Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Friday, July 15, 2011

In the Oui Paul Hours: SOME CAME RUNNING (1958)

A brilliant but troubling film that gets both better and worse with repeat viewings, SOME CAME RUNNING (1958) is cited by Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli), a screenwriter-for-hire in Godard's 1963 CONTEMPT. Paul's in the bathtub but wearing his hat nonetheless, "like Dean Mar-Tan in Sum Cah-eem Ran-Neeng." Dean never takes his hat off either, you see.

One of those small town hypocrisy critiques that were very popular after WW2, it's based on the novel of the same name by the hot bestseller author of the moment James Jones, who also gave the world such great titles as FROM HERE TO ETERNITY and THE THIN RED LINE. SOME is almost like the sequel to those films, the post-war bumming around trying-to-be-modern novel, with a little sex in it. It's hard to imagine now, when American soldiers are expected to be saintly family-style Christians, but after the Second World War those boys wanted to get home and get laid, drunk, and... well, laid and drunk. Depending on where they were from (and where they served) they found morals from the 1800s awaiting them at home, and they had to get out from under their parent's roofs stat, and lo, they could because they knew how to build quick easy housing. And so the suburbs began, and lo, a plethora of books and movies savaging, with a glee I heartily approve of, the American small town moral hypocrisy that was left behind.

But SOME CAME RUNNING has an extra dose of venom; a mean hangover hovers over all the actors. The film moves from Sinatra drinking in a hotel room after getting off the bus and sending the floozy ( who rode with him off to fend for herself) and then sets up a roster of hypocritical small town types--henpecked husband (Arthur Kennedy), his shrewish country club wife (Leora Dana), schoolmarm inhibitionist (Martha Hyer), sexually precocious millionaire's daughter (Betty Lou Keim)--and then judges them even more harshly than they in turn judge the sexually active, hard-drinking rififi of their small Indiana town, while Frank Sinatra's oscillates between the pool room and the clubhouse. But does finger pointing at finger pointing make a right? As it is, there's little reason we should care about this boozehound "writer" played by Sinatra, especially if he needs a Dogville's worth of hypocrites just to look knightly by comparison. His brother may be a henpecked phony, but isn't even that better than just sulking? Frank, why are you hanging out with these people? You don't need that grief. Pick a class and stick with it, or else stop posturing.

But luckily (for the most part) there's Dean Martin, an insouciant gambler who befriends Sinatra since he's good at poker, and even indoors or in the presence of a lady, never takes off his hat, inspiring Michel Piccoli to do the same five years later in CONTEMPT. It's worth comparing the two films as both are about smarmy writers: Piccoli's character is actually a lot more like Sinatra's bitter brooder than Dino's breezy gambler, but all of them coast along on a river of women whom they disdain: Michel never 'gets' why Bardot suddenly feels contempt for him, but he's felt it for her right along; Frankie never 'gets' why he must snap at anyone who suggests he's a good writer, while at the same time anointing his hotel room with artfully uncracked copies of Steinbeck; and like it or not, MacLaine is his girlfriend, the teacher doesn't even like him, no matter what he thinks. That's the reality of it. Uncertain men wind up with the girls who grab them and not the ones they hesitantly reach for like a stranger's ringing phone.

The best scenes in SCR are the earliest: drinking in the wee hours of the morning, commanding Vegas stature with the bellboy while checking into the nowhere town's shabby Main street hotel as the sun cups up. Minnelli's brilliance shines through in these scenes: Frank alone in a room with a bottle and a window as the sun comes up.  It's a feeling I know well. It feels in those precious moments like the world is yours, serene and sublime and empty. But when you wake up, around lunch time, it's a bustling and honking and glaring sunshine nightmare. Frank tries to be a good sport--it's only when he's around the phony country club types his veneer gets sour--but he won't leave them alone, so he's sour all the time.

Dean Martin, by contrast, is a breezy nonchalant rogue with no need for validation or labels like 'writer' (though I abhor his term 'pig' to describe his women). As such he may be an inspiration for both Sinatra's and Piccoli's onscreen characters but neither Martin or Sinatra are French enough to swallow the pill all the way. Sinatra just expects Martin to give up drinking since it's 'doctor's orders' - in real life I don't think either James Jones, Sinatra, or Godard for that matter, would expect Martin to do anything but be true to his bad boozy self, to the unwilling-to-slow-the-momentum Jake Gideon-style end, even if that end is mere weeks away. And Michel's writer in CONTEMPT never seems to realize he can just say no to Palance's egomaniacal American, regardless of the check amount. If he could do that, then Stumpy could take the bottle away. 

Still we stick around, because Martin and Sinatra have laid-back chemistry in their macho backroom poker sessions. It's worth it just for that. Is anything more uniquely poetic and American than Sinatra with his tie loosened, nursing a tumbler of blended whiskey and a cigarette while bluffing a high stakes hand? Or Dean with his morning cup of bourbon to which he gingerly adds a dash coffee? The score by Elmer Bernstein is boozily thunderous and makes ugly Americana into something that still has depth and tear-stained class even as it wallows in overwrought emotions that only Sirk or Almodovar can really make fly. Walking away from this movie you may feel, as I do, frustrated and annoyed but I have to admit, it's the same frustration and annoyance I feel every time I go home to my parents. with nothing to do but drive around and brood and make up excuses for my boozy, cigarette smells and oui oui hours. 

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous30 July, 2013

    After all these years (I was 19 when "Some..." was shot in my hometown and I was in Army training), I decided to see what reviews might exist. Yours is brilliant, mon ami. Needed to have someone put in words so much better than I ever could what I've always thought about this movie. Haven't seen Godard's "Contempt" but want to so I can further appreciate your review. Didn't like Bernstein's score but I will listen again. Loved then, love now MacClaine's "pig"-saint" character, about the only redemptive one. Again, excellent review. Thanks.


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