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Some Came Running is the transition movie between Frank Sinatra's earlier film career and his later ring-a-ding Rat Pack persona, that set the standard for the all-American boozing, skirt chasing "swinging" lifestyle. Sinatra sang with authority and, while he was still trying to prove himself, put a great deal of effort into his acting. While the method actors worked overtime to find the inner truth of characters, Sinatra merely behaved in a natural and relaxed way and let his audience come to him. He may be playing himself, but Sinatra's grounded performance takes Vincente Minnelli's typically fussy and stylized super- soap opera to a new level.
As one of the postwar writers in search of the Great American Novel, James Jones hit both a raw nerve and pay dirt with the publishing blockbuster From Here to Eternity. His Some Came Running is an eleven-hundred page follow-up charting the return of a very James Jones-ish ex-serviceman to his home town, three years after the war's finish. The intent is clearly to tell Mr. and Mrs. America how it really is, from the point of view of a directionless nonconformist with a knack for both writing and trouble.
The story has the makings of a TV miniseries. Lapsed writer Dave Hirsh (Sinatra) returns to Parkman, Indiana and quickly turns the town inside out. He immediately gravitates to another laid-back hepcat, hard drinking gambler Bama Dillert (Dean Martin). He also weathers the demands and insults of his obnoxious brother Frank (Arthur Kennedy), a wealthy jeweler at odds with his two-faced wife Agnes (Leora Dana). The only immediate family member that Dave cottons to is Dawn, his virginal niece (Betty Lou Keim).
Dave has serious woman problems as well. Ginnie Moorehead (Shirley MacLaine) is a hopelessly awkward but adorable floozie who comes to Parkman on Dave's bus after a long night's drunk. Pathetically unsuited for polite society, Ginnie hangs about like a lovesick dog, hoping to attract Dave's attention. Ginnie: "You know the only time you talk nice to me is when you're loaded?" Dave: "Let's get loaded." Dave instead makes a play for the local schoolmarm .... college English teacher Gwen French (Martha Hyer). She's a rigid ivory tower intellectual who gets turned on by Dave's unpublished short story. Dave takes this as an amorous green light and is surprised when his aggressive advances don't build into a relationship. Various misunderstandings ensue: Dave's frustrated by Gwen's frigidity and defends Ginnie when Bama calls her a pig. A violent resolution arrives in the form of Raymond Lanchek (Steven Peck), Ginnie's jealous, pistol-packing old boyfriend. 1
James Jones' appealing characters more often than not transcend his label-and-pigeonhole approach to human relationships. Dave Hirsh spreads a number of 'serious' books on his hotel room bed, as if they were credentials for his status as an intellectual. Unlike most drifters Dave has plenty of cash, but he's definitely searching for his destiny in a way that mystifies the small-minded Frank and Agnes. Frank Hirsh and Gwen French try to fit Dave into their preconceived notions of success, but he prefers a life of gambling and booze with the wrong kind of people.
Some scenes play as unintentional comedy, as when Frank Hirsch and his secretary Edith (beautiful Nancy Gates) 'innocently' end up in a petting party at lover's lane. A number of dialogue lines could be considered howlers in today's 'everything's ironic' atmosphere. The most awkward moments offer outmoded ideas about writers as an elite class. Professor Robert Haven French (Larry Gates) takes one look at Dave and remarks at how 'sensitive' he is. Gwen teaches her class that great artists are above morality. "Good writers feel more deeply than the rest of us" she says, with a straight face. Dave Hirsh expresses his sensitivity with a constant flow of smart, sarcastic remarks. Brother Frank finds out that Dave isn't married: "I guess we'll have to find you a girl." Dave: "Swell, tonight soon enough?"
Dave hangs out in bars with gamblers who never go bust and loose women that get cute or funny when they're drunk. The drifting life is given a good PR image: drugs, vagrancy, organized crime and corruption are nowhere to be seen among Dave's sordid companions. Consuming vast quantities of alcohol apparently has no ill effect on anyone; hardly a scene goes by without some heavy drinking entering the picture. Yet the sinner and nonconformist Dave Hirsh is the most upstanding person around. When the teenaged Dawn runs away to Terre Haute, Uncle Dave is the one to provide paternal support and guidance: "Dawn honey, bummin' around can only make you a bum." The look on Agnes's face when Frank says "You married me, not my brother," makes us wonder for a moment if Dawn could actually be Dave's daughter. Naah, I don't think so ...
Dave remains a beacon of uncompromising independence. Those who call him on his amoral lifestyle merely reveal their own hypocrisy. Dave thinks he's sold on the beautiful and cultured Gwen French, even after he discovers that she appreciates his raw outlook on life only when reading it in print. The film unfairly accuses Gwen as an intolerant prude, for being wary of a man who gets arrested for knife fights and runs around with trollops. Dave's basic romantic approach is to treat a lady like a tramp, as would Pal Joey.
Sinatra looks relaxed and intelligent. Having proven a worthy actor in pix like The Man With the Golden Arm, he goes for a more laid-back approach. He hasn't yet descended into the one-take-and-don't-bother-me sloth of the later Rat Pack years. Dean Martin's solid character turn finally breaks the mold of his previous association with Jerry Lewis. Bama Dillard is an unregenerate and self-centered boor hiding behind a handsome face and slick manner. French critics, already gaga over director Minnelli's coded designs and MetroColor stylization, loved Martin's portrayal of a loner who thinks he doesn't need other people. Bama doesn't explain himself to anybody, he just is. That includes his habit of never taking off his hat, a character quirk that Jean-Luc Godard took as shorthand for genius at work.
The film's big winner is Shirley MacLaine, whose indomitable pixie Ginnie Moorehead steals the show simply by giving it a heart. Ginnie's infantile innocence is expressed in her awful clothing choices, topped by a pitifully ragged stuffed animal purse that looks like a dead Snoopy dog. Possibly inspired by Giulietta Masina's hapless prostitute in Nights of Cabiria, Ginnie might as well be wearing a sign that reads 'abuse me' in big red letters. When plastered, she makes a spectacle of herself singing with a nightclub band. Dave patronizes Ginnie mercilessly until he makes a sudden major decision to respect her as a person and accept her love. Who needs to understand life to live it fully? What's wrong with Ginny's unconditional devotion? 2
All this time Some Came Running has been powered by Elmer Bernstein's growling, dynamic underscore, that opened the movie with the promise that something heavy would go down. Like the ultimate Deus Ex Machina, a minor character suddenly invades the climactic carnival (of life?) with a bottle of booze and an itchy trigger finger. Minnelli throws the film into visual high gear with a barrage of primary-color expressionism and violent camera choreography worthy of one of his MGM musicals of a few years earlier. It's a great sequence that works best on a big screen, where the first blast of wall-to-wall crimson shocks us free of the film's earlier, languid pace. The whole set piece would be ludicrous if it were not so cinematically effective. If one wishes to make a case for Vincente Minnelli's cinema-architecture ideas about design creating drama, the possible proof is right here.
Some Came Running looks very good on Warners' DVD, with clean colors. The success of Gigi allowed Vincente Minnelli to film on distant locations (something denied him back on Brigadoon), and the Indiana locales blend nicely with interiors filmed back at the studio. Even the scenery gets a laugh when Gwen invites Dave to take a stroll on 'the grounds' of her family estate. Her beautiful garden view overlooks a forest and a river, and perfectly frames a set of factory smokestacks!
The CinemaScope frame doesn't look quite as wide as it should be. As much as I know that Warners is careful with aspect ratios, the image may have been enlarged slightly -- perhaps to magnify the many scenes that rest on unbroken wide shots of entire rooms.
The extras are the original MGM trailer that emphasizes the From Here to Eternity connection. A featurette on the film is something of a debacle. Several experts and pundits switch from dime store psychologizing about the 1950s to an okay analysis of the on-set chemistry between the film's big stars. But the whole thing is buried under glitzy graphic eye candy -- animated stills and manipulated scenes from the movie -- that's an irritating distraction. The flow of animated images in the featurette for The Man with the Golden Arm is almost as jumpy, but it helps communicate the ideas in the interview bites. The Some Came Running piece is an audition reel for a graphics artist.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Some Came Running rates:
1. Unfortunately, if one looks at Some Came Running as an autobiographical work by a narcissistic author, much of the movie is hilarious. Martha Hyer easily resists Dave's come-ons, but gets hot and bothered by reading his presumably racy short story, and allows herself to be seduced. No matter how much Dave Hirsch protests, his status as a literary giant is never in question. If we're to think of Some Came Running as a book that resulted from a real experience, Dave Hirsch / James Jones has an ego that won't quit: it makes one pretty important if a girl is willing to die for you.
2. While struggling in the throes of a complicated relationship with Gwen, Dave watches two bunny rabbits on the lawn. He advises the second: "Your girl went thataway, buddy." Do the 'natural' bunnies influence Dave to stop suffering and accept Ginnie's slavish adoration? Say it ain't so.
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