatra in a suit looks more comfortable in the milieu than anyone else in the frame, even though the others have the supposed advantage of being in bathing suits. I wouldn’t have thought of this point by myself, but it’s really true — and though I didn’t quite get it straight whether all or just some of the commentators are Jersey Boys, the voiceover here conveys the “spirit” of Jersey, even though some of the participants are also well versed geographically in the Miami that (as here) no longer exists. If you put this commentary together with the one that Jerry Lewis and Steve Lawrence do on the DVD of The Bellboy, you can get a real sense of time’s passage on the lower coast.
These being “pure” Sinatra vehicles, some of his real-life pals show up in small roles: Shecky Greene, Mike Romanoff, Rocky Graziano and the like (they probably didn’t do more than one take, either). In Cement, Dan Blocker is cast as a dim but intimidating giant of a man who’s something like the behemoth that Mike Mazurki plays opposite Dick Powell in Murder, My Sweet; there’s even an in-joke here about “Bonanza” (in another scene, Fess Parker’s “Daniel Boone” gets its place in the Miami sun as well). Standing next to Sinatra, Blocker looks like a Sequoia towering over a shrub — but also perhaps a heart attack waiting to happen. Four years later, he was dead of a pulmonary embolism at 43 just after he’d been signed by longtime buddy Robert Altman to play what became the Sterling Hayden role in The Long Goodbye, a classic with far more critical currency than the Tony Rome pics ever dreamed of, though it didn’t sell much nearly as many Milk Duds. Both Tony and Cement end with basically the same salacious shot, guaranteeing that this inspired twofer (from a marketing POV) won’t be shown at NOW mixers. Or maybe it will.