SOME CAME RUNNING (1958)

  • Director: Vincente Minnelli
  • Writers: John Patrick and Arthur Sheekman, based on the novel by James Jones
  • Starring: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, Martha Hyer, Arthur Kennedy, Leora Dana, Betty Lou Keim, and Nancy Gates
  • Accolades: 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#53), 5 Oscar nominations (Best Actress – Shirley MacLaine, Best Supporting Actor – Arthur Kennedy, Best Supporting Actress – Martha Hyer, Best Original Song – “To Love and Be Loved,” Best Costumes)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

I have to confess that I don’t think I’ve understood what Some Came Running is trying to do. I know why it exists as a movie, don’t get me wrong. In 1953, Frank Sinatra had starred in, and won an Oscar for, From Here to Eternity, a drama about soldiers stationed on Oahu during World War II, bringing his acting career to the next level. That movie was based on a novel by James Jones. As it turned out, James Jones had written another novel, Some Came Running, this time about a soldier returning home in 1948 to a midwestern small town. Casting Frank Sinatra as the returning soldier seemed like a no-brainer, and the rest of the movie soon slotted into place. But Jones’ novel, it turns out, is a behemoth, well over 1,200 pages, and from watching this movie I’m truly not sure what Jones thought it was actually about. The movie gets the novel into 140 minutes, but it does so by dropping plotlines and picking them up seemingly at random. There are characters in this movie that seem important, the movie acts like they’re important, but I really don’t understand why they’re supposed to be important. Yet by the end I think I saw what the people who really like this movie (among them Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich, who have both written on it extensively) see in it.

Sinatra plays Dave Hirsh, a cynical army veteran who wakes up from a night of heavy drinking to find that “some guys” put him on a bus from Chicago to his old hometown of Parkman, Indiana. This is the sort of place where the residents think of Terre Haute as “the big city,” and after at one point Sinatra gets arrested for getting into a fight, there are hourly radio updates about the fight on the local station. Having a complicated history with his brother Frank (Arthur Kennedy), which is understandable because while Dave is a world-weary cynic, Frank is an unremitting jerk in all of his scenes, Dave wants to leave town as quickly as possible. He changes his mind after meeting beautiful blonde family friend Gwen (Martha Hyer), who teaches creative writing at the local high school. He goes after her way harder than would be socially acceptable in most corners of 2021 society, but her objections seem to be less to his tactics and more because she’s just not interested in him that way.

Dave’s tentative entry into the rural Indiana version of high society is contrasted with the lower class people he spends the rest his time associating with, including Dean Martin as the drunk gambler Bama, who insists that he doesn’t even take off his cowboy hat to sleep, and Shirley MacLaine as Ginny, the most memorable character in the movie. She is the sort of girl your grandmother might have disapprovingly called a “floozy,” but in a fairly specific way that includes being a pushover to any guy that shows her the slightest bit of kindness. MacLaine received her first Oscar nomination for the part, an achievement she credited to Sinatra’s insistence that the climax of the book be changed so that (1958 spoilers) her character died heroically saving Dave’s life.

If you hear about Some Came Running today, the most likely reason is that it represents the first on-screen collaboration between Rat Pack members Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. From this movie can be traced the fact that if you go down the Las Vegas street that runs behind my house and take the bridge over the highway, you’ll come to the intersection with Dean Martin Drive. This was still in the prior phase of Sinatra’s career, where he was a sex symbol. The movie was actually almost entirely filmed on location in southeastern Indiana, and MacLaine later described the set being besieged by Sinatra admirers. One story she told involved a married woman breaking through barriers around the set to try and molest Frank, with her husband left behind to shout, “Helen, you don’t even know the man!” Before too long, however, Martin would be headlining the Sands on the Las Vegas Strip, with a marquee that read “Dean Martin Tonight! …Maybe Frank …Maybe Sammy.” Which is sort of weird because this movie is very for serious you guys, and the only actor in it who really gets a chance to sing is Shirley MacLaine.

From a story perspective, Some Came Running never comes close to transcending its basic status as an overly turgid potboiler. From a visual perspective, however, it certainly has its evocative moments. Perhaps best known is the climax at some sort of random fair, red lights blaring in the background as Dave and Gwen are chased through a crowd by her determined, jealous ex-boyfriend. From Here to Eternity’s black and white cinematography was famous, but Some Came Running was shot in widescreen using anamorphic “Cinemascope” lenses and “Metrocolor.” It’s an interesting use of the technology, from a time where Hollywood worried about competing with TV (you know, totally unlike today), because it’s not some big historical epic or western. It’s just a small-town melodrama, one that never quite hangs together.

That use of color can likely be attributed to director Vincente Minnelli, ex-husband of Judy Garland and father of Liza Minnelli. He was most famous for big, colorful MGM musicals, which was how he and Garland met in the first place. Some Came Running was meant as a prestige piece, but in the end found itself entirely shut out at the Oscars, partially because of the 9-award sweep of that year’s Best Picture winner, Gigi. That movie just so happened to be a big, colorful MGM musical directed by Vincente Minnelli. Some Came Running made good money at the box office, but was so expensive (the cinemascope didn’t help) that the studio considered it a financial loser.

There has been a great deal of discussion over the past few years in film fan circles about the death of the mid-level drama, the sort of thing that several decades ago was the bread and butter of Hollywood, or perhaps more accurately its move to TV and streaming from movie theaters. That is as may be, but I think I can live without a specific sub-set of those dramas, the somewhat bloated, self-important melodrama about… what, exactly? I think Jones might have believed himself to be writing the great American novel, but I don’t think he was (and neither did reviewers at the time, who roundly panned his magnum opus). Nor can I quite determine any actual reason for the title Some Came Running. The movie mentions absolutely nothing to indicate the source of the title. A Wikipedia dive notes that it comes from the novel’s epigraph, a biblical passage from Mark 10:17, which I guess includes the word “running” but that’s kind of it. It just seems like everyone involved is overthinking things here.

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