Swinging Noir: Frank Sinatra as ‘Tony Rome’ (1967)

­­❉ In an attempt to revive his film career, Frank Sinatra helped kick-start the late ’60s film noir revival.

“In the wake of The Beatles, pretty much all of culture changed and many had to adapt. Sinatra was not considered cool anymore and his film career faltered. Around this time, the film noir genre was making a minor resurgence, and Sinatra was one of the first to get on board with this.”

Cop-turned-private detective Tony Rome (Frank Sinatra) lives on a powerboat in Miami. In a captain’s hat and a yellow turtle-neck, he is enjoying the sunshine when he gets a call from Ralph Turpin. The pair were partners in the police but now hate each other. Now a “hotel dick”, Turpin has discovered a young, drunk woman lying unconscious in one of the rooms. He and the manager want her out before the police start bothering them and are ready to pay Rome for the service. Diana Pines, it turns out, is not just anyone but the daughter of millionaire construction magnate Rudy Kosterman and her father is grateful when Rome brings her home. She has been acting strangely lately and he wants Rome to find out why. Meanwhile, Diana discovers her diamond pin has gone missing, believes it must have been stolen while she was drunk and wants it back. Now hired by the whole family, Rome investigates and soon finds the first of several dead bodies…

One of the interesting things about the 1960s is seeing how the more established stars handled it. Pretty much all of culture changed and many had to adapt. In the wake of The Beatles, Sinatra was not considered cool anymore and his film career faltered. He had always been the most credible of singers-actors, but Marriage on the Rocks (1965) and Assault on a Queen (1966) both failed at the box office while The Naked Runner (1967) received poor notices. In response, Sinatra turned to the kind of part which would fill out his remaining filmography.

Around this time, the film noir genre was making a minor resurgence, with Bulitt, Harper, P.J., Madigan and Marlowe. These films tried to recapture the grim and darkly glamourous world of The Big Sleep (1946) and Out of the Past (1947), which themselves were trying to evoke the hardboiled setting of the novels they were often adapting. Sinatra was one of the first to get on board with this.

Based on Miami Mayhem, a now-forgotten paperback original by writer Marvin H. Albert, Tony Rome cast him as a private detective in the wise-cracking Phillip Marlowe mould, a jaded yet honourable man in a disputable business. It’s not surprising that he fits the part. Many of Sinatra’s best songs – One for My Baby, In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning – conjure the kind of bars in which you would expect to find Sam Spade and Mike Hammer, while his trademark trilby made him look like them.

The film itself is colourful, both aesthetically and otherwise. The Florida setting gives it a look which is quite at odds with the shadows and neon found elsewhere in the genre (though both the Travis McGee and Mike Shayne books were based around detectives in the Sunshine State). The deliberate way in which director Gordon Douglas focuses on young, bikini-clad women make it seem as though the Bond films were an equal inspiration. Nancy Sinatra – who sang the theme to You Only Live Twice the same year – performs the obligatory cheesy theme here while Diamonds Are Forever’s Jill St. John is Ann Archer, a three-time-divorcee whose main problem is being bored between parties.

Original UK quad poster for ‘Tony Rome’ (1967)

Indeed, there is a seediness which is never less than overt as Rome meets junkies, prostitutes, strippers, blackmailers, gangsters and, of course, a murderer. It is balanced, however, with the usual sardonic humour which, in fairness, is genuinely amusing. There are many great lines here (“You’re not a family, you’re a bunch of people who live at the same address!). The juxtaposition between the grim underworld and the sunny scenes of cheery impudence can be a little jarring, however, most notably in a running gag involving a honeymooning couple.

The plot is convoluted in the way that is expected from all private eye movies. Like most, it begins with a routine job that quickly gets more complex – something of which even Rome is aware. He is independently hired by each of the Kostermans and finds enough skeletons to fill a cemetery. Inbetween times, he gets into the usual fights and chases, though they are more frequent in the first hour than the second, which drags noticeably. The film could certainly have been cut by as much as half an hour, such is the languid pace and extraneous shots of the scenery, which doesn’t always involve the weather. As is the way with these things, the script has more names than a phone book and it is not always easy to match them. The motive, however, is an excellent one and clears up a story that, by the end, gets muddier by the moment.

An entertaining time-waster, Tony Rome makes up for its inconsistent tone and puzzling plot with Sinatra’s familiar, nonchalant charm and an unapologetic persistence in reminding you of the year it was made. A moderate hit at the box office, a sequel (Sinatra’s only) followed two years later.

 David Friend is 28 and lives in North Wales, where he divides his time between watching old detective films and thinking about old detective films. He has published Sherlock Holmes stories and is at work on a 1930s-set series following The Strange Investigators, an eccentric team who solve peculiar crimes.


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