Men are predatory monsters in Some Came Running—a fact that the movie, to its credit, acknowledges and is at least partly about. Foremost among them is Frank Sinatra’s Dave Hirsh, a minor novelist no longer sure of his talent and now floating from bender to bender after a stint in the military. After his latest blackout, he finds himself waking up on a bus in his small hometown, where he hasn’t been for years. Tagging along is a cocktail hostess named Ginnie (Shirley MacLaine), whom he apparently wooed the night before. To the dismay of his upstanding, well-off brother Frank (Arthur Kennedy), Dave decides to stick around town for a few days—especially after he meets a young literature professor (Martha Hyer) who loves his work and wants him to get back behind the typewriter.
Dave can be charming—he speaks with Sinatra’s familiar, easygoing patter—but he also mistreats nearly everyone he meets. Dismissive of Ginnie once the alcohol wears off and creepy with his teenage niece (Betty Lou Keim), he’s even worse to Gwen, the professor. Leaning over her, openly leering, nearly assaulting her as she drives him home from the country club, Dave willfully ignores her repeated insistence that it’s his work, not him, that interests her. For awhile she manages to fend him off well, and wittily—“I wouldn’t confuse biology with love,” she says to one of his more florid declarations—but then comes the film’s most disastrous scene. After reading an incomplete story that Dave keeps stuffed in the bottom of his bag, Gwen melts before his latest aggressive advance, even as she offers a moaning, “No.” Director Vincente Minnelli, working from a James Jones novel, may betray his own qualms here, as the instant Gwen gives in the lighting dramatically dims, until they’re in silhouette. It feels less like a romantic flourish than a note of doom.
Minnelli, though, might also be responsible for the movie’s other misstep: the upholding of Dave’s writing as the end all and be all of the narrative. (You’ll also find this idolizing of the creative process in The Bad and the Beautiful and The Band Wagon.) Poor Gwen is given a monologue in which she excuses a litany of great writers for their callousness to others, claiming that they simply have bigger emotions and appetites than the rest of us. This is all bunk, of course, and certainly Sinatra doesn’t have the literary gravitas to sell it. In a movie full of women trying to keep unwelcome men at bay—Ginnie is pursued by a stalker; Frank’s secretary falls under his extramarital gaze; Dave’s niece spends time with both a booze-pushing boyfriend and a sleazy traveling salesman—Gwen’s situation is the most maddening because she’s portrayed as a willing victim, expected to sacrifice herself for Dave’s art.
Men are predatory monsters in Some Came Running.
Thank goodness, then, the movie has MacLaine. Her Ginnie is hardly a paragon of feminism, considering she initially follows Dave around like a puppy dog. (This is emphasized by the stuffed-animal handbag she carries, which just might be the saddest purse in cinema history.) But Ginnie has a spark all her own, independent of the men circling her. I love how she chows down on a burger early on, or later giddily sashays her way into a nightclub act. It’s her willful joie de vivre that charms Dave, and eventually the tiny glimmer of good we see in him begins to bloom whenever Ginnie is around. More importantly, when he falls back into mistreating her, she calls him on it. “You really shouldn’t talk to me like that,” she insists. “I’m a human being.” And a wonderful one.
With her sublime performance, which is at once demure and dominating, MacLaine almost single-handedly makes the movie. I did also appreciate Dean Martin’s supporting part as a traveling gambler who seems to have stepped out of Rio Bravo. And Elmer Bernstein’s score is a weird and moody curiosity, both jazzy and melodramatic. Yet if Some Came Running survives its dated gender politics, that’s all due to MacLaine. Her Ginnie—overly made up and yet disheveled, with hamburger bun crumbs on her sparkly cocktail dress—is the only one to lend the movie an authentic sense of dignity.