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Frank Sinatra on celluloid

On his centenary, most of attention will fall on his career as a singer. But he was just as good on film

Peter Hoskin | December 11th 2015

Frank Sinatra is a sight as much as a sound. Shut your eyes, and you can see him as loudly as you can hear him. The knife-edge perfection of his side parting. The cheekbones from which his face seems to hang. The coiled demeanour that might, at any moment, spring into violence. The hunger and madness in those famous baby-blues. “No, no,” as the man himself once put it, “they can’t take that away from me.”

And why would they even try? The iconography of Sinatra, whose centenary arrives tomorrow, is the reason he was almost as good on celluloid as on vinyl. He may not have been raised as an actor, but he had that special something called screen presence, and he proved it in over 50 feature films. Some of these films are spectacular. Some are lousy. But they all have this indelible, complicated presence in their midst. He just couldn’t turn it off. Sinatra is Sinatra. He’s bigger than the frame.     

The best directors – and Sinatra did work with some of the best – used this to their advantage. There’s a wonderful moment in Otto Preminger’s “The Man with the Golden Arm” (1955) when Sinatra’s character, a relapsed junkie who wants to be the drummer in a band, asks, “You think those bobby soxers will really go for me?” From anyone else, this is just a line. From Sinatra, it drips with self-reference and meaning. Here is the singer who had those bobby soxers, those teenage girls, screaming for him in the 1940s. Would they go for him? They already had.

And yet, Preminger and Sinatra might still have wondered. “The Man with the Golden Arm” is Sinatra’s greatest film because it takes the idol he once was and smashes it. The camera zooms in on his pin-up eyes only a few times: once when they are squeezed between prison bars, and twice when they glaze over from another dose of heroin. Otherwise, it hangs back to see his transformation in full. The shots of Sinatra’s character moaning on the floor, withdrawn from drugs and from the civilised world, are shocking even today. Frank, you long to ask, are you OK?

This vulnerable version of Sinatra first appeared on screen two years earlier, in “From Here to Eternity” (1953). There’s plenty of speculation and innuendo about how he got this role: did his mobster pals really decapitate the studio boss’s favourite horse as a threat, inspiring a scene in “The Godfather” (1972) in the process? But what isn’t in doubt is that Sinatra needed it. His career had dwindled almost to nought in the early 1950s, so he seized on Fred Zinnemann’s movie like a shark at mealtime. His performance as the doomed Private Angelo Maggio is one of nervous energy and desperation.

“From Here to Eternity” set a standard that continued through to “The Man with the Golden Arm” and beyond. In “Some Came Running” (1958) he plays a veteran who has washed up on the shores of alcoholism. In “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962) he’s a major who is overcome by nightmares. This parade of army guys, paranoiacs and addicts reminds us of what Sinatra could have been if he didn’t have an incredible set of pipes and the right sorts of connections in the wrong sorts of places: just another Italian-American with a head full of worries. Perhaps some part of him was always this, anyway.   

But, happily, Sinatra did have an incredible set of pipes – and he brought those with him to the movies too. They sometimes even got him out of a jam. In the other film of 1955 in which he played a street-level hustler, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “Guys and Dolls”, Sinatra can look a little uncomfortable when acting alongside Marlon Brando. Who wouldn’t? But when the singing starts, it’s Brando who suddenly looks awkward.

The problem is that Sinatra’s voice, the brilliance he always had in his back pocket, could make him lazy. His least interesting roles are those in which he fell back on his stage persona, in movies with the rest of the Rat Pack, such as “Ocean’s 11” (1960) and “Robin and the 7 Hoods” (1964). The suits and the casinos never suited him as well as skid row did.  

But centenaries aren’t for caviling, they’re for celebrating. Look back at some of those movies and the directors who made them: Preminger, Mankiewicz, Frankenheimer. I haven’t even mentioned the Academy Award, the Golden Globes or the star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame because they are mere baubles on the thing that matters: the tree itself. Sinatra had one of the brightest film careers of the 20th century. It just happened to be his other career.

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