In every era of film history, the acting profession, the home for dedicated thespians who prefer the camera to the proscenium, has served equally as a home for musicians. Some simply sought to cash in on or extend their notoriety while others had a genuine love of the craft. Reigning as the all-time great musician-turned-actor, Frank Sinatra was much more than just a crooner who occasionally looked to pick up a few extra bucks taking cheap acting jobs in shoddy productions. Turning in a number of stellar performances in a variety of iconic films from classical and post-classical Hollywood cinema, Sinatra’s work as an actor is spotlighted in the 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment release of The Frank Sinatra Film Collection. Included in the collection are ten Sinatra films from the 1950s and 1960s, including well-known classics like The Manchurian Candidate and Von Ryan’s Express as well as lesser-known gems such as A Hole in the Head and the two Tony Rome films.
The Pride and the Passion: The first film in the collection is the 1957 Stanley Kramer production The Pride and the Passion. An epic tale chronicling the rebellion against Napoleon’s conquest of Spain, the film is ultimately a failure despite its considerable star power. Suffering from poor casting rather than poor acting, co-stars Sinatra and Cary Grant offer really strong performances. It’s just too much of a stretch to buy Sinatra as a Spaniard and Grant as a buttoned-up British soldier. Had Kramer directed Sinatra and Grant in any other vehicle, the result surely would have been an unforgettable landmark in film history, but with this story, it is just a sad case of wasted talent. Still, it is worth watching for those interested in seeing Sinatra and Grant fight over Sophia Loren.
Kings Go Forth: Next is an offering from the always overlooked Delmer Daves, director of such great films as Destination Tokyo, Dark Passage, and the original 3:10 to Yuma. Sinatra fights in World War II alongside Tony Curtis, but the real story is their joint pursuit of the enchanting Natalie Wood. The battle scenes are great, but the emphasis on the stale romantic angle really drags the film down, and it doesn’t help any that there was absolutely no chemistry between Sinatra and Wood. The scenes between Sinatra and Curtis, especially those following their bonding after their first battle, are what save the film. Despite being an adaptation of a novel and not a play, the film feels very “stagey” with a lot of unimaginative interior scenes. Thanks to Sinatra’s magnificent understated performance, however, featuring deliberate, low-cadence deliveries and expressive non-verbal acting, the dull scenes of dialogue are elevated considerably in terms of their ability to captivate, making this a must-see for Sinatra fans.
A Hole in the Head: A welcome addition to the collection is this charming effort from Frank Capra. Sinatra plays a Florida hotel owner whose big dreams are equaled only by his big debts. In trouble financially, Sinatra is incapable of being beaten down by life thanks to the presence of his adoring son, the scenes between father-and-son indisputably representing the strongest parts of the film. Assistance is lent Sinatra by the legendary Edward G. Robinson, who plays his brother, and the always hilarious Thelma Ritter, who plays his sister-in-law and who also doubles as a referee for the fights between the brothers. Funny and charming film that is illustrative of the wonderful sentimentality of Frank Capra.
Can-Can: The only dud in the bunch is this musical co-starring Shirley MacLaine. By no means a Sinatra vehicle, this one is at least mildly enjoyable thanks to the surprisingly crisp quality of the visuals and the fun and lively musical numbers.
The Manchurian Candidate: The second volume of this collection features probably the biggest film of Sinatra’s career, the great Cold War classic The Manchurian Candidate. Although there is presently a splendid Blu-ray release of this film, those who have a skimpy Sinatra collection would do well to kill two birds with one stone and pick up this collection and welcome this landmark film into their personal library. John Frankenheimer expertly directs this chilling political thriller that casts Sinatra as a veteran of the Korean War who, along with the other members of his platoon, was captured and experimented on by the Soviets in their quest to perfect mind control. Sinatra is fantastic in this film, as are his co-stars Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury.
Von Ryan’s Express: Following the enormous success of films such as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Spartacus, and The Great Escape, Von Ryan’s Express borrows from the playbooks of all of these films to tell the story of a group of British POWs (and the lone American soldier Sinatra) who escape an Italian POW camp and then take command of a German transport with the goal of making their way into Switzerland. The entire narrative is recycled material, but the action scenes are brilliantly executed by Mark Robson and Sinatra was afforded a great acting opponent in Trevor Howard.
Cast a Giant Shadow: The strangest choice for inclusion in this collection, this film features only a small cameo by Sinatra. Starring Kirk Douglas as a conflicted Jewish-American Army colonel (inspired by real-life Colonel David “Mickey” Marcus) who decides to command units of Israeli troops in their War of Independence, this is a film likely to surprise those viewers who may have been unaware of it and equally likely to be treasured by those fortunate enough to have been longtime fans of this hidden gem. In addition to the outstanding lead performance by Douglas, there are strong performances offered by Yul Brynner, Sinatra in his cameo, and John Wayne, who steals the show and turns in a performance that is, in my opinion, the greatest acting display in his long and storied career.
Tony Rome: For me personally, these last three films are reason enough to buy this collection. In collaboration with director Gordon Douglas, Sinatra positioned himself as the quintessential ‘60s noir hero in three consecutive detective films, beginning with the 1967 film Tony Rome. For too long, film noir has been thought of as a distinctly classical phenomenon that lived and died in the 1940s and 1950s, but in reality, noir never stopped evolving from its “official” birth in 1940s Hollywood through its post-classical metamorphosis in the film and television products of the 1960s all the way up to the contemporary neo-noir offerings such as Collateral and Sin City. Sinatra’s two films featuring Miami private eye Tony Rome are two important checkpoints on the evolutionary path of noir, marking the point at which noir stepped out into the light of day, escaping from the dimly lit back alleys of skid row and emerging in the sun-bathed environs of glamorous big-budget productions. Tony Rome sees the wry but ethical detective take the case of a young woman (played by Sue Lyon of Lolita fame) whose family has so many skeletons in their closet that they are starting to spill out into the streets. The ‘60s vibe is great, the music from Billy May (great television composer of the era, responsible for the distinctive sound of Naked City and The Green Hornet) is intoxicating, and the performances from everyone in the cast are stellar, especially those from Lloyd Gough (who, like Billy May, was a Green Hornet alum) as a murderous heavy and Jill St. John as an unforgettable femme fatale. The crown jewel of the collection.
Lady in Cement: Another outing for Tony Rome, who this time is saddled with a Marlowesque challenge after he is retained by the immortal Dan Blocker, who plays a roid raging Moose Malloy type. The script doesn’t crackle as much as Tony Rome and the story isn’t as enthralling, but the atmosphere is irresistible, as is Raquel Welch, Sinatra’s playmate for this installment.
The Detective: Last but not least, The Detective is a provocative police procedural that shines a bright light on issues such as homosexuality, sexual violence, and police misconduct, controversial issues even by contemporary standards. Sinatra and Douglas offer none of the glamour of the Tony Rome series; an oppressively dour mood permeates this film, which sees Sinatra playing a detective troubled by a disintegrating relationship with his wife (played by the great Lee Remick) and questionable decision making in the arrest of a suspected murderer. Anyone familiar with the many Law & Order spinoffs and imitators will be accustomed to the brand of police procedural on display in the early portions, but a proper historical contextualization that grants this film its deserving status as a pathbreaker alongside such envelope-pushing ‘60s cop dramas as In the Heat of the Night and Bullitt allows the viewer to better appreciate its frankness in its depiction of the murder and mutilation of a gay man by a repressed and self-loathing fellow homosexual and its admirable depiction of a Hitchcockian “transference of guilt” shouldered by the sullen Sinatra.
All in all, The Frank Sinatra Film Collection is a really wonderful and diverse collection of interesting and entertaining films, providing a great look at one of the most famous yet underappreciated actors of all-time.