Monday, March 28, 2016

Reeling Backward: "Some Came Running" (1958)

"Some Came Running" is one of those films that seemed to have the pedigree for sure success. After "From Here to Eternity" revived Frank Sinatra's Hollywood career, with an Oscar win for his supporting performance in the adaptation of James Jones' hit debut novel, they re-teamed the author and actor.

It was a pretty common thing back in that era. If a film clicked, studios were happy to order up another version utilizing the same actors, writers, directors -- even stories so similar they were a virtual remake.

In some ways "Running" is an unofficial sequel to "Eternity," about a soldier who comes home after the war and has trouble fitting in with his hometown and family. Although here Sinatra isn't playing his hotheaded character from "Eternity," but something closer to Montgomery Clift's remote loner.

It's an interesting picture in several ways, but overall it's rather draggy and narratively discombobulated. At 2½ hours it unsuccessfully tried to cram too much of the book into the movie. (Arthur Sheekman and John Patrick wrote the script.) Which isn't surprising, given that Jones' sprawling novel tipped the scales in excess of 1,200 pages.

(Jones was not known for brevity. "Eternity" was 864 pages, depending on the printing; "The Thin Red Line," which has twice been adapted to the screen, was a relatively spare 510 pages.)

Sinatra plays Dave Hirsh, who just got out of the Army and wakes up on a bus as it's arriving in his hometown of Parkman, Indiana. (The city is fictional; the film was shot almost entirely in picturesque Madison.) He had no intention of going there, but won $5,500 in a high-stakes card game in Chicago that ended in violence. To save his skin, Dave's buddies put him on the bus, the voucher for the dough safely nestled in the crotch of his pants.

It's his first time home in 16 years. A lot has happened to Dave in those years, but Parkman hasn't changed at all.

It's still a seemingly idyllic place, with the town fathers organizing a huge Centennial celebration to mark the founding, but with a seedy underbelly poorly concealed. The teens dress and talk nice but drink and fool around; the local gossips can spread information about each other (true or not) faster than buzzing bees; Dave's brother Frank appears to be an upstanding businessman but struggles with a sham marriage and an attraction to his young assistant.

Dave and Frank don't get along. When their parents died Frank, who's quite a bit older, didn't want Dave messing up his impending marriage and placed him in a boarding school for charity orphans. Dave grew up rough, traveled around doing odd jobs, and made something of a name for himself as a writer, penning two books that were critical if not commercial successes. These included characterizations some felt were thinly disguised versions of town residents -- including Frank's shrew wife (Leora Dana).

So he returns to Parkman as something of a combination of the town's black sheep and conquering hero.

Played by the great character actor Arthur Kennedy, Frank doesn't quite know what to do about Dave's return. A glad-hander and smooth talker, Frank inherited his bustling jewelry store from his father-in-law, using it as the first of many stepping stones to respectability. One could easily imagine him running for mayor in another 10 years.

He's quite put out that Dave promptly deposited his poker winnings in "the other bank," aka not the one on whose board Frank was recently appointed. This was a deliberate act to needle his big brother -- though I'm a bit unclear on how Dave knows about Frank's doings. Anyway, the siblings quickly take to bickering, then non-communication.

Dave does fall in with some new people, though. He's annoyed at being forced into a dinner with Professor French (Larry Gates) and his daughter, Gwen (Martha Hyer), who's a high school English teacher and literary critic. Both Gwen and Dave smell an obvious set-up, trying to pair up the prodigal son with the old maid.

But in that way that only happens in movies, the two meet, clash, and within a day have decided they are irrevocably in love.

Or... not so much. Fouling up the works is Ginny Moorehead, an idiotic floozy whom Dave met in Chicago on the night he left. Apparently he charmed her, convinced her to join him, then promptly forgot all about her in his boozy blackout. He gives her money to return, but Ginny decides she's smitten and decides to hang around Parkman, quickly securing a job at a factory and a reputation around town.

An old boyfriend (Steve Peck) follows her, following Dave, stirring up trouble.

Ginny was one of Shirley MacLaine's earliest roles and the one that earned her first Oscar nomination. She's a compelling but cloying figure, dumb as a brick and always struggling to catch up with the whip-smart Dave. He tries everything he can to get rid of her, but eventually succumbs to her modest charms, setting up a love triangle.

Normally in this kind of movie the wayward hero eventually lays aside the bad habits -- drinking, gambling, self-doubt -- that are personified by Ginny and turns to a figure like Gwen who inspires his nobler instincts. Gwen even dusts off one of Dave's old stories and has it published in The Atlantic, reviving his prospects as a writer.

But that doesn't happen here. Gwen is mortified by Dave's exploits turning up in the local paper and chatter. When Ginny shows up in her classroom offering to step aside for the sake of Dave's happiness, Gwen is shocked to discover the man she loves associating with a dimwitted trollop. She promptly gives Dave the boot, and in one of his drunken binges offers to marry Ginny, which she joyfully accepts.

Dean Martin also turns up as Bama Dillert, a professional card player who befriends Dave and invites him to join in his traveling game of poker, making the tour to Indianapolis, Terre Haute and the like. It's a quintessential Dean role, a hard-drinking con man who never removes his garish hat and lives by his own internal moral code.

Bama is a charmer because he never tries to charm anyone, offering take-it-or-leave-it friendship to Dave and dismissing as "pigs" any woman who would tie him down -- which as far as he is concerned is just about all of them.

It was the first onscreen pairing of Sinatra and Martin, and more or less marked the start of the Rat Pack pictures. As much as I enjoyed Martin as Bama, his character is a prime candidate for culling in the adaption process. The same goes for Dave's niece, Dawn (Betty Lou Keim), who has many of the same problems with her father as Dave does, and starts to act out. Similar sentiments for Nancy Gates as Edith Barclay, Frank's employee and seductee, who should also have been written out.

Sinatra earned some of the best notices of his career for this performance, but I'm not a fan. He was not a particularly contemplative actor who could show you what's going on inside the character's head, and Dave's journey happens mostly on the interior. I can't help but think what a Brando or Montgomery Clift could have done with this part.

Director Vincente Minnelli doesn't help him out with paucity of close-up shots to help us see the turmoil. Perhaps his mind was more on "Gigi," which came out the same year and earned him the Academy Award for direction.

Minnelli seemed mostly interested in making the most of the film's CinemaScope visuals, with lush colors and complex camera techniques. The final sequence of the Centennial celebration, as Dave and Ginny are tracked as they walk through the crowd while being stalked by her Chicago beau, is reminiscent of the opening scene of "Touch of Evil," also from 1958. It's often cited by filmmakers and historians, including Martin Scorsese and Peter Bodanovich, as a watershed bit of cinematography. (William H. Daniels deserves some of the credit.)

Perhaps the decision to keep the camera farther away from the lead actor was intentional given the picture's romantic ambitions. I've written about this before, but physically Sinatra was the human equivalent of a "20-foot car." That's a vehicle that looks great far away or medium distance, but its dings and nicks show up more glaringly the closer you step to.

With his multiple scars, deformed ear and acne-pitted cheeks, Sinatra was no longer the baby-faced crooner who made the girls swoon. His hairline was rapidly fleeing, and despite the use of concealing makeup his balding crown shines prominently in many of the shots. By the following year he'd successfully transitioned into toupee acting.

Since I was often bored during the movie, I wondered exactly how old the character of Dave was supposed to be. Both Sinatra and Kennedy were in their early 40s when the movie was made, so the idea of one brother being significantly older doesn't hold much air. My guess is Dave is around 30, but with Sinatra's creaky looks and stiff acting he seems closer to 50.

"Some Came Running" the book was savaged by critics, though the movie fared better -- more than it deserved, I deem.

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