Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Friday, July 15, 2011

In the Oui Small 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 (I've not read the books), a 'post-war vet butting heads with his hypocritical small hometown' 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 brave boys wanted to get home and get laid, drunk, and...have some pals pour him onto a bus out of town, where he wakes up from a stupor and groggily tries to find his wallet. He mainly wants to drink, sleep for the first time without 40 guys in the room, and, well, get laid and drunk. Depending on where they were from (and where they served) they found provincial small town morals from the post-code 1930s awaiting them at home--curfews, old lady gossip, bars that close at midnight, and they had to get out, stat, and lo, they could because they knew how to build quick easy housing and there were a lot of unemployed guys eager to do so. And lo! 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 (PEYTON PLACE, etc.)

But SOME CAME RUNNING has an extra shot of venom as a chaser; a mean hangover hovers over all the actors, dragging things down after a transcendent opening stretch. It begins with Sinatra arriving by bus in the early, early dawn, now fairly hungover, realizing he needs to sending off the floozy (Shirley MacLaine) he picked up back in Chicago or wherever he's coming from, before word or her gets out with the roster of hypocritical small town types he's there to unnerve. The prodigal son come home to rattle the chains binding his upstanding banker brother (Arthur Kennedy), his shrewish country club wife (Leora Dana), a schoolmarm inhibitionist who knows his earlier writing (Martha Hyer), and a sexually precocious millionaire's daughter (Betty Lou Keim) he has little interest in. The irony is, he judges them even more harshly than they in turn judge the sexually active, hard-drinking rififi of their small Indiana town, such as Dean Martin, the coolest cat in the movie except he's a misogynist who calls girls 'pigs.' Between these camps Frank Sinatra's oscillates. But does a finger pointing at a finger pointing make a right? His seething disdain for "the literary crowd" who admire his past novels butts uneasily against his sense of superiority; he'd rather hang with people who either dislike him or he dislikes, so he can stay snide and removed. Personally I don't know any writers who would feel that way and be worth a damn; it smacks of a kind of rude fakeness on pair with Agnes' monotonal nonstop bourgeois country club social calendar babble, brilliantly accented by Kennedy as her lap dog husband.

For this and other reasons, Minelli gives us 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 over the fact that the one girl in town trying to hold onto her virginity won't put out on the first date? 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. If your brother wants to marry a rich shrew and put his kid brother in an orphanage, just never return. Coming back never seems to register as a necessity, 

But again, luckily (for the most part) there's Dean Martin, an insouciant gambler who befriends Sinatra since he's good at poker. Even indoors or in the presence of a lady, Dino never takes off his hat, inspiring Michel Piccoli to do the same five years later in the aforementioned CONTEMPT. I don't mention that film just to sound snooty. In fact, 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, while pursue things they don't actually want: 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, though for Frank that means you're engaged. 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.

That's why the best scenes in SCR are the earliest: Frank alone, drinking in the wee hours of the morning in a hotel room, effortless evoking his cool 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 some of us know well. It feels in those precious solitary cracking dawn moments. Suddenly it's like the world is yours, serene and sublime and empty, and you get to fall asleep when everyone else is waking up, which is a joyous thing.

But then, when you wake up, around lunch time, the street below is 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. It's the same frustration and annoyance I used to feel every time I went home to Bridgewater, NJ,with nothing to do but drive around and brood and make up excuses to my mom for my boozy, cigarette smells and staying up to the oui oui hours. Packed with that Minnelli eye for detail, it's never the same movie twice, but then again, neither are you.


  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.

  2. Not a word — not one word — about the performances of the women. I guess you don’t think “pigs” are worth a single sentence to evaluate their acting, even if Shirley MacClaine and Martha Hyer were nominated for Academy Awards and Sinatra wasn’t. You had plenty of time, however, to discuss Dean Martin’s hat (by the way, you left out the word “never” when you wrote “Dino takes off his hat”) and Sinatra’s “cool Vegas stature”. You even describe the authors of the books in Sinatra’s hotel room! Yeah. You only have eyes for the men; the women’s nuanced performances were invisible to you. I’m glad you objected to the term “pig” used to describe the women in this film. But clearly you don’t believe women actors are important enough to consider or evaluate. I have no trouble using the word “pig” to describe you.

  3. whoa! This wasn't about the women. It was about the hat.

  4. SPOILER ALERT! Something I never noticed till my third or fourth viewing of this peculiarly beguiling movie that may take the sting out of Bama's referring to women, particularly the character played by Shirley MacLaine, as "pigs." At her funeral, as the minister conducts the service, Bama removes his hat--out of grief and respect for a woman he had called a pig. It's a little tiny moment that can easily be missed, but packs a wallop when you follow the advice of American Beauty and look closer.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...