Some Came Running, Directed by VIncente Minnelli

Some Came Running, Directed by VIncente Minnelli
By Ron Falzone

If we are to believe what the small town melodramas tell us, then every village and burg dotting the map is filled with deviants, hypocrites and mothers pretending to be their child’s aunt to hide the “shame of illegitimacy.” To mix a metaphor, these stories are all about ripping the lid off small town America and exposing the seamy underbelly.

The popularity of this notion goes back to the early days of silent cinema but really begins to take root with the 1942 film version of Henry Bellamann’s novel, King’s Row.  That movie, starring Ronald Reagan among others, presents the eponymous town as a placid exterior underpinned by one doctor with a possibly incestuous love for his daughter, another who uses his scalpel to exact retribution against anyone whose lifestyle he believes to be sinful, and a third who becomes a strict Freudian so that he can cure the psychic scars left by these Hippocratic hypocrites.

The great flowering, though, would have to wait until the 1950’s when the popularity of television soap operas and the publication of Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place would spawn dozens of movies whose message was apparently, “Move to the big city RIGHT NOW.”

Any genre can seem silly when its movies are covering the same ideas and territory. Conversely, familiarity in the right hands can create something quite extraordinary.  Such is the case with Vincente Minnelli’s 1958 filming of James Jones’ sprawling second novel, Some Came Running.

Like so many of these 1950’s small town melodramas (i.e., The Fugitive Kind, Picnic, The Long Hot Summer, etc.), the plot of Some Came Running revolves around an attractive stranger who wanders into town and by his presence exposes the repressions of all its denizens. Here, though, that man, Dave Hirsch (Frank Sinatra), is an emotional stranger.  He is a failed writer and recently demobbed soldier who in a drunken stupor boards a bus for the Indiana hometown he ran from ten years before.  With him – and much to his displeasure – is Ginny (Shirley MacLaine) a “good time girl” he picked up in Chicago a few nights earlier. Dave also veers from the stereotype because he is not a highly sexed hunk.  He is as repressed and frightened of his own feelings as any of the citizens he encounters.  It is his very inability to appropriately express these feelings that attracts and/or repels those around him.

While best known for his musicals, Minnelli was also an equal master of the melodrama.  Throughout the 50’s he alternated his song and dance epics with unusually deep and well-observed dramas of people living within enclosed, stultifying environments (The Bad and the Beautiful, The Cobweb, Home from the Hill).  Some Came Running is the best of this extraordinary group. 

In ways that one would never expect, Minnelli’s highly decorous visual style proves to be the perfect counterpoint for this small town tale.  This is particularly clear in two scenes.  In the first, Dave courts Gwen (Martha Hyer), a classic “spinster schoolteacher.”  As he circles her, the light pouring in the window almost imperceptibly bleeds away until their kiss occurs in near darkness.  The second, one of the most justifiably famous sequences in the cinema of the 1950’s, Dave and Ginny are stalked by a jealous suitor through a street carnival.  Utilizing garishly lit amusement rides that swing in vertical, diagonal and horizontal sweeps, Minnelli creates a visual vortex into which the characters are unknowingly being drawn.

In many ways, Some Came Running has a lot to answer for.  This offered MacLaine her first real challenge on film and the degree to which she draws our sympathy made her a star.  Dean Martin, as Dave’s newfound friend Bama, forever shattered his assigned role as straight man to Jerry Lewis with the best performance of his career.  Probably most important, it is here that Martin and Sinatra cemented their friendship.  Within a year they would become the leaders of the Rat Pack, arguably the most extraordinary entertainment meteor of the era.

What most separates Some Came Running from the pack, though, is the way in which it resonates.  Most, like Peyton Place, jolt us through the plot points with complications coming faster than we can process them.  Here, Minnelli takes his time, giving the many layers of each new revelation time to sink in.  The result is that we don’t feel assaulted by the plot, but concerned for and moved by its characters’ predicaments.  This approach allows the final moment, a simple physical gesture from Bama, to be among the most perfectly calibrated and deeply moving closing images in any film.

Some Came Running is filled with trenchant observations about what happens when the painful difficulty of connecting comes face to face with the human need to relate.  The fact that Minnelli is able to comment on this with such intimacy within a widescreen Technicolor frame turns this small town story into a small miracle.