Which is Frank Sinatra’s best film performance as an actor?

Golden Arm 8I’ve enjoyed watching and writing about some of Frank Sinatra’s films over the last few weeks – and would like to thank everyone who has contributed such great comments. People made a lot of interesting suggestions in response to my question about which were his greatest film songs - and now I’ve got another question to pose. Which is his best film performance as an actor? Here are a few thoughts, linking in to some of the reviews I’ve written here. I have quite a few well-known films still to see, so would especially appreciate thoughts and recommendations on those.

Rod, one commenter who knows a lot about Sinatra’s work, has already suggested that the answer to that question might be the film I’ve just written about, The Man with the Golden Arm.  Sinatra is full of intensity, but never hammy, as junkie Frankie Machine – and heartbreaking as the  character’s desperation for a fix builds. As I said in my review, I feel the film somewhat cops out towards the end, but Sinatra himself gives a fearless performance and fully deserved his Oscar nomination.

So what about the film he actually won a supporting actor Oscar for, and which reinvigorated his whole career after a famously bleak patch – From Here to Eternity? I’ll admit it is quite a while since I saw this (I meant to fit in a viewing over the last few weeks but time ran out) – but, apart from the iconic image of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr lying on the beach, the scenes which stick in my mind the most are those involving Sinatra’s character, Angelo Maggio. I can’t be sure how the performance compares with his others after all this time, but would be interested to hear what others think.

Another film which many would pick as his finest, and which he himself describes in an interview on the DVD as the best in his career, is The Manchurian Candidate. I saw this recently but didn’t write about it because I must admit I found the plot very hard to follow. I’ll need to see it again, but was impressed by the surreal opening sequence and by just how vulnerable Sinatra lets himself be in the scene on the train where he can’t light his cigarette because his hand is shaking. He looks grey and ill, with a patch of sweat breaking out on his upper lip – you want to look away, but can’t.

Yet another acclaimed performance is his role as the soldier coming home to a small town in Some Came Running.  He also makes a compelling nervous gangster in Suddenly (1954), a role which has a lot in common with Bogart’s performance in Wyler’s The Desperate Hours

Then of course there are the films where he combines acting and singing, such as the biopic of comedian Joe Lewis, The Joker Is Wild and the musical Young at Heart, a personal favourite for me. As has often been said, Sinatra really acts when he is singing – he used to study the lyric like a poem and make every word count. Recently I saw a documentary about his career which included a black and white clip of him singing One For My Baby in a TV studio, at a mocked-up bar. I don’t know whether this went out live on air or not, but it was impressive how he acted the scene at the same time as singing the words with passion. Fellow-blogger Patti wrote an interesting comment on one of my postings, after she and her son had a discussion about the question  “Was Frank an actor who could sing? Or was he a singer who could act?” I’d have to say I see him as a singer first and foremost, but his acting is deeply connected to his singing – as in both cases he feels the words and gives them their weight.

Before I start to sound too gushing (if I haven’t done that already), I must say that I’m by no means a fan of every Sinatra film I’ve seen. Rat Pack self-indulgence like Robin and the Seven Hoods leaves me cold, and I was disappointed recently by Double Dynamite (1951), a very weak musical with hardly any songs, where Sinatra is miscast as a meek, boring bank teller and Groucho Marx gets all the good lines!  

The Man with the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger, 1955)

Frankie looking in through the bar window

Frankie looking in through the bar window

This is a fairly short piece – there are many in-depth reviews on the net about this ground-breaking drama, and I can’t compete here, but just wanted to add a few thoughts to the mix. Otto Preminger’s famous work is definitely a film to see more than once –  I’ve watched it twice so far and will definitely return to it in the future. Frank Sinatra’s role as junkie Frankie Machine must be one of the best dramatic performances he ever gave. It’s easy to see why he received an Oscar nomination for his performance.The famous theme music by Elmer Bernstein is haunting and so is the camerawork by Sam Leavitt, as well as the great title sequence by  Saul Bass.

Before getting into talking about the film itself, I’ll just briefly say something about the different versions available to buy. There are many public domain DVDs in the UK with poor-quality prints. (If anyone knows of a UK DVD with a decent print, please let me know and I’ll add in the information.) I instead bought the region 2 German Blu-ray, and was pleased with the quality of the print, which is clear and sharp if not spectacular – but I was disappointed to find that it’s a bare-bones presentation with no special features.  In the US, the film is included in the region 1 DVD box set Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years, and there is a “making of” featurette included. However, this DVD does not include Sinatra’s recording of the title song, The Man with the Golden Arm, which was left out of the movie and disappeared altogether for nearly half a century. The recording is included in the out-of-print region 1 50th Anniversary Edition DVD set, and is also in a lavishly-produced and expensive CD box set, Sinatra in Hollywood 1940-1964, but doesn’t appear to be available outside these two sets.  I’m puzzled as to why, as with Monique in Kings Go Forth, also scored by Elmer Bernstein, Sinatra recorded a song which was left out of the movie… and I’m also impatient to hear it!

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Coming soon!

Just to say that I’ve decided on my next two monthly blog themes! Hoping to squeeze in a couple more postings on Sinatra before the end of the month, and then in February I’ll carry on with my current 1950s obsession by moving on to Douglas Sirk movies. Then coming up after that, it’s Marlene in March, as I will be reviewing films starring Dietrich, my favourite actress.

 

Which are Sinatra’s greatest movie songs?

Anchors Aweigh 6I’ve been trying to decide over the past week which are Sinatra’s greatest movie songs – and thought I’d pose it as a question, since there are still many of his films I haven’t seen, so I can’t come up with any definitive answers! I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts and recommendations. I found a website which has a list of all the songs he performed in films. By the look of it, this isn’t complete, since I immediately noticed that Three Coins in the Fountain was missing – presumably because he just sang it uncredited over the opening titles.

Anyway, here’s a list of five that I love at the moment, in my current order of preference, which can change from day to day. I also love all his songs in Pal Joey and All the Way in The Joker Is Wild.

5. I Fall In Love Too Easily (Anchors Aweigh, 1945): – For me this ballad by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne is a real standout scene in Anchors Aweigh – up there with Gene Kelly’s famous dance with Jerry Mouse! Sinatra’s acting might be a little awkward at times in this film, but he really comes into his own here.

4. Guys and Dolls (Guys and Dolls, 1955): This is my favourite musical of all time – I love seeing it on stage and am also a fan of the film, despite all the controversy over Marlon Brando’s casting. Since he played Nathan Detroit rather than Sky Masterson, Sinatra didn’t get to sing some of the greatest songs in Frank Loesser’s score, including Luck Be a Lady – though he later recorded them anyway.  However, he does perform the film’s title song, together with Stubby Kaye and Johnny Silver, and also does a great job on Sue Me and Adelaide.

3. Well, Did You Evah? (High Society, 1956): As an admirer of both Sinatra and Bing Crosby, I like hearing them sing this patter song together, with its witty Cole Porter lyric and the great moment where Sinatra jokes “Don’t dig that kind of crooning, chum!”   This is another film where Sinatra missed out on the best song, True Love –  and sadly I don’t think he recorded it at all. I love Crosby’s version but would have liked to hear Sinatra’s take on this one too.

2. Three Coins in the Fountain (Three Coins in the Fountain, 1952): I must admit that I haven’t seen this film as yet, but I’m really hoping it lives up to Sinatra’s romantic crooning of the title song by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne. It makes me want to pay a visit to Rome immediately. (I have been there once, more than 30 years ago now, but don’t remember seeing the fountain.)

1. Someone to Watch Over Me (Young at Heart, 1954): I also love the title song, but Sinatra’s performance of this Gershwin standard in a bar, with annoying customers talking and laughing over him, is even better. He has two more great torch songs in the same film, One For My Baby and Just One of Those Things.

Must also mention that I love Monique, the song by Sammy Cahn and Elmer Bernstein which never got included in Kings Go Forth (1958), as I mentioned in my previous review.

Kings Go Forth (Delmer Daves, 1958)

kings go forth 1Please note I do discuss the whole plot in this review. Second World War melodrama Kings Go Forth is one of the Frank Sinatra films from the 1950s which tends to get overlooked.  Some aspects of the love triangle story have dated – I’ll come on to those later – but it is still a film worth seeing.  After having now seen it a couple of times through showings on the UK TCM, I have found it growing on me and especially like Sinatra’s delicate, understated central performance. Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood both do their best with difficult roles, and the sweeping black-and-white views of the French Riviera are memorable, as is the melancholy Elmer Bernstein score.

The trailer feels more soapy than the film itself, but gives a glimpse of the three leads, and is also interesting in the way it focuses on the source books for Sinatra’s films.

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Some Came Running (Vincente Minnelli, 1958)

Some Came Running 2Director Vincente Minnelli created one of the warmest portrayals of American family life on film in the great musical Meet Me in St Louis (1944). But he gives a very different, darker take on families in Some Came Running, a 1950s melodrama which tackles the type of subject matter that Douglas Sirk made his own. The colour is gorgeous (or at least I assume it was originally – the DVD I have in the Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years collection looks a little faded at times), and there are many Cinemascope set pieces, including a glossy dance scene. However, the town’s idyllic appearance is constantly undercut by suggestions of the backbiting and nastiness just beneath the surface of life in the fictional Parktown.

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The Tender Trap (Charles Walters, 1955)

Tender Trap1I was given the Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years DVD box set for Christmas, so I’m looking forward to watching all the films in the collection. The UK/region 2 set contains four films, rather than five as in the US/region 1 set, with the missing title sadly being the most famous one - The Man with the Golden Arm. However, I have recently acquired this classic on a German Blu-ray and do intend to write about it too, although I’d like to read the book first.

It’s quite amazing to realise that Frank Sinatra made The Tender Trap in the same year as The Man with the Golden Arm. There’s not a hint of the noir film’s white-hot intensity in this glossy MGM battle-of-the-sexes comedy, with its gorgeous blend of Cinemascope and Eastman Color. The mood is set by the opening, where Sinatra is seen against a wide-open sky, stepping forward as he sings the great title song by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen.

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