Flat is word that best describes Lady in Cement (1968), the disappointing sequel to the surprisingly decent Tony Rome, the private eye thriller starring Frank Sinatra. Despite an audacious opening, Lady in Cement is inferior in just about every way, particularly coming off the huge success Sinatra had with The Detective earlier that same year, and his good fortune in landing Raquel Welch as his co-star, just as her sex goddess cult was peaking. Still, at 93 breezy minutes the picture is a harmless time-killer.
The picture opens well, if outrageously, with P.I. Tony Rome (Sinatra) looking for lost Spanish treasure (!) off the Florida coast. While scuba diving (Frank Sinatra scuba diving?) he comes across the nude figure of a blonde woman, her feet encased in a big block of cement. After fighting off a shark (!), in scenes supervised by former Creature from the Black Lagoon Ricou Browning, Tony calls in the coast guard.
Unfazed by his undersea encounter, whose method he considers hopelessly anachronistic ("That went out with violin cases") Tony is approached by hulking brute Waldo Gronsky (Dan "Bonanza" Blocker, as the trailer calls him) to track down a dame named Sandra, whom Gronsky believes framed him years before. (All of which bears a striking resemblance to the set-up involving Mike Mazurki's character in Murder My Sweet.) Rome's investigation take him to a strip club where Sandra worked, and there he questions her roommate, Maria (Lainie Kazan), and the club's outrageously stereotyped gay manager, Danny Yale (Frank Raiter), and his bartender-lover, Seymour.
Rome also questions rich alcoholic Kit Forrest (Raquel Welch, very sexy), who threw a party attended by Sandra the night she died. Kit, for her part, finds protection in reformed mobster Al Munger (frequent What's My Line? panelist Martin Gabel), his son, Paul (Steve Peck) and their various goons. Could there be some connection, Rome wonders, between the lady in cement and the missing Sandra?
After Lady in Cement, Sinatra made just one more movie, the odd Western comedy Dirty Dingus Magee (1970) and then didn't make another until The First Deadly Sin (1980) a full decade later, and which turned out to be his last starring film. Some have accused Sinatra of looking tired and disinterested in these later pictures, but that's more a symptom than the disease. It's true Sinatra almost never allowed more than one take of his performance, and preferred working with directors like Gordon Douglas (who did both Tony Rome films) because they wouldn't press the actor for any more than he was willing to give. Even so, Sinatra is okay in Lady in Cement- it's the film that's tired.
One problem is Jack Guss's script (from Marvin H. Albert's novel; he also worked on the screenplay this time). Where Tony Rome kept Sinatra's Rat Packisms in check, opting for the movie reality of a '40s private eye thriller transplanted to late-'60s Miami, Lady in Cement is loaded down with lame Sinatraesque colloquialisms. Welch's Kit is "a good-looking broad with a crazy breast stroke." And so forth. Part of the power of The Manchurian Candidate was in Frank Sinatra's character, and in Sinatra's unexpectedly powerful performance, that of a man on the verge of a total breakdown, haunted by crazy abstract and violent dreams. Audiences didn't expect Frank Sinatra to come unglued.
But, alas, nothing fazes Tony Rome, not even stumbling across a wide-eyed corpse and fending off a shark looking to make a meal out of it. Had Lady in Cement taken its story a little more seriously, as Tony Rome did slightly, it might have been a better film. There's a brief hint of this near the end, in a flash of good writing in the relationship between the reformed, older gangster, and the son who wants to follow in his father's footsteps. Unfortunately, it's just too little, too late. And, although the writers try hard to give Rome's relationship with Kit the same edginess that he'd had with the Jill St. John character in Tony Rome, it just doesn't work, mainly because Welch's character just doesn't fit well into this story.
Another problem is the generally dull use of Miami locations this time around. Except for a brief foot chase around the Fontainebleau Hotel, the picture might just as well have been shot in Long Beach for all the difference it makes. And unlike Tony Rome, which stuck to real-life Miami buildings for its interiors, much of Lady in Cement looks like it was shot on a soundstage, on bland and badly-lit sets.
One Side Note: The film carries an "R" rating, absurd given its very fleeting nudity and violence quite tame by present network cop show standards. This is a movie you could practically show to your grandmother now.
Video & Audio
Like Tony Rome, Lady in Cement was filmed in Panavision and originally printed by De Luxe. Fox's DVD preserves the original theatrical aspect ratio with a good transfer in 16:9 anamorphic format. The image is clean with decent color. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo comes alive during the mostly awful score by Hugo Montenegro, though there did appear to be some faintly directional dialogue and sound effects. French and Spanish audio is available, as well as subtitles in English and Spanish.
The only extra is a batch of Lady in Cement promos: a theatrical trailer (1.85:1), one in Spanish (2.35:1), and two TV spots, all of which, even the 1.77:1 TV spots, are 16:9 encoded (thus heavily cropping all four sides of the image in the TV ads). The trailers make ample use of Welch's eye-popping entrance, climbing out of a pool, dripping wet and wearing a bikini even smaller than her cavewoman garb in One Million Years B.C.. Trailers for the Welch titles Bandolero!, Fantastic Voyage, Fathom, Mother, Jugs, and Speed, and One Million Years, B.C. are also included.
Lady in Cement is one of those movies that in a few weeks you'll forget everything about it, other than the fact that you've seen it. Barely passable as entertainment, it's inferior to Tony Rome, which was only not bad.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.