Small town on big screen
(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 hometown 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 insist on meeting him), but also a wild card (first night in town Dave is arrested for drunken brawling). Frank's solution? Why modulate (visit 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)).
I see more, though. Minnelli's film belongs in the same genre as Federico Fellini's I Vitteloni or Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show or Lino Brocka's Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang: portrait of a small town (the fictional Parkman, Indiana) from its highest-ranked denizens (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 the town's more alienated folk--in the case of Dave, 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 Keim) 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 is repelled by the accompanying hedonism). Worse, she's a respectable intellectual able to talk herself out of anything, including loving Dave (her evasion games and explanations why she can't love him are marvelous examples of pretentious gobbledygook).
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 sees going on around him (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 on this 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: the two register as longtime acquaintances who enjoy each other's company ("I used to have the candy store down on Chester Street." "O of course sure--that was where a kid could get a stick of licorice on credit if he needed it bad").
Fact is the town's social dynamics deserve its own article. There's structure: Bama has his circles so does Frank; Frank's actions are dictated by popular opinion while Bama is (surprisingly) the most outspokenly prejudiced. There's also movement: Frank breaks into the upper crust by (as Agnes occasionally enjoys reminding him) marrying into it; Dave is an unwilling example of a fallen member (Frank felt that he couldn't raise Dave in Agnes' house). Edith with a little more luck could have been as successful a social climber as Frank; Dawn who doesn't give a damn is willing to have some random man drag her off her high pedestal.
Not exactly emphasized but in the background hums the idea that America is a nation on wheels, that this physical mobility in many ways is an equalizing democratizing force in society. A bus brings Dave back home after years of self-exile; Bama drives his crew from town to town, working the tables for a living; Dawn and Edith ultimately take a bus for New York and presumably greener pastures (nice ironic touch, the suggestion that the two may become friends); Ginny rides into town behind Dave, not realizing that she is fated to spend the rest of her life here.
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 performs the role painfully totally as if for the first time, seemingly unaware of the cliche's longtime history in film theater literature.
Somehow MacLaine pulls it off. 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 offers 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.
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 keeps actors and emotions at a distance, playing out scenes in long takes that have the energy and improvised feel of live theater (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's array of details--the seats the carelessly draped man (Dave) the girl's elbow (Ginny's) sticking out surreptitiously from behind a backrest--tell us everything we need to know 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 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 her purple sofa in one corner of her expansive living room. The sets the stretched frame suggest how the rich spend money to isolate themselves keep them safe from everyone else.
Minnelli also uses 'Scope to present contrasting murals of the town's communities, where people are what they're about: at the country club Gwen and Dave quickstep to genteel band music (the camera following) past fellow dance couples past ovals of white tablecloth past a corner dessert buffet (kids lining up for 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 nearby Terra Haute when Ginny suddenly belts out 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 behind her back to Dave's table (the camera again following) demanding that they make her 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 look at. She does her best to keep him at a distance (deftly positioning a coffee tray then a desk between them), later suggests a walk outside while she reads; Minnelli's camera follows as the couple strolls, privileging them with a sweeping shot of the Ohio River as backdrop--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") takes out a cigarette; a woman is holding his most intimate 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 their mutual attraction (when they stand at either end of the screen the tautness is almost unbearable). The lovemaking that follows should be a letdown, but Dave instead of groping Gwen's body plucks 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 dimmed the lights leaving the lovers as silhouettes, but her face is sufficiently visible 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 peak to Gwen (who has Dave so thoroughly buffaloed that the act of waiting drives him into a frenzy) saves the dramatic and visual high point for Ginny (who is so available Dave ignores her for most of the picture). Ginny's ex-boyfriend Ray (Steven Peck) has heard that the couple has married; he has armed himself and is at the town carnival, hunting them.
The director mentioned taking his "visual cue" for the film from "the inside of a jukebox" but I'm not sure; that description feels more appropriate to a Michael Bay flick than to this sensuously rhythmic tour de force of a sequence. Ray stumbles into a deep blood-red screen, takes a pull from his hip flask; Minnelli has the 'Scope frame gliding left and right, taking in the breadth and density of the crowd heads mingling elbows jostling shoulders pressing an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia--anyone caught in its swirl (you're persuaded) won't easily escape. Colors shapes movement punctuate the chaos, from bleachers tilting into position to strings of bright colored bulbs to a dark orange glow blinking over the weighing booth, streaming from an overhead "LIQUOR" sign. Ray pushes past a shooting gallery, the customers firing their pistols (no pellet guns?)--portent of the mayhem to come.
Bama when told about Ray climbs into his car and weaves in and out of the crowd looking to warn Dave; his gliding gleaming presence (reflected bulbs sliding across the car's polished hood) represents Dave's only real hope. Dave himself walks with the indifference of a condemned man (he married partly out of a sense of frustration over Gwen); Ginny senses her new spouse's unhappiness, is uncertain what to do. In a kind of baroque gesture Minnelli inserts shots of a swing carousel its chains trimmed with colored bulbs; the bulbs twirl furiously, generating a sense of out-of-control destiny.
Some Came Running can I think be compared to that other Technicolored fantasia about all-consuming passion made only a year earlier, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo--where Scottie Ferguson followed Madeleine in and out of San Francisco's streets Ginny follows Dave across the great plains into one of Indiana's more obscure corners; where Hitchcock's camera relentlessly assumes Scottie's point of view Minnelli's is more kaleidoscopic, peering 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 to emerge eventually as the film's living heart. Minnelli's masterpiece is basically Vertigo from Madeleine's point of view, with the sexes switched: the object of desire watches his pursuer approach through an unsteady alcohol haze.
Vertigo is a sustained piece of delirium, a confessional metaphor for Hitchcock's obsessions; Minnelli's film is--well maybe not a portrait, more like a candid group photo of a small town serving as background to Dave's psychodrama. By film's end Scottie and Madeleine stand before each other, all their secrets disclosed; by film's end Dave realizes the length breadth and depth of Ginny's love. Does Scottie finally come to accept 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.
First published on Businessworld 6.29.17