Some Came Running

Some Came Running


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

It's ten years this May since Frank Sinatra died – his status as one of the greatest popular singers of the 20th Century remains unchallenged, but what of his reputation as an actor?

Considering it was always his secondary career, Sinatra still managed to be a key element in some of the greatest products of Hollywood’s last great era in the late Fifties and early Sixties, when big and bold musicals and hard-hitting melodramas reached the parts that the upstart TV just couldn’t. Lazy, self-indulgent Rat Pack vanity projects like the original Ocean’s Eleven or Robin And The Seven Hoods created an image that lingers to this day, of a bored superstar deigning to go through the motions as long as filming didn’t clash with the cocktail hour. But as the BFI’s tenth anniversary retrospective will surely prove, at his best he had a feral charisma and a talent for underplaying that the best directors harnessed to great effect.

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The centrepiece is a restored print of Some Came Running, a top-notch melodrama that stands alongside The Man With The Golden Arm and The Manchurian Candidate as his finest hour. And if there’s any justice it will also boost the reputation of Vincente Minnelli. Probably best known these days as a director of musicals or as Liza Minnelli’s dad (he met Judy Garland on the set of Meet Me In St Louis, his first classic musical, and they were married from 1946-51) his was in fact an extraordinarily versatile career, ranging from literary adaptations (Madame Bovary) to pitch-black satires (The Bad And The Beautiful).

With Some Came Running, he had a chance to combine the two. James Jones, author of From Here To Eternity, used the success of the book (and its film version) to transform an early unpublished novel into a 1200-page doorstopper in which a thinly-disguised version of the author returns to his home town. There he rails against the hypocrisy and superficiality of post-war America, falls in with a bad crowd and finds love with both a prim schoolteacher and a tragic young ‘hostess’.

Writers John Patrick and Arthur Sheekman filleted it down to its essentials, Minnelli picked a visual style that perfectly suited the subject matter (‘garishly lit in primary colours’, like ‘the inside of a jukebox’) and MGM assembled a cast list to die for.

Clearly hoping to emulate the success of their version of FHTE, they cast Sinatra as the Jones alter-ego Dave Hirsh. He had won an Oscar for FHTE as Private Maggio and though Hirsh is a very different character – a WASP from a well-to-do background who’s pursued a wild life as a soldier and blue collar worker to fuel his writing but now finds inspiration has dried up – he has the same sense of volatility and danger about him; Minnelli keeps him in uniform for a good chunk of the film, a striking contrast to the sober suits and matronly dresses all around him.

The film also marked his first onscreen pairing with Dean Martin, though the two had been friends for years. He had just wound up his film partnership with Jerry Lewis and was keen to take on meatier dramatic roles. As Bam Dillert, the professional gambler in charge of the only ‘action’ in Hirsh’s sleepy home town, he provides a perfect foil and alter-ego for Sinatra. In fact it’s hard, in retrospect, not to see the film as a twisted half-brother to the Rat Pack capers, where a life of drinking and gambling is not some ring-a-ding ding laugh riot, but a spiral towards violence, disease and death.

Trying to keep Dave away from all this is his upright brother Frank (Arthur Kennedy), a classic local boy made good with the archetypal perfect Fifties family, but (naturally) some dark secrets of his own. Kennedy’s probably best remembered as the American journo chronicling Lawrence of Arabia’s exploits in the David Lean classic but he was a solid presence in nearly all Hollywood’s high-end output at the time. Here he takes what could be a stock role and transforms Frank into a genuine human creation, flawed but fundamentally decent and trying to resist the temptation to stray.

Which brings us to the women. Martha Hyer is good value as Gwen the schoolteacher, all genteel manners and sublimated passion. But Shirley MacLaine is simply terrific as Ginny, the girl who meets Dave in a Chicago bar during his demob party and gets on the Greyhound bus with him when a drunken whim prompts his return home. She stays in town because she’s fallen in love with him, despite his frequently appalling treatment of her, and she’s the true heart of the film – sexy yet naive, bruised by life but eternally optimistic and good-hearted, in love with Dave despite not understanding him. It’s clear that this is never going to end happily – even without the psychotically jealous boyfriend who’s followed HER all the way from Chicago...

A good, meaty stew then, all brought to life with bravura verve by Minnelli. The striking visuals are complemented by an alternately lush and sleazy score from Elmer Bernstein and the whole thing is a widescreen, sensurround technicolour treat. Minnelli may not have had the recent critical revival of directors like Douglas Sirk and Robert Aldrich, who also used studio system genre pics to subversive effect in the allegedly ultra-conservative America of the 1950s, but he’s equally adept at combining a machine-tooled narrative with plenty of Hays Code-defying undercurrents. This film doesn’t have a single nude scene or four-letter word in it, but it’s still one of the sexiest bits of celluloid you’ll ever see.

And at the heart of it is Sinatra, his screen presence as effortless as his vocal delivery was, in one of his best roles; Dave is a divided soul, too coarse and rebellious to be happy with Gwen but too refined and intellectual to be the right guy for Ginny either. It all builds to a head-spinning climax at the town’s carnival and an enigmatic coda which highlights the film’s main theme: the solitariness of the main characters and the distance between them.

It’s not a complete success – slightly too aware of its ‘literary’ background and too willing to excuse Dave’s misogyny and misanthropy because he’s a ‘troubled artist’ – but it’s still a great piece of classy narrative cinema. Don’t wait for BBC2 to bury this one on a Saturday afternoon; put your best duds on, mix yourself a martini beforehand and get yourself down to the NFT (preferably in a hired convertible). This is a big film and it demands a big screen.

Reviewed on: 13 May 2008
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Some Came Running packshot
A failed writer returns to his home town after leaving the Army, and finds himself torn between two very different women.
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Director: Vincente Minnelli

Writer: John Patrick and Arthur Sheekman, based on the book by James Jones.

Starring: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, Arthur Kennedy, Martha Hyer

Year: 1958

Runtime: 136 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance


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From Here To Eternity