Thursday, May 22, 2008

Consider Yourself Clued, Baby

This past week, Warner Bros unleashed just about every Frank Sinatra title in their vaults onto DVD. One featuring his films with co-star Gene Kelly (On the Town, Anchors Aweigh, and Take Me Out to the Ball Game), a second collection from the late 40s through the early 50s that contain some career “firsts” (first feature – Higher and Higher, first on-screen kiss – Step Lively) and a couple of missteps (The Kissing Bandit and Double Dynamite) that probably helped nudge him into his early ensuing career slump, a Rat Pack collection (featuring the original, and refreshingly low tech, Ocean’s 11) and a third featuring 5 films that span the period between 1955 and 1965. Frank Sinatra - The Golden Years, is an interesting hodgepodge that reflects the odd turns that The Chairman’s film career took once he was powerful enough to choose his own projects. A glance at Sinatra’s film résumé prior to 1953’s From Here to Eternity shows the typically frantic attempt on the part of studio executives to turn a singing sensation into a viable screen entity. And while there were certainly regrettable choices post-Eternity (due mostly to woeful miscasting as in the relatively obscure Peninsular War epic, The Pride and the Passion) Sinatra finally found his voice – and came to terms with his limitations – as an actor.

The set is framed chronologically by a pair of clunky romantic comedies Marriage on the Rocks (1965) and The Tender Trap (1955), which are recommended only to see Frank struggle with material that desperately needed the light comic touch of someone like Rock Hudson to work. The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) is actually not Sinatra’s forgotten turn as super spy James Bond, but one of those ahead-of-its-time-but-now-dated melodramas about drug addiction. Director Otto Preminger had courted controversy two years earlier with The Moon is Blue, a romantic comedy where the use of words like “virgin” and “mistress” got the film banned in more than a few areas, and pushed the envelope again with Man, the first Hollywood film to deal with drug addiction as its central theme. Sinatra had often cited this as his favorite performance – and it’s certainly near the top. It’s easy to imagine Preminger, at his most bombastic, pounding away at the hipster posturing that Sinatra too often leaned against on film, leaving an emotionally draining performance behind. It’s an interesting, well-intentioned film that suffers from a toned-down ending (Nelson Algren’s source novel ends on a pitch black note) and obvious, studio-bound sets that don’t back up the realism that Sinatra’s performance engenders. Some Came Running (1958) reunited Sinatra with another source novel from James Jones, a combination that had produced From Here to Eternity 5 years previously. This time, however, Jones’ massive novel proved too unwieldy for the screen; his cynical take on small-town, post war America is far more psychologically complex than the very visually-minded Vincente Minnelli could easily tackle, and the result is more Peyton Place than anything else. But it’s a handsome production (its small-town setting belies an enormous budget) and it’s nice to see Sinatra spar with co-star Dean Martin before the Rat Pack ethos took hold.

Our personal favorite from the collection would be None but the Brave (1965), Sinatra’s lone directorial credit. I’m sure there’s an interesting story on how this film came to be, and I wish that I knew it; by ’65, stores of the Pacific theater of World War II had been exploited in dozens of films, but none had attempted to tell the story from the Japanese point of view. Sinatra plays a medical corpsman attached to a company of Marines that crash lands on an isolated island inhabited by an equally small company of Japanese – who are without a working radio and cut off from their main force. After a few skirmishes, there is a limited truce so that Sinatra (who plays a character called only “Francis”) can treat one of their more seriously wounded in exchange for a supply of fresh water. The strained truce continues until a US warship appears to rescue the Marine company, and the commanders of each side must choose between the newly formed bonds of friendship and their military duty.

To our recollection, this was the first American studio film that attempted to tell a story of World War II from the Japanese perspective. The narrative is nearly split evenly between the opposing sides, with the Japanese even allowed the rare honor – at least in Hollywood – to speak their own language on screen (though the narration provided by their commander, Lt, Kuroki, is in English). Unfortunately, Sinatra’s direction is pretty uninspired; many long exposition scenes are presented in a static wide shot that simply keeps the speakers in frame, leaving many sequences looking simply photographed, rather than directed. A bigger problem is the presentation of the Marines. Even the casual viewer will gain an instant appreciation for the way Sam Fuller was able to fashion distinctive personalities among his soldiers in films like The Steel Helmet and Merrill’s Marauders; Sinatra cast pal Brad Dexter as a cigar-chomping sergeant and then son-in-law Tommy Sands as a gung-ho lieutenant to nearly disastrous effect, with each (presumably under Sinatra’s auspices) seeming to out-cliché the other. Sinatra, possibly owing to his expanded role behind the camera, has a much smaller role than some may be expecting. Unfortunately, with only himself to answer to in the director’s chair, he falls into the easy trap of peppering his dialogue and body language with a decidedly post-war hipster attitude that occasionally makes his character seem like a visitor from another planet. Warts and all, it’s much more interesting than many of the other rote actioners of the day, and deserves much credit for setting the stage for later films like John Boorman’s 1968 Hell in the Pacific, a more high-minded allegory dealing with the same conflict.