SOME CAME RUNNING (Dir. Vincent Minnelli, 1958, US) – Twisted Americana

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Sinatra sleepwalked through a lot of the films he starred in. His acting could easily be described as blank. Many of his performances bear little finesse, nor are they memorable. Occasionally, Sinatra did deliver but his career was inconsistent and an extension of his fame as a singer. Even his most celebrated performance in The Manchurian Candidate is over rated and so is The Man with the Golden Arm which finds him in the realm of histrionics. Both of these roles demanded so much more from Sinatra than to simply play himself; he tries but comes up short. It was only when Sinatra played himself, understating mannerisms which he consciously ‘performed’, were the results much sharper and impressionable. Sinatra’s most perfect role, a semi throwback to his Oscar winning role (another often over praised performance) in From Here to Eternity, is also his most complex.

Some Came Running, a high end melodrama, by the great studio director Vincent Minnelli, appeared in 1958 at a time when the melodrama form was reaching its zenith in terms of what was possible within such conventional parameters. Minnelli shoots much of the action (sparse that it is) like a musical, counterpointing a film solely made up of three characters talking; Sinatra’s embittered writer, Dean Martin as a drifter and Shirley MacLaine as a naive prostitute? All of these characters have their fair share of hang ups which seem to hold them back in life but what makes this a significant work in Minnelli’s oeuvre and as a studio melodrama is the class politics that gradually rise to the surface, culminating in an unconventionally downbeat ending. I don’t know why I didn’t see the class perspective when I first watched the film. It gets sort of disguised by other vagaries such as Dean Martin’s scene stealing role as a fatalistic card shark who never takes his hat off in case it brings him bad luck.

Is this one of the unhappiest films ever to emerge from the Hollywood studio era? Everyone is living a lie, discontent with the choices they’ve made and trying desperately to find a way out from the suffocation of middle America. Unhappiness seems to be at the very core of this film and Minnelli uses melodrama to attack post war Americana, depicting a town of people trapped in the American dream beginning to come apart at the seams. Think The Last Picture Show (Bogdonavich has talked about the influence of Some Came Running on his own work) as a double bill or even a few years earlier with Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life, perhaps the most influential American melodrama after Sirk’s undisputed masterpiece All that Heaven Allows. Disillusionment, despair, divorce and displacement have taken over middle America, symptoms which no longer have to be translated in metaphorical or metonymical terms; they exist openly, creating a disconnect which only a writer such as Dave (Sinatra) has the capacity to acknowledge or critique for its incongruence. Dave fears the trashiness of Ginnie (MacLaine) since her transparency creates a wretched contempt further problematised by Gwen’s class snobbery. Dean Martin only gets a few scenes but proves how underrated of an actor he really was. Essential viewing in terms of 1950s American cinema and another film that deserves a proper UK release on DVD/Blu; a stunning cinemascope film.

SEEMA / BOUNDARY – (Amiya Chakrabarty, 1955, India)

Seema was directed by Amiya Chakrabarty and released in 1955. It was the 8th highest grossing film of that year. From 1941 to 1957 Amiya Chakrabarty directed a total of 14 feature films. Most of the films including Seema were social melodramas. Chakrabarty’s training came about during his time at Bombay Talkies and then later Filmistan where he enjoyed commercial success. Chakrabarty was a filmmaker who seemed to evolve with each film and had his life not been cut short so unexpectedly then perhaps his contribution to the development of the Hindi melodrama might be more widely discussed in critical discourse. Seema is one of Chakrabarty’s most interesting films in terms of the Hindi melodrama. The story is centred on the character of Gauri (Nutan) – a young woman who is wrongly accused of theft and criminalised by the state. Gauri has lost her parents and she is alone in the world. The film opens in a refugee camp (a bustee) and although Chakrabarty does not explicitly state any political or historical context it seems likely that Gauri is a victim of partition. Given Chakrabarty’s Bengali roots and the fact that he was forced to leave Bengal in 1935 due to his political activism, Gauri is an exile and the loss of her parents makes her character similar to Nita in Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud Capped Star, 1960). Actually, in many ways, Gauri acts as a precursor to Nita but a major difference exists between the two; Nita is part of a family and sacrifices her own ambitions whereas Gauri’s victimisation by those around her leads to rebel and openly defy the laws of social oppression. Once the police fail to contain Gauri’s defiance, a shelter for abused women run by Ashok (Balraj Sahni) take her in and offer the promise of social reformation.

The first half of the film in which Gauri’s victimisation is the main focus of the narrative is by far the strongest. In terms of ideological investigation, the first half boldly asserts that social forces cultivate Gauri’s destructive nature and her repeated questioning of authority presents her as both a figure of patriarchal oppression but also someone searching for an identity obliterated by partition. The final third sees Gauri and Ashok falling in love and although Gauri is predictably reformed (thus transforming Seema into a conventional melodram; only on the surface though), Chakrabarty opts for a muted ending. It is an ending that promises very little in terms of hope for Gauri and Ashok, and may even hint at an exclusion from society. What a film like Seema illustrates quite brilliantly is that the Hindi melodrama by the 1950s was taking on a growing ideological sophistication and offering directors the perfect vehicle for exploring the lives of ordinary Indian women. Chakrabarty’s job was made a lot easier though by the added presence of Nutan who as the tortured Gauri delivers one of her best performances.