The private detective film made a comeback in the mid to late 60’s thanks to the Paul Newman starring 1966 film Harper. (There were shades of Bogart and a good story line thanks to the source novel The Moving Target by Ross MacDonald). Other films soon followed (P.J., Marlowe) in its successful path including Tony Rome released the following year.
By 1967, Frank Sinatra’s film career was once again on a slide downward, unlike Newman’s who pretty much ruled the screen in the 1960’s. The original Jersey Boy made three mediocre films in a row (Marriage on the Rocks, Assault on a Queen and The Naked Runner). They were films he walked through and he looked as bored as the films were themselves. With Tony Rome, Sinatra, the actor, found his way back with the kind of smart ass, wise guy loner the public always kind of felt the singer/actor was in real life. Sinatra does look a bit too old for the role, he was 51 and looked even older. Just compare a photo of 51 year old Brad Pitt next to Frank, the difference is obvious. However, that hard, tired face and look surely adds to the aura.
So how good, or bad, is Tony Rome? Well, it’s actually neither. It’s somewhere in that hazy middle ground of shades of gray. The film is based on a novel called Miami Mayhem by Marvin H. Albert writing under the name Anthony Rome. Albert was a prolific writer of crime and western novels. He also paid his bills by writing novelizations, adapting film scripts into paperback novels such as What’s New Pussycat?, The Pink Panther and Goodbye Charlie among others. Albert’s Tony Rome novels, there were three, were tough tales with Rome a hard loving and hard living anti-hero. Sinatra does well, but if you read the books you can see the glossy shine in the movie. One of the film’s most obvious failures is the wardrobe choices Sinatra’s Rome wears. He looks like he came out of a 1950’s film complete with fedora and “ring-a-ding” repartee he is given to pontificate. What was rat pack hip in the late 1950’s and early 60’s was completely old fashion in the psychedelic world of Purple Haze, Surrealistic Pillows and Sgt. Pepper in the late 60’s. Even worst is the wardrobe he wears when he is on the houseboat where he lives. The Captain’s hat and white slacks are cheesy God awful. Albert’s tough guy Rome would not be caught dead wearing such cutie boy attire. It makes him look like a young kid all dressed up by his mommy in a little sailor outfit.
That said, Sinatra handles himself well. He is convincing as the street wise loner. The plot is a bit convoluted, but then what P.I. film isn’t? Rome is asked by his ex-partner to help get a rich, drunk teen out of a Miami hotel without being seen and keeping the hotel’s name out of it. The girl is Diana Pines (Sue Lyons) daughter of rich developer Rudy Kosterman (Simon Oakland). Sounds like an easy job and a quick two hundred bucks for Rome. But it’s never that easy. Dead bodies begin to show up including Rome’s ex-partner’s which brings the police in and on Rome’s tail. Lastly, there are the dames including one bikini clad Jill St. John.
The film is lightweight. There’s no deep probing into the meaning of life or Rome questioning of his own sense of morality. Nor are there the rain soaked darky lit streets many norish shamus roam. The film’s setting here is Miami and it’s all sunshine and heat.
Sinatra is good with the wisecracks; they come quickly, and often. Studio director Gordon Douglas, who directed Frank previously in Robin and the Seven Hoods, and would direct him in two more films (The Detective and Lady in Cement), does a solid if unexceptional job. As a director, Douglas lacked a visual style but he keeps the film moving at a nice pace with plenty of tightly edited shots.
With actors like Richard Conte (Conte appeared with Sinatra in four films beginning in 1960 with Ocean’s 11, followed by Assault on a Queen, Tony Rome and Lady in Cement), one time girl friend Jill St. John, former middleweight/welterweight champion boxer Rocky Graziano, and most obviously daughter Nancy Sinatra singing the title song, the film is a bit of a family affair. Also in the cast is the always superb Gena Rowlands and the previously mentioned Sue Lyons.
Though the critics’ reviews were mixed at the time the film was released, Tony Rome was a large enough success for Twentieth Century Fox to produce a sequel with Sinatra recreating his role in the 1968 film Lady in Cement. The detective genre fit Frank’s persona so well he made four more films where he portrayed a P.I. or a cop. In addition to Lady in Cement there was The Detective, The First Deadly Sin and the TV movie, Contract on Cherry Street. Additionally, he appeared as a guest star on the TV series Magnum where he played a retired police sergeant.
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