The late 1960s were a turbulent time of new cultures, changing norms, and shifting values, and one place that was immediately obvious was in Hollywood. With the downfall of the studio system, the impending doom of the Code, and the radical growth of political cinema around the world, the American movie industry was working hard to alter its course and deliver films that would satisfy a hungry audience of increasingly younger viewers looking for something new. So it’s fitting that even the detective movie, a standard genre since nearly the inception of film, had been turned on its head a bit at this time—in 1967, we saw crime films increasingly turn away from the infallible hardboiled super genius, moving instead to neo-noir and counterculture films like In the Heat of the Night, In Cold Blood, and Tony Rome.
Tony Rome, directed by Gordon Douglas, stars Frank Sinatra as the eponymous detective. The film is set in Miami Beach—or “20 miles of sand in search of a city,” as Tony describes it. A former cop turned private detective now living on a houseboat, he’s called in to help an old friend from the force who’s working private security at a Miami Beach hotel. The beautiful daughter of a wealthy local construction magnate has passed out in one of their rooms, surrounded by expensive vodka, and, seeking to avoid the negative publicity of an official investigation, they ask Tony to bring her home, keeping the hotel’s name out of the press. He accepts the job as a favor to his former partner—as long as they double the rate, of course.
The girl is Diana Pines (Sue Lyon), and the dysfunctional family Tony finds at her palatial estate includes father Rudolph Kosterman (Simon Oakland) and stepmother Rita (Gena Rowlands). All three of them end up hiring Tony to their own ends, although, to Tony’s credit, he won’t accept a job that directly conflicts with one he’s already accepted. Tony’s moral compass is firm, even if his idea of “immoral” may be relatively narrow—he does offer information between the various players without much hesitation, upon payment.
As a detective, Tony Rome is pretty much exactly what you’d expect given that he’s played by Frank Sinatra: we rarely see him without a drink or a dame in his grip; he’s wry and self-deprecating, but always with an element of bravado in his swagger. He moves seamlessly between respectable types and the criminal underworld, and he spends an almost equal amount of time trading flirty bon mots with pretty women as he does actually working on the case. Of course, it just so happens that many of his clues fortuitously lead him into the arms of said pretty women, so he can’t really help it, and at least he’s able to save some time by doubling up. In at least a few scenes, this can be a bit confusing—there are several points in the story where I have to remind myself which busty redhead he’s talking to.
And though it can be hard to keep them straight sometimes, I do love the women of Tony Rome, perhaps most of all. Jill St. John, who plays Ann Archer, has one of my favorite character introductions of all time: still decked immaculately in an evening gown and jewels the morning after a party, she passes Diana on the staircase (we later discover Ann has been sleeping with Diana’s new husband). “Slut!” Diana hisses at her. Without missing a beat, Ann turns to Tony, parlaying the potential embarrassment into a flirtation by purring: “Well, now that I’ve been introduced, who are you?” On the whole, the women of Tony Rome are just as clever as he is, often more aggressive, and able to take control of their own situations, while also acknowledging the limitations of their standing—another describes a fellow as having “bought a few drinks I paid for.”
The Miami setting makes perfect sense for the ultimate American view of the Swinging Sixties, but the location also positions Tony as something of an outsider by the way he dresses and carries himself. Even in the midst of bikini beauties—and the Florida heat—when Tony’s on the job, he wears a full suit, black tie, and, of course, his trademark fedora. Off the clock, he’s more casual in polos, khakis, and a sailor’s cap, but his work uniform signifies his membership as part of the old guard. This is likely an influence of Sinatra as well, as he reportedly favored the fedora to mask a receding hairline, and after years of natty dressing, he and his tailors certainly knew what worked for him in the clothing department. But it sets Tony apart from the other younger characters in a big way, as it’s impossible not to notice that he’s often the only person in a room wearing a hat, or in some cases, an actual shirt and pants. It strengthens his balance of the power dynamic visually, but style-wise, it also feels like he’s grasping to hold onto that power in the face of a new generation of hatless youngin’s. That tension between the older and younger generations isn’t explicitly highlighted throughout the film, but I think it’s an important element to observe nonetheless.
Visually, the film is a great example of trends in late ’60s photography, with cinematographer Joseph Biroc making good use of Miami’s vibrant colors and sun, as well as its dark, seedy underbelly. Jarring camera techniques that call attention to the filmmaking—fast zooms, match cuts between (I swear I’m being totally serious here) two different butts, and the like—add to the hip, irreverent style of the film. Tony Rome is not Sam Spade, and Tony Rome is not Maltese Falcon—and 25 years later, they really shouldn’t be anyway.
The plot of the movie does get a little murky, but it’s consistently entertaining through its style and interactions between the characters. Douglas and Sinatra followed up Tony Rome with The Detective and A Lady in Cement, the latter of which is a sequel to Tony Rome. They’d previously collaborated on Young at Heart and Robin and the 7 Hoods.
“Action so fast it’s a wonder Tony Rome stays alive… and single!”