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!  

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19 thoughts on “Which is Frank Sinatra’s best film performance as an actor?

  1. You highlighted some good parts in your post Judy and I think I’m going to choose one of those mentioned but not featured in your series – The Manchurian Candidate. I feel there was plenty of competition around him in that movie and Sinatra more than held his own.

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    • As I said in my posting, I really need to watch that film again as I found it hard to get my head round, but I do agree there are many great performances in it. Thanks, Colin.

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  2. Judy,
    There is little doubt that Sinatra’s performance in “From Here To Eternity” deserved the acknowledgement it received – it helps, of course, that everyone loves a “doomed hero” (e.g. Shirley MacLaine received an “Oscar” nomination for her role of “Ginnie” in “Some Came Running”). Sinatra’s acting ability surprised and impressed audiences as well as critics alike, and this opened up new opportunities for both his film and singing career.

    One must be careful not to confuse his “best performance in a film” with his “best film” and therefore I would re-affirm that my vote for Sinatra’s “best performance” goes to his role of Frankie Machine -“The Man With the Golden Arm”. What could have become an “over the top” and “mannered” interpretation of the character became, “a truly virtuoso performance “. Machine’s vulnerability, weakness, despair and confusion is on display, but yet there is certain tenderness in the character, and all of this is beautifully conveyed by Sinatra.

    Sinatra made a number of unsuccessful films after 1953, but rarely was this “perfectionist” accused of putting in a “poor” performance.

    Judy, I enjoyed you latest challenge.

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    • Thanks as always for the great comment, Rod – I agree about the doomed hero roles tending to get more appreciation. You also make a good point about the ‘best performance’ being a different question from the ‘best film’. I was impressed by the way he doesn’t ham up Frankie Machine at all – with all those character qualities you mention here coming across. Thanks for all your contributions to this series of postings, which are much appreciated, Rod!

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  3. Well, I understand it would be difficult to contest his work in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM Judy, but I do think his performances in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE KINGS GO FORTH, SUDDENLY and PAL JOEY are all up there. Your series on his work at MOVIE CLASSICS is a TRUE classic for sure!!!

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  4. I loved Suddenly, never was Sinatra more intense in a film role. I would also recommend Guys and Dolls and A Hole In The Head. I think It Happened In Brooklyn is one of hell of a movie too. His vocal of time after time on the piano in this movie/musical is timeless. You can also add in two more musicals: Anchors Aweigh and On The Town, Gene Kelly and Sinatra , need I say more.

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  5. Franks greatest film performance without doubt the joker is wild, whoever cast this film should have received an oscar, all perfectly cast, and frank and mitzi gaynor are fabulous together, multi talented mitzi was wasted in hollywood, and should have been in so much more, altho she became a massive star of nightclubs and television

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    • Gloria, so sorry I failed to reply to this comment earlier, I was just reminded by your reply to Rob. Definitely agree that ‘The Joker Is Wild’ is fantastic – interesting info about Mitzi Gaynor, too. I really like her in this and agree she should have been in more. Thank you!

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  6. FS was superb in “From Here To Eternity”, “Suddenly” and “The Man With The Golden
    Arm”.

    He was magnificent in “The Manchurian Candidate”.

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    • Franks best film i totally agree with you, but my favorite frank film is The Joker is Wild, it was also one of the  best ever cast films, everyone in it was suberb. does’nt get much of a mention these days, perhaps as a semi musical, people would have liked it to have been made in color, Frank sang the song All the Way in it and won the oscar that year

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  7. when sinatra made The Manchurian Candidate in 1962 he was at his absolute peak both as an actor and singer. I am always amazed how he found the time to do all of his various activities like business ventures and involvement in politics and an exciting social life and international travelling and performing. What energy he had.

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