Did you know that Frank Sinatra could have played the role of Dirty Harry? He was one of several actors originally approached for the role (John Wayne was another) but he bypassed the role. Having Sinatra in that iconic role would have been very different but it could have been interesting – he was moving in that direction with films like Tony Rome and The Detective. However, the world had to wait until 1977 to see Ol’ Blue Eyes tackle the cop genre again – and when he did, it trafficked in Dirty Harry-styled themes of a flawed system and the temptation to go outside the law for justice.
Contract On Cherry Street was Sinatra’s return to acting, an epic made-for-television film produced by his own company and adapted from a novel by Philip Rosenberg. In it, Sinatra plays Inspector Frank Hovannes, the head of an Organized Crime Unit for the NYPD. He’s trying to nail a chop shop operated by mobsters but his targets are clever and elusive – and the grind of dealing with gleefully defiant hoods and pressure from the administration to deliver something is becoming demoralizing for Frank’s team, particularly the world-weary Captain Ernie Weinberg (Martin Balsam).
However, the hoods overplay their hand when they shoot down a member of Frank’s team during a raid. The squad vow revenge and this leads them to plot an assassination of the mobster behind the chop shop. The idea is turn the mobsters against a rival outfit led by a Jewish mobster, Waldman (Martin Gabel). Unfortunately, Frank learns the hard way that vengeance has a ripple effect on both the targets and his own men – and the revenge they take has tragic consequences for all involved.
The result is not the kind of safe cops and robbers fare you might expect from an actor making a comeback. Contract On Cherry Street has a profoundly noir-ish level of cynicism from the get-go, with Sinatra and his men trying to keep their heads above water as they deal with crooks who don’t have to play by any rules and superiors who expect them to work miracles. Once the cops open the Pandora’s Box of revenge, they slowly come to realize that as bad as things were before, there was at least a sense of balance, however precarious it might be. Once blood is shed, it only leads to further bloodshed that can only be ended with a tremendous sacrifice.
These dark themes connect well thanks to a smart script from veteran screenwriter Edward Anhalt that downplays action in favor of character study and never shies away from the corrosive consequences of the cops’ law-defying actions. Despite its made-for-t.v. status, Contract On Cherry Street also has a convincing grittiness thanks to plenty of location shooting that lends a convincing backdrop to the film’s streetwise tone. Director William Graham gives it all a gritty, French Connection-style vibe, lending some kinetic verve to the film’s handful of action setpieces and creating an appropriately tough yet melancholy tone that fits the material perfectly.
Contract On Cherry Street cements its appeal by giving Sinatra a superb supporting cast. For example, consider the squad Sinatra leads up: not only does it have Balsam as his second in command but it also includes Henry Silva, Harry Guardino and a young Michael Nouri. They all acquit themselves well but the ones who register most strongly are Balsam, who gets a great, bitter monologue early on about the plight of their Crime Unit and Guardino, who is the member of the team most adversely affected by their path of revenge. On the criminal side of things, highlights include an amusing supporting turn from Steve Inwood, who deploys all manner of Al Pacino-style tics as a nervous informant, and a young Robert Davi as half of an ambitious brother team of hoods.
Finally, there is Sinatra himself. As you might expect, he has no problem showing streetwise cool and acting tough: his repartee with Johnny Barnes in the first half of the film is a big highlight, with Barnes portraying a smart-aleck hood who engages in battles of macho temperament with Sinatra. However, what really impresses is the subtlety with which he conveys his character’s world-weariness. You get a hint of this early on in his banter with Balsam but it really pays off in a big way during the film’s final third. The sad realizations he comes to during the third act pack a punch, yet they are deftly underplayed.
Simply put, Contract On Cherry Street is worth rediscovering. Whether you’re a fan of Ol’ Blue Eyes or just love gritty cop fare from the 1970’s, there’s plenty of worthy material for both camps here.