TONY ROME & LADY IN CEMENT: Sinatra’s Ring-a-Ding Detective

By the time the credits of Tony Rome are done rolling we’ve seen Frank Sinatra’s eponymous P.I. character drink a can of Budweiser on a boat, blatantly ogle a bikini babe, and gamble in a boxing gym. If that sounds like it’s a whole lot of mid-century masculinity packed into just a little screen time, then brother you’re getting the gist of the Tony Rome movies.

During the mid-sixties America saw a resurgence of the detective flick. The 1940s had film noir and its gloomy, doomed men like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade (both portrayed at times by Sinatra idol Humphrey Bogart). The P.I. went away for a while, but then came back swinging in a post-Bond world with a campier, zestier take on the genre. One of the inciting incidents for this movement was Paul Newman starring in Harper while at the height of his “powers,” making sleuthing look sexy again. This kicked off a slew of other actors wanting to take their turns trying on a suit and playing private dick, and one of those actors just happened to be a singer – the singer in fact – one Mr. Francis Albert Sinatra.

To make things clear from the start: Tony Rome and its sequel Lady in Cement are not singing Sinatra pictures. No, they’re the other type of movie that Frank Sinatra likes to make: a Sinatra being Sinatra picture. Tony Rome is, from start to finish, a chance for Frank Sinatra to play the Frank Sinatra that he likes to see himself as: tough but tired of it. Masculine but sensitive about it. Constantly ogling women, but pushing away all the dames that throw themselves at him (well ok, not all the dames – he’s only human, after all). Sinatra/Rome is witty, charming, and playful, but with an edge that never lets you forget who’s in charge. It’s Frank’s picture, it’s always his picture, and everybody else is just stage lighting there to help him shine.

So it’s a good damn thing he knows how to handle the spotlight.

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Sinatra takes the Tony Rome character of the books and bends it against the force of his own character, distorting it to fit his own hep image. Not that there are a lot of Tony Rome purists out there complaining at this point – the novels were pulpy fare to start with and have receded in the popular imagination to a strata somewhere above Shell Scott but below Nero Wolfe. The movies represent a considerably more whimsical take on the character from the books, whose Tony Rome is a tortured, sullen loner driven to solitude through guilt over his dark past. Sinatra – no stranger to depression himself in real life – imbues the character with some of the isolated sadness of the book, but he also adds a healthy dose of ring-a-ding-ding to the proceedings. Put it like this: both the book and the movie Tonys live on a houseboat, but only the movie version wears that silly captain’s hat while aboard it.

The movie itself is basically a Frank Sinatra cover version of The Big Sleep – a P.I. gets embroiled in the affairs of a wealthy family and finds as he goes deeper and deeper that things aren’t exactly as they seem. Sure, it’s well-worn territory and the stakes are never that high, but who cares? That’s not why anyone is watching this movie.

You watch it to see elevator doors open on Sinatra slouching in a suit and pulled-down fedora.

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You watch it to see Sinatra pull a pack of luck strikes out of his pocket to give a baddie a smoke before the cops take him in.

You watch this movie to see one of the most charismatic people in the history of the world do his thing the way he does it.

This is especially true for today’s audiences that are just trying to catch a whiff of that swingin’ sixties mystique; just trying to understand why everybody talks about this guy with the reverence that they do. Here’s how cool Frank Sinatra is in Tony Rome (and the arguably cooler Lady in Cement): He’s so cool, he makes Florida look cool by extension.

Granted your slick Miami Vice-style Florida has appeal to some people; but Tony Roma and Lady in Cement are live-action postcards from the post-war boom Florida that was just starting to draw tourists in airstream campers to its golden shores and rodent-themed amusement parks. There is one shot of Miami taken from high in the Fountain Bleau Hotel that shows a panorama of the bustling, growing hive of Miami beach behind a negligee-clad Jill St. John that is more than worth the price of the Blu-Ray.

Speaking of St. John, she’s one of the extensive line of Rome girls (i.e. 2, with the immortal Raquel Welch) that seem a little too consciously modeled off of the Bond girls. Both ladies comport themselves with class and wry dignity as much as they can in the face of the over-the-top chauvinism of director Gordon Douglas’ camera.

The Tony Rome movies don’t just casually objectify women, they make a lifestyle of it.

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The butt shots aren’t just gratuitous, they make the viewer complicit in their sexism. In most films you watch the ogler as they ogle, but here Tony and the camera share the same consumptive gaze. Both films end with a goofball trombone blatt and a hard zoom in on a lady’s bent over behind; a crude wink that assumes the audience is as into it as character (and director) are.

In some defense of the lothario, yes, Tony Rome is constantly ogling every woman that passes, but to his credit he always turns down any sex that’s offered to him for the wrong reasons. He never judges a woman that’s getting hers (even as other characters in the film do) and he prefers self-aware women of the world to ingénues that throw themselves at his feet.

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The irony of that, of course, is that at this time the 51-year-old Sinatra was married to the 22-year-old Mia Farrow – a Los Angeles rich girl that had more in common with Sue Lyon’s doe-eyed innocent than Ann Archer, St. John’s canny divorcee character.

Both St. John and Welch give performances that go beyond the bathing suit modeling that their roles could have been reduced too and imbue their characters with wit and grace. Welch in particular creates a character that can actually go toe to toe with Tony Rome. Her Kit Forrest can gamble, drink, and get tangled up in trouble every bit as adeptly as Tony can.

Rounding out the cast is a series of reliable character actors like Richard Conte who plays Tony’s police frienemy Lt. Dave Santini in both films. There’s Gena Rowlands, who has a brief, lurid appearance in the middle of Tony Rome, and Lainie Kazan who’s memorable as a mirror-clad go-go dancer in Lady. Former middleweight champ Rocky Graziano makes an endearingly undignified appearance, and the theme song to the films is sung by none other than Nancy Sinatra (some relation).

The most likeable side character in either film is the hulking Waldo Gronsky from Lady, portrayed by the great Dan Blocker (better known as Hoss from Bonanza). Gronsky may be a good guy or he may be a bad guy, but he and Frank certainly have a repartee with each other, and Blocker knows how to make the most out of his impressive frame and expressive face.

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Lady in Cement is probably the more fun of the two films, not just because of Blocker (though he helps), but also because it more eagerly embraces its time period, genre, and camp value. Tony Roma can be more ponderous and self serious; it’s not as in step with the times and is trying harder to hang on to 1950’s-style yacht-club cool while also attempting to indulge in its neo-noir themes. Lady in Cement understands the type of film that it wants to be a little more and packs in more gags, more girls, and a smoother blend of Chairman-of-the-Board chuffa.

The movies are not PC and Sinatra can at times come across as smug, cruel, and self-indulgent, so it’s not all one easy-to-love romp. But even still: it’s Frank, and good or bad he’s always interesting to watch. No one knows why exactly (and I certainly couldn’t hope to explain it here), but it’s hard to deny its reality, either objectively or subjectively. Both films are fascinating artifacts that stand up well to repeat watches but also work wonderfully as background noise for the right kind of cocktail party.

Tony Rome didn’t have the broad appeal of James Bond or the dark impact of Philip Marlowe; he didn’t do fluffy as well as Deano’s Matt Helm and he wasn’t quite as mod as, well, the Mod Squad. On the other hand, none of them had what the Tony Rome movies had either, which is of course:

Frank F-ing Sinatra.

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