Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Contract on Cherry Street (Artanis/Columbia, 1977)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I picked out a movie our roommate John had just bought: Contract on Cherry Street, a rather peculiar 1977 TV-movie starring (and produced by) Frank Sinatra, in which he played the head of a special squad of New York City cops going after organized crime. He’s called “Deputy Insprector Frank Hovannes,” so at least he got to play a character whose first name is the same as his own, but “Hovannes” is a name that doesn’t really have any obvious ethnic referents and it might have been more believable if Sinatra’s character had been given an Italian-sounding name so at least we could have accepted him as what Sinatra in fact was. He’s equipped with slovenly dress (which must have driven the famously fastidious Sinatra crazy) and an on-screen wife, Emily, played by an actress named Verna Bloom who’s so boring one can’t understand what possibly keeps the two together — not that they spend that much time together since Frank spends virtually his whole life either at the police station or “in the field” going after one super-crook or another.

Among the members of his squad are Captain Ernie Weinberg (Martin Balsam), Ron Polito (Harry Guardino), Roberto Obregon (Henry Silva, looking more credible as a Latino than he did as an Asian in his previous film with Sinatra, The Manchurian Candidate, and in the short-lived attempt to revive the Mr. Moto franchise in 1965) and Lou Savage (Michael Nouri, who’s incredibly handsome in that dorky way of a lot of 1970’s Gay porn stars, complete with carefully tousled hair and skin-tight blue jeans that showed off his ass quite attractively and looked like they’d been appliquéd on instead of got into in the normal manner). The gimmick is that Polito is the squad-room hothead who wants to do some selective assassinations of Mafia leaders in order to start a full-blown war between New York’s two biggest crime families, the one run by Baruch “Bob” Waldman (Martin Gabel) and the one run by the Manzaros, an old Don sort of like the Marlon Brando role in The Godfather (from which director William A. Graham borrowed a great deal, not only the overall brown-toned cinematography but even the famous scene of the cars lined up to enter the Don’s estate, though in this case it’s for a funeral rather than a wedding).

The whole plot kicks off when we see a fancy car being stolen and stripped for parts — and in a movie that already has an ample beefcake quotient we get even more hot-looking men in the garage where they’re stripping the car with all the alacrity of a school of piranhas attacking a human in the water (one Latino-looking man who works with his shirt off is especially fun to watch and drool over). It turns out that this car-stripping business is owned by Waldman — he’s even got it incorporated and legally registered — but he’s being pressured to sell it to the Manzaros, led by a father and son in which, as has become a cliché in Mafia fiction, dad is level-headed and wants to avoid trouble while sonny-boy Eddie (Marco St. John) is rarin’ to take the bait and start a war. Also in the dramatis personae are the various hit men the two rival mobsters hire, including African-American Otis Washington (Johnny Barnes), who’s got a hot, butch physique and a high, almost squeaky voice with jars both with his body and his reputation for being pretty psycho; and Tommy and Mickey Sinardos (Tommy is played by the singer Jay Black of Jay and the Americans, while Mickey is played by Robert Davi, yet another cute guy who gives Michael Nouri a run for the money in the inspiring fantasies in straight women and Gay men department), Greek-American hitters who also have a reputation for craziness and overkill.

Eventually, about midway through this rather odd movie, officer Polito knocks off Manzaro lieutenant Al Palmini (James Luisi) and starts on a killing spree; apparently we’re supposed to believe that once he’s tasted blood he goes totally psycho and decides he just likes to knock people off, including a police informant — a twitchy junkie named Jack Kittens (Richard Ward) — and eventually he knocks off cutie-pie Lou Savage (damn!) and his wife. It all comes to a head in a shoot-out on Cherry Street (ya think?), in which the ambiguously ethnic Frank Hovannes knocks off the two Greek hit men but gets killed himself in the process. Written by Edward Anhalt — a writer with far more prestigious credits than this one (The Boston Strangler, The Madwoman of Chaillot, Jeremiah Johnson, Luther, The Man in the Glass Booth, The Day Christ Died and Peter the Great) — based on a novel of the same title by Phillip Rosenberg, Contract on Cherry Street is very flatly directed by William A. Graham, who completely refuses to give it the neo-noir treatment the story seems to demand — until the final scene, taking place at night and rich in chiaroscuro atmospherics and skewed camera angles and strongly anticipatory, especially in its nihilism, of the final scene in L.A. Confidential (the cinematographer was Jack Priestley and it’s a real pity director Graham didn’t let him shoot the whole movie that way instead of just the last scene). The music is by Jerry Goldsmith, but don’t get your hopes up about that; instead of the dark, rich orchestrations of classic noir it’s the overly bouncy orchestral pop that afflicted a lot of attempts to revive noir in the 1960’s and 1970’s (including Harper, Marlowe and the otherwise quite good Madigan).

The acting is also serviceable rather than great; there isn’t a standout performance the way there was in some other crime thrillers at the time (like Moses Gunn’s superb work in Shaft, which shamed the rest of the cast) and everyone is at least competent but no one is really great. Sinatra is powerful and authoritative but the script doesn’t stretch him at all — it’s a one-note role and he sings the one note superbly but one wishes he could have been given a more conflicted character like the starring roles played by Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda in Madigan. Harry Guardino is solid as the psycho cop but there’s no hint in the script that Guardino could use to make us believe why this particular person would go so far off the rails. Michael Nouri was so hot to look at I frankly didn’t care whether he could act at all or not, and the actresses playing his and Sinatra’s wives were both quite dull — the idea that some strong female roles could help the believability even of a combination police procedural and Mafia potboiler seems to have been foreign to Messrs. Graham, Anhalt, Rosenberg and, for that matter, Sinatra, who seems to have come up with this project for himself mainly because he’d made the mistake of turning down Dirty Harry (though it’s hard to imagine him as Harry Callahan, and not just because Clint Eastwood made the part so thoroughly his own: Sinatra would have had two drawbacks — too old and too short) and after his late-1960’s attempts to assume the private-eye mantle of Humphrey Bogart (Tony Rome, The Detective, Lady in Cement) he seemed to have decided that playing official law-enforcement officers was the way to salvage his career. (He might also have been trying the George Raft strategy of casting himself as a policeman fighting the Mafia in hopes of once and for all quashing the rumors that he was on the Mob’s payroll himself.) Be that as it may, the studio credit for this movie goes to “Artanis Productions” — “Artanis,” in case you didn’t notice, is simply “Sinatra” spelled backwards — with Columbia (and now Sony) as the distributor.

Contract on Cherry Street isn’t an especially exciting thriller — the lumbering large sedans of the period are simply too slow-moving on the straights and too cumbersome in the turns to enable director Graham (or anyone else) to stage an exciting car chase (there’s a reason why, in the two most famous car chases in movies of the period, Bullitt and The French Connection, the stars drove sporty muscle cars instead of big sedans that couldn’t really race unless they got the full NASCAR treatment) and director Graham is quite good at getting nice performances from his bit players but not so good at suspense. It’s a forgettable artifact of Sinatra’s career and recommendable only to Sinatra fanatics and people who want to do the time-warp to the late 1970’s; the glimpses of the interior of Studio 54 (where a key early scene takes place) and of Times Square in the pre-Giuliani porn days are welcome.