Small town on the big screen

DVD Review
Some Came Running
Directed by Vincente Minnelli

By Noel Vera

(Warning: plot twists and narrative discussed in detail)

Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running (adapted from the James Jones novel) is often called an expose of the hypocrisies of small-town life and certainly there’s plenty on display: Dave Hirsh (Frank Sinatra) finds himself on a bus to his home town where he’s met by estranged brother Frank (Arthur Kennedy). Frank — a savvy businessman who runs his wife’s jewelry store and a savings & loan — recognizes the problem and opportunity Dave represents: a minor celebrity who’s written two interesting if commercially unsuccessful books (Frank’s friends the French’s insist on meeting him), but also a wild card (first night in town Dave is arrested for drunken brawling). Frank’s solution? Why modulate (come to Dave’s hotel room for a talk resembling both an interrogation and a counseling session), domesticate (invite him into the Hirsh home), assimilate (pair him off with the French’s daughter Gwen [Martha Hyer]).

Small town on the big screen

I see more, though. Minnelli’s film, like Federico Fellini’s I Vitteloni or Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show or Lino Brocka’s Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang, is the deftly sketched portrait of a small town (the fictional Parkman, Indiana), from its highest ranked denizen (Frank and wife Agnes [Leora Dana]) to its humblest vagrant (new arrival and sometime prostitute Ginny [Shirley MacLaine]). All seen through the eyes of either an outsider or one of the town’s more alienated folk — in this case Dave is both (he’s a returning serviceman who years before had been put in a “home for boys” by his brother).

Despite what he did, Frank isn’t exactly the film’s villain; Kennedy plays the brother as so contrite you can’t help but feel sorry, even if it’s just a front (when Dave ribs him on this, Frank is so embarrassed you feel doubly sorry). Agnes is a less forgivable character, but considering she has Frank to deal with and daughter Dawn (Betty Lou Kleim) to worry about you at least know where her anxieties come from. Gwen (who does attract Dave) is the least comprehensible — you suspect Jones of treating her as more plot function than character — but Hyer seems to be acting the part of a woman struggling between impulses (she’s fascinated by art and artists, and is repelled by the accompanying hedonism). Worse, she’s a respectable intellectual able to talk herself out of anything, including loving Dave (her speeches explaining why she’s rejecting him are marvelous little examples of pretentious gobbledygook).

Small town on the big screen
Frank Sinatra and Martha Hyer

Jones’ lower classes are more sympathetically, but no less carefully, shaped. Dave’s poker pard and good friend Bama (Dean Martin) refuses to doff his hat for any reason (he’d rather start a fight than take it off), a real charmer till he drawls: “don’t know what it is about them pigs but they always look better at night.” Your sympathy freezes at the casual statement, to be gradually thawed by his insouciant easygoing presence till the next time he uses the slur. Dave himself is a bridge between the town’s upper and lower hierarchies; like Dante visiting Inferno and then Purgatorio, he’s attracted and repulsed by what he witnesses happening about town (see: Gwen, only with hardboiled macho flair).

Even lesser characters are precisely rendered. Dawn is sheltered and clueless but holds real affection for Uncle Dave; when she learns of her father’s indiscretions she smolders with real anger till Dave talks her down. Edith (Nancy Gates) is a calm reserved employee of Frank’s, but given the opportunity (in a parked car under a moonlit night with her boss) she leans back and radiates an inviting glow (later when she’s called out she hangs her head in shame). Perhaps my favorite small moment occurs early in the film, between Edith’s mother Jane (Connie Gilchrist) and Dave outside Smitty’s Bar, where the two register as longtime acquaintances who enjoy each other’s company (“I used to have the candy store down on Chester Street.” “Oh, of course, sure — that was where a kid could get a stick of licorice on credit if he needed it bad”).

Ginny — one of the “pigs” Bama referred to — shouldn’t really work as a character. She’s that hoariest of cliches: the Whore with the Heart of Gold, all dim intelligence (handed money for a trip back to Chicago she isn’t insulted but impressed at the size of the offer), heroic patience (she dotes on Dave even when he’s pursuing Gwen), childlike enthusiasms (out on a date she asks Dave to buy her a pillow as remembrance — not just any pillow, that pillow). MacLaine plays her painfully and totally as if for the first time, seemingly unaware of the cliche’s longtime history in film, theater, stage, literature.

It works. When Dave is being cruel (he qualifies as both hero and villain if anyone does) she responds with startling dignity (“You should not have talked to me like that.”); when Dave relents and shows her a shred of affection, she flings herself on him. You cringe at her vulnerability the same time you step back a little in awe of her selflessness, her purity.

Small town on the big screen
Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine in Some Came Running

Amazingly, the character’s not all raw instinct; MacLaine gives the game away when she steps up to deliver a drunken rendition of “After You’ve Gone” — her voice shrill and powerful and a touch off (Or is she riffing — brilliantly — on the melody?). Her entire performance, I submit, takes its cue from this silly stunning moment (an excellent vocalist parodying poor singing) just as the entire film takes its cue from her performance (a poignant tragedy parodying lurid melodrama).

How does Minnelli maintain the high-wire act? Helps that the film is shot in Cinemascope — a difficult format Fritz Lang once called good only for “snakes and funerals.” The wide screen means huge closeups so Minnelli instead keeps his actors at a distance, playing out scenes in long takes that gather momentum and have the improvised feel of the theater stage (you’re reminded of how the screen’s shape resembles a proscenium arch).

’Scope means broad patches of blank space, and Minnelli puts them to expressive use. In the film’s opening, the screen’s long rectangle echoes the Greyhound’s long rectangular windows, taking in all the empty seats — nothing the film seems to suggest is more pathetic than waking up in an underbooked bus pulling into a town you never considered visiting, an unwanted prostitute in tow. Though we learn much of this later through dialogue, the ’Scope image’s array of details — the seats, the carelessly draped man (Dave), the girl’s elbow (Ginny’s) sticking out surreptitiously from behind one backrest — tells us everything we needed to know of his situation before a word is spoken.

Later we watch Dave in his hotel room talking to Frank, and while Dave shows little affection (he pointedly takes a position at one end of the ’Scope screen while Frank fidgets uncomfortably in a chair), he does betray an easy intimacy: knowing without looking from the mirror (the scene begins with him in the bathroom, shaving) that Frank is at the doorway, talking to his brother as if they saw each other only yesterday instead of years ago. In contrast, when Frank argues with Agnes (about Dave coming over for dinner) they’re not even in the same room: Frank stoops into his office phone while Agnes leans back, chillingly regal in one corner of a purple sofa in the middle of her expansively desolate living room. Thanks in part to the sets, in part to the stretched frame, we see how the rich like pour money into the effort to keep apart from everyone else.

Minnelli also uses ’Scope to present contrasting murals of the town’s communities, snapshots of where people are, what they’re about: on a date at the Parkman country club, Gwen and Dave slowstep to genteel band music (the camera following) past fellow dance couples, past ovals of white tablecloth, past a corner dessert buffet (kids lining up to be served ice cream and fruit), and back (pops a champagne cork to punctuate the shot’s end). Later Dave, Ginny, and Bama sit at a nightspot table in Terra Haute when Ginny suddenly belts out lyrics to a song (the aforementioned “After You’ve Gone”). She stumbles over to a trio of crooners (camera following), plants herself to their right, continues belting; the manager marches out from backstage to Dave’s table (the camera again following), demanding that she cease and desist. Three different actions (the crooners, Ginny, the manager at Dave’s table), three distinct layers of sound (the crooning, Ginny’s belting, the manager pleading) — all as carefully choreographed as any number in Minnelli’s celebrated dance musicals, all capably captured by ’Scope’s vast frame.

My favorite use of ’Scope in the film happens when Dave brings over his unfinished short story for Gwen to sample. She does her best to keep him at a distance (deftly positioning a coffee tray and then a desk between them), later suggests a walk outside while she reads; Minnelli’s camera follows as the couple strolls away, privileging them with a sweeping shot of the Ohio River as background — Lang’s “snake” writ large — complete with gently puffing smokestacks (the Clifty Creek power plant perhaps?).

Later Dave stalks the grounds outside a little cabin while Gwen sits inside, still reading. He addresses an inquiring rabbit (“Your girl went that way”), pulls out a cigarette; a woman has his inmost thoughts in her hands, and awareness of his relative helplessness, his Gwen-enforced isolation in all that lush green (with Elmer Bernstein’s piano-and-string score trilling in his ear) couldn’t be sharper. When she calls to him — her voice suddenly tender with emotion — the distance between them has become eroticized, an elastic space kept taut by the tension pulling them together. The lovemaking that follows should be a letdown, but Dave, instead of groping Gwen’s body, pulls the pins from her hair (they hit the floor pinging). Gwen pulls back; her tresses hanging loose, she looks suggestively undone, and you see from her eyes that something has been unleashed. Minnelli by this time has lowered the light level to leave the lovers as dark silhouettes, but keeps her face sufficiently illuminated to register the almost vampiric hunger. What happens next as the scene fades is left to our already overheated imagination.

Minnelli concedes the film’s sexual high point to Gwen, saves the dramatic and visual peak for Ginny and Dave at the carnival. The director mentioned taking his “visual cue” from “the inside of a jukebox” but I’m not sure; the description feels more appropriate to a Michael Bay flick. The carnival sequence I’d call an expressionist tour de force that starts strong, with Ginny’s ex-boyfriend Ray (Steven Peck) stumbling into a deep blood red screen; Minnelli has the ’Scope frame gliding left and right, taking in the breadth and density of the milling swirling crowd, creating an overwhelming sense of claustrophobic chaos. Colors, shapes, figures, movements punctuate the chaos, from bleachers tilted into place to strings of bright-colored bulbs draped all over to a darkly orange glow blinking over the weighing booth, streaming from the overhead “LIQUOR” sign. Ray rushes past a shooting gallery, the customers firing their pistols (no pellet guns?), foreshadowing the mayhem to come.

Bama climbs into his car and weaves in and out of the crowd looking for Dave; his gliding, gleaming presence (reflections of overhead bulbs sliding smoothly across the car’s polished hood) represent Dave’s only real hope. Dave himself walks with the indifference of a condemned man; Ginny follows, sensing her newly married husband’s unhappiness about their marriage. As a kind of baroque gesture, Minnelli inserts shots of a swing carousel, chains trimmed with colored bulbs; the bulbs twirl furiously, generating a sense of unstoppable uncontrollable destiny.

Some Came Running can, I think, be compared to one more film, that other Technicolored fantasia about all-consuming passion, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo — where Scottie Ferguson followed Madeleine in and out of the streets of San Francisco. Ginny follows Dave across the great plains of America into one of the more obscure corners of Indiana. Where Hitchcock’s camera relentlessly assumes Scottie’s point of view, Minnelli’s is a touch more democratic, looking through Frank’s, Gwen’s, Bama’s, even Dawn’s eyes. Where we are constantly updated on the details of Scottie’s pursuit, Ginny hovers around the margins eventually emerging front and center as the film’s living beating heart. You might say Minnelli’s masterpiece is Vertigo told from Madeleine’s point of view: the object of desire watching his pursuer through an unsteady alcohol haze.

Vertigo is a sustained piece of delirium, a personal record of Hitchcock’s obsessions; Minnelli’s film is (as mentioned) more of a document, a panoramic painting of the town’s social structure and citizens against which Dave’s psychodrama plays out. By film’s end Scottie and Madeleine stand revealed to each other, wanting each other despite full disclosure of secrets; by film’s end Dave gently settles Ginny’s head against the pillow he had once thoughtlessly bought for her (and which she clutched with ferocious ardor). Does Scottie finally come to love Madeleine for who she is and not some idealized or tainted version? Does Dave Ginny? We don’t know; we can only ask, and wonder that a film can make us ask.

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