Frank Sinatra was in his most adventurous era of movie acting in the time represented by Frank Sinatra: The Golden Years Collection
, a five-movie set from Warner. He'd already won his Oscar and bounced back from a career slump, and was ready to take on some challenges in the mid-1950s to early 60s. If not everything in this box is pure gold, it nevertheless shows off Sinatra when he was like a jazz musician with great chops, willing to experiment and push himself to the limit. This is nowhere more evident than in his Oscar-nominated performance in The Man with the Golden Arm
, a searing 1955 turn as a heroin addict who falls into old habits after trying to get clean. Sinatra is touchingly matched with Kim Novak under the unblinking gaze of director Otto Preminger, who used the film's then-shocking subject matter to beat down the walls of Hollywood's restrictive Production Code. Elmer Bernstein's cool score and a gallery of eccentric supporting actors add to the movie's syncopated allure. Sinatra might be even better in the brilliant Some Came Running
(1958), Vincente Minnelli's visually dynamic, emotionally sensitive look at a writer and lost soul (that's Sinatra) coming back to hometown Middle America after World War II. Seeing the rampant hypocrisy of the "good life," he naturally resorts to the company of a floozy (Shirley MacLaine, Oscar-nominated) and a misogynist gambler (Dean Martin). Minnelli's staging of the climax, at a carnival, is one of the great dramatic uses of widescreen in movies. The Tender Trap
(1955), on the other hand, is very much a stagebound ode to conformity: Frankie is a ring-a-ding bachelor (living in one of the great movie bachelor pads, worth a look for archivists trying to re-create an era), tamed by organized Debbie Reynolds. Well, at least you get to hear the title song a lot.
The real surprise of the set is None but the Brave, Sinatra's only directing job, a WWII movie from 1965 that has a generally low critical reputation. Certainly its outline is a fairly obvious anti-war parable (a plane-wrecked crew of U.S. soldiers confronts a forgotten contingent of Japanese on a small island, and work out a truce), but the movie is made with intelligence and passion. Sinatra takes a number of risks, beginning with his non-starring role and the treatment of the Japanese as complex characters, and the conclusion is as bitter about the nature of war as any of the counterculture films that would follow. The final disc, Marriage on the Rocks (1965), is strictly a throw-in, a sitcom scenario with Sinatra and bored wife Deborah Kerr mixing up their married lives with best pal Dean Martin. The mild comedy includes Nancy Sinatra and the delectable sight of Frank go-go dancing in a rock club. That rock beat signals the decline of Sinatra's reign, but this set provides a glimpse of ol' Blue Eyes at his peak. --Robert Horton