Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Tony Rome (1967)

Tony Rome was the first of two movies starring Frank Sinatra as Miama private eye Tony Rome. (the second being Lady in Cement). It’s a stock-standard PI movie but on the whole it’s well executed and it works.

Tony Rome gets mixed up in what seems to be a very trivial case. The house detective of a sleazy hotel asks his old buddy to deliver a young woman back to her family. The woman is Diana Pines (Sue Lyon) and her father is millionaire construction tycoon Rudy Kosterman (Simon Oakland). Diana had passed out dead drunk in her hotel room. The hotel doesn’t want any trouble from the cops since they have enough of that already. It seems like a very easy way to pick up a couple of hundred bucks so Tony agrees.

The next day Diana turns up on Tony’s boat (he won it in a poker game and he lives on board) informing him that she lost an expensive diamond pin the night before and could he please get it back for her? This seems like another easy straightforward job but it soon becomes apparent that there are all kinds of dramas going on in Rudy Kosterman’s family. These dramas involve blackmail and eventually include murder as well.

The basic plot could have been lifted from any 1940s private eye movie. Tony Rome tries to adapt the classic private eye movie to the 1960s. It does this by including a great deal of sleaze and squalor. Of course by wallowing in the gutter like this the movie was simply reflecting what was going on in a society that was increasingly wallowing in the gutter. This is a world of shallow selfish self-destructive egoists, hookers, lesbians, hoodlums, dope peddlers and junkies. It’s an unpleasant world which makes for a somewhat unpleasant movie although Hollywood had not yet descended to the bottom of the cesspit. That would come within a few short years with ghastly orgies of self-indulgent misery like Midnight Cowboy, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon.

The plot itself is reminiscent of the insanely convoluted twisting and turning plots of 40s movies like The Big Sleep

Tony Rome himself is basically a decent guy, which makes him something of an anomaly in this world. When he tries to explain the concept of ethics that prevents him from working for two clients whose interests may be in conflict his explanation is received by Diana with a stare of blank incomprehension. Tony is an inveterate gambler and he likes a drink and he’s an old-fashioned tough guy, the kind of tough guy who plays it square and doesn’t beat up women and doesn’t waste time feeling sorry for himself. He’s not exactly a Boy Scout but he stands aloof from the sexual and moral depravity of the 60s. He’s not unlike a 1960s version of Philip Marlowe. Sinatra plays the role with easy-going charm and effortless cool.

Jill St John is one of the best things about this movie. She plays Ann Archer, a girl who is a bit like Tony Rome. She’s no Girl Scout but she does have at least a vague concept of morality.

Rudy Kosterman is a man who is bewildered by the machinations of those round him. He’s a nice guy and he’s trying his best to be a good husband and a good father.

If the movie has an over-arching theme it’s the conflict between the pre-1960s morality of guys like Tony Rome and Rudy Kosterman and the total lack of morality of the 1960s generation. The movie comes down on the side of pre-1960s morality which would have made it seem like a throwback in 1967 although seen today it’s rather refreshing to encounter a movie that has some characters who are motivated by emotions other than selfishness and hedonism.

There’s something of a film noir quality to this movie, despite all the Florida sunshine. In fact that Florida sunshine neatly counterpoints the sleaze and degradation. Gordon Douglas was a good workmanlike director and he handles proceedings with quiet competence.

Fox’s Region 2 DVD release is barebones apart from a trailer but it boasts a good 16x9 enhanced transfer and it’s ludicrously cheap.

Tony Rome is a movie that is both of its time and not of its time, a movie that uneasily tries to confront the problems of a society taking its first baby steps on the road to narcissistic nihilism and self-destruction. It manages to do this without losing sight of its prime objective which is to deliver solid entertainment. It’s one of the better movies in Frank Sinatra’s later career. Recommended.

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