Whether his voice makes you swoon or flee the room, Frank Sinatra was a far more daring actor than most pop stars turned movie stars. (Show me the Oscar, Mark Wahlberg fans.) As a sampling of his Hollywood work, the MOMI series “The Films of Frank Sinatra” captures Ol’ Blue Eyes in all but the last of his cinematic incarnations, from wiry crooner to self-flagellating Method man to entitled, ultra-laconic hipster.
Sinatra’s early MGM musical roles required only that he show up and belt out a few tunes—which, typically, as in On the Town (1949), was enough. Upstaged by top-billed Gene Kelly; jaw-dropping Technicolor footage of a New York City that’s as remarkable for what hasn’t changed as for what has; and the songs of Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Leonard Bernstein, this giddy travelogue is nevertheless grounded by Frankie’s impressive pipes and charming guilelessness. His mash-note duet with Betty Garrett, “Come Up to My Place,” is a highlight.
Nobody could do hinky quite like Sinatra, though, which is why the middle period of his movie career—including The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), Otto Preminger’s ludicrously frenetic but effective study of an ex-junkie trying to stay clean—still resonates. The disparity between Frankie’s trademark cool and the pathological restlessness on display in such films as Lewis Allen’s antiquated 1954 Cold War thriller Suddenly (in which Sinatra channels Richard Widmark to play a leering assassin) must have been seriously unnerving to postwar-boom American audiences. If the super-smooth Sinatra was on-screen shedding anxiety and flop sweat by the bucketload, something bad was surely afoot. John Frankenheimer’s brilliant The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is the pinnacle of this mode and is easily Sinatra’s best screen turn (never mind that its anti-commie panic dates it at least as badly as Suddenly).
Fred Zinnemann’s film version of James Jones’s novel From Here to Eternity—for which Sinatra won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor—kicked off his string of serious roles in 1953. Possibly hoping for a second Oscar, he headlined Some Came Running, another Jones adaptation, six years later. Notable for Vincente Minnelli’s lush CinemaScope compositions and an early appearance by the nascent Rat Pack (Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine co-star), Sinatra’s sublimely distracted performance as a cynical writer coming home to a small town after World War II is Running‘s real draw. Jones, a pal of Frankie’s (and a literary acquired taste), reportedly hated the movie, and it can be a melodramatic slog. But Sinatra captures the disconnectedness of a returning vet with a subtlety Jones’s high-dudgeon prose could never match. Along with Candidate, this is the series entry not to miss.
Aside from the highly agreeable 1956 musical High Society, in which the contrast between Frankie’s easy warmth and the icy self-absorption of fellow croon-meister Bing Crosby couldn’t be more stark, there were few high points in Sinatra’s film career after Running. Instead, he succumbed to the showy sycophancy of the Rat Pack movies, a couple of which—Ocean’s Eleven (1960) and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964)—are on the bill; help yourself. He subsequently moved on to even less challenging work that generally cemented his reputation as a one-take wonder, like Mark Robson’s dopey but satisfying 1965 WWII actioner Von Ryan’s Express (dig Frankie in Nazi duds), and capped his career with a string of cop movies that are curiously unrepresented at MOMI.
No great loss, but while 1980’s The First Deadly Sin (his final film) is far from a masterpiece, it does offer a touching, elegiac reminder of why Frank Sinatra matters in the movies. Gruff, vulnerable, detached, and compassionate, somehow all at once, he was, surprisingly, one of the more unabashedly human performers to help usher naturalistic acting into the popular cinema. And the guy could sing a little, too.