In Tony Rome and its sequel, Lady in Cement, Frank Sinatra tries to wear his boredom with the projects as a fashionably manly testament to his unimpeachable legacy as Chairman of the Board. He doesn’t so much act in director Gordon Douglas’s films as move through them, overseeing them, regarding his co-stars as he might have particularly irritating fans: as necessarily negotiated evils for the sake of living the life of Frank Sinatra. Even by the standards of icons, Sinatra’s ego is stifling in these films, for reasons pertaining both to politics and basic aesthetics.
The political resonance of Sinatra’s sleepwalking is unsubtly reactionary. Tony Rome and Lady in Cement were released in 1967 and 1968, respectively, when the counterculture was gaining brief prominence in pop culture, which is to say that Sinatra’s unconquerable heteronormative white he-man shtick (which had less to do with any particular performance than with a cumulative image) might have been wearing thin. This is about the time when it was growing less acceptable to call women “broads” while slapping them on the ass, expecting only their come-hither gratitude in return. But that’s precisely what Sinatra’s Tony Rome, P.I. for hire, gets away with in both films, as he’s defensively reasserting the old school’s right to do whatever it pleases to whomever it pleases. Besides embarrassing zoom shots of women’s derrieres, there are also unseemly jokes about escalating concerns over police brutality, and at the expense of men who’re coded as gay and those who burn their draft cards out of protest, which predictably show no sympathy for anyone who might have a problem with how the Man operates.
It’s often a self-congratulatory, literal-minded cop-out to apply contemporary social mores to art of another generation, but these films are objectionable less for their political incorrectness than for the tedium that they induce. Sinatra evinces so little empathy for anyone on the screen (including himself) that it’s hard to care what happens to Rome or those in his periphery as the bodies and double-crosses unfurl on cue. One’s often drawn to the frequent Miami seaside landscapes, or, yes, the women, as distractions from the endless barrage of exposition and uneven wisecracks, delivered by Sinatra as if he’s ordering a drink, which Rome also does frequently in these films, and with more emotion than when he’s regarding corpses or contemplating sex with beautiful women. In a better film, this emotional dissonance might have scanned as intentionally ironic, but here it suggests unexamined flippancy.
Tony Rome and Lady in Cement frustratingly play into the notion that Sinatra wasn’t a real actor, which anyone who’s seen The Man with the Golden Arm, Some Came Running, and The Manchurian Candidate, among others, knows to be a falsehood. Sinatra was capable of great and unforgettable performances, but he often seemed ashamed of his acting talent, as if that might compromise his stature in the Man’s Club. Tony Rome is obviously supposed to be Sinatra’s version of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, characters who were most famously played by one of the legend’s own idols, Humphrey Bogart. Sinatra’s failure in Tony Rome and Lady in Cement reaffirm by contrast the delicate poetry of Bogart’s performances—and this is a delicacy that Sinatra could’ve mined if he had been willing to challenge himself.
For all the misanthropy, sexism, and self-absorption abounding in Bogart’s Spade and Marlowe, the actor differentiated the characters from himself, illustrating an artist’s understanding of them, contextualizing behaviors rather than indulging them. Bogart revealed the vulnerability underneath the curdled idealism of his rogues for hire; he gave Spade and Marlowe artistic essences, allowing them to forge actual kinships with other characters. One understands why a young woman would go to bed with Spade or Marlowe nearly immediately after meeting them, because Bogart’s lost, barroom-bound souls are unconventionally yet intensely sexy. (Also important is the fact that the female characters in Bogart’s films actually possess agency.) But in Tony Rome and Lady in Cement, the hero’s popularity with the ladies feels like an obligatorily self-flattering device, as Tony Rome suggests the Republican uncle that no one wants to invite over for Christmas dinner.
There’s a wry elegance in the sexual objectification of The Big Sleep that’s not even attempted in Tony Rome and Lady in Cement, and the artlessly leering tone, combined with Sinatra’s complementing hollow performances, eventually forces the viewer to amuse themselves by attempting to parse the plots, which are impenetrable in the tradition of a certain strand of Raymond Chandler-esque mystery fiction. The explanations for the disappeared women at both films’ respective centers involve the usual manipulative older and richer men, but Rome must first interview a gallery of witnesses that theoretically illustrate the collisions and collusions between the sexual underworld and so-called polite society. Rome reveals rot that he already knew to exist, that we already knew to exist, and it doesn’t take long to wonder why anyone on either side of the movie screen is bothering at all.
Tony Rome and Lady in Cement are now on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.