Notwithstanding a two-year hiatus from showbiz, legendary entertainer Frank Sinatra spent most of the ’70s on music, letting his Oscar-winning acting career go fallow. That was probably a wise move, given the diminishing returns of such projects as the forgettable comedy Dirty Dingus Magee (1970). By the time Sinatra resumed acting for this TV movie, which runs two and a half hours and was originally broadcast over two consecutive nights, the wiry swinger of yesteryear was gone, replaced by a lethargic, middle-aged fellow wearing an unconvincing gray toupee. Although Sinatra’s performance in Contract on Cherry Street is not as distractingly halfhearted as the one he gave in his final starring role, the theatrical feature The First Deadly Sin (1980), it’s hard to know what might have drawn Sinatra to this project. The material is fine, a grim melodrama about cops working outside the law to gain the upper hand on criminals, but surely Sinatra could have secured a stronger role if his intention was to reboot his presence in Hollywood or to secure his legacy with a respectable elder-statesman performance.
Based on a novel by Edward Anhalt, the slow-moving picture tracks the adventures of Deputy Inspector Frank Hovannes (Sinatra), the boss of an elite NYPD organized-crime unit. After seeing one too many crooks game the system by paying off the right officials, Frank and his people embrace a dangerous idea—why not murder a crook, frame another crook for the hit, and start a war so the bad guys kill each other? Naturally, this is easier said than done, so the cops face countless obstacles, ranging from sketchy informants to an unstable member of their own team. Plus, it turns out the criminals are more clever than the cops anticipated, so the more the cops push to start their war, the more they risk exposing their own scheme.
There’s a nasty little potboiler buried inside this storyline, and someone like Sidney Lumet could have made a crackerjack thriller by collapsing the events down to a normal running time and giving the leading character more emotional shading. Unfortunately, bloat and shapelessness keep Contract on Cherry Street mired in mediocrity, and some of the ego-stroking indulgences associated with Sinatra’s participation hurt the movie. It’s one thing for Sinatra to have his own glamorous accent light during closeups, even though he rarely bothers to stand still, which is the trick for keeping such lighting effects subtle. It’s another to burden the movie with various scenes of the protagonist’s wife all but begging him for sex. Sinatra was 62 when the picture was broadcast.
For all of its flaws, however, Contract on Cherry Street is basically watchable. The extensive location photography throughout New York City grounds the piece in a sense of place, and some of the supporting performances are strong. Reliable players Martin Balsam, Harry Guardino, and Henry Silva play cops, as does fresh-faced Michael Nouri, although Steve Inwood steals the movie as a twitchy informant/junkie. He belongs in the imaginary Lumet-directed version of Contract on Cherry Street, not this so-so slog.
Contract on Cherry Street: FUNKY