Dean Martin was a multi-talented performer who had great success in music, movies and television. In his film work, he often portrayed characters that aligned with his onstage persona of a charming, affable ladies man, with a self-deprecating sense of humor…and a drink in his hand. For example, you may remember the four movies where he played swinging superspy Matt Helm, which were certainly an influence on the Austin Powers series featuring Mike Meyers. Or you might recall Ocean’s 11 (1960) and Robin & The Seven Hoods (1964), light-hearted romps designed to show off the easy-going camaraderie of Dean, Frank Sinatra and their Rat Pack brethren. Maybe you love the seventeen films he did with his comedic partner Jerry Lewis. But Martin also proved his mettle in movies like The Young Lions (1958), which displayed his ability to succeed in more serious dramatic roles. Martin was one of those actors, like Robert Mitchum, who made it look easy when giving memorable performances in their films. They almost didn't seem like they were acting, but left an indelible impact in their wake.
One of my favorite Dean Martin roles is his portrayal of card shark Bama Dillert in director Vincente Minnelli’s 1958 drama, Some Came Running. Based on a novel by James Jones, the film co-stars Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine. Sinatra plays Dave Hirsh, a WWII veteran and failed writer, who returns to his Indiana hometown, with a kind-hearted gal named Ginny in tow. Dave is still bitter about some past conflicts with his older brother Frank, and he’s not exactly welcomed home with open arms. One person who does befriend Dave is Bama, a gambler with a “live and let live” attitude. The two men start playing in card games together, and Bama invites Dave to move in with him. Ginny, who is in love with Dave, is brushed aside when he meets Gwen French, a local woman impressed by his writing. Dave sets his sights on Gwen, much to his brother and sister-in-law's chagrin. Frank doesn't want Dave (and his bad reputation) to disrupt his social standing.
The cynical and embittered Dave tries to romance the reluctant Gwen (she inspires him to continue with his writing) and work through his personal issues. His relationship with his self-righteous brother continues to be strained. Dave does form a bond with his niece Dawn, but that situation backfires when a secret about her father is revealed. Meanwhile, Bama becomes a sort of big brother, conscience and sounding board for Dave. Both men end up having altercations: Dave with Ginny’s jealous and violent ex-boyfriend, and Bama with another gambler who accuses him of cheating. Bama is stabbed and ends up in the hospital, where he learns he has diabetes. He's advised to curb his hard-drinking lifestyle, though the news doesn't slow him down much. Ginny’s unrequited love for Dave continues to grow, and her steadfast devotion to him leads to tragic results.
The film is a fascinating portrait of the sanctimonious attitudes and prejudices that lie just beneath the surface of small town America. Dave’s brother Frank resents his return, and he looks down on his sibling's association with "losers" like Bama and Ginny. The elegant Gwen ultimately rejects Dave because he doesn’t “fit in” with her social circles. She also doesn’t care for what she perceives as his lowlife friends. In truth, Bama and Ginny are more genuine, and more loyal, to Dave than anyone else he encounters. The film's ending only accentuates this point: Dave’s friends are much better people than the supposedly upstanding citizens of Parkman, Indiana. There are parochial attitudes and a real sense of darkness (plus a host of secrets and lies) beneath the surface of this seemingly innocent town. This definitely isn't the world of Father Knows Best or Leave It To Beaver.
|Frank Sinatra & Dean Martin in Some Came Running|
Director Vincente Minnelli’s carefully coordinated color scheme, as well as his expansive use of the CinemaScope frame, adds immeasurably to the film’s effectiveness and visual style. Just look at the scene where Dave first encounters Bama. We see his ubiquitous hat before we actually meet the man. The hat will become a signature part of his character. He only removes it at a key point late in the film. During the filming, Sinatra reportedly clashed with Minnelli over the director's methodical planning and meticulous style, but Some Came Running is a great looking and richly detailed film. The carnival sequence at the film’s climax is simply stunning.
The acting is phenomenal, with Sinatra doing some finely nuanced work as the world-weary Dave. The excellent supporting cast includes Arthur Kennedy as Frank, and Martha Hyer as Gwen, the object of Dave’s affections. But for my money, this film belongs to Shirley MacLaine and Dean Martin. In one of her best early roles, MacLaine is simply luminous. Ginny may feel she's not good enough for Dave, but her love for him comes from an honest and pure place. While she may not be as “respectable” as the well-heeled Gwen, she’s ultimately shown to be more loving and sincere. It’s a part that garnered MacLaine her first Oscar nomination, thanks in part to a suggestion from Sinatra about changing a key scene from the novel for the film's finale. Arthur Kennedy and Martha Hyer also received well-deserved Oscar nominations for their roles. However, Dean Martin should have gotten a nomination for his fantastic work as Bama.
Martin is terrific as the amiable gambler who is skilled at much more than playing cards. He’s also a sharp-eyed observer who sees the world for what it is. He knows Dave’s attempts to fit into so-called “polite” society are doomed to failure, and tries to warn him. Dave is angry at the world and rails at what he feels are its injustices, and unfairness to him. Bama accepts things the way they are, and tries to enjoy life. He'd rather have a good time than fight a losing battle against the posers and hypocrites of the world. Bama knows that particular deck is not stacked in his (or Dave's) favor. Working for the first time with Sinatra, Martin has a natural camaraderie with his co-star (and real life friend) which beautifully defines their characters’ onscreen relationship. Martin's effortless charisma shines through in every aspect of the character. I think it's one of his finest performances.
Following his role in Some Came Running, Martin would also do excellent work in a pair of films released in 1959: as the alcoholic deputy "Dude" in the Howard Hawks Western Rio Bravo, and portraying a blacklisted film director in Joseph Anthony’s drama Career, which once again co-starred Martin with MacLaine. Dean Martin continued to work in films, television and perform onstage until the 1980s. He passed away in 1995 at the age of 78. If you’re only familiar with Dean from his more comedic roles, you might be surprised by his solid work in Some Came Running. But whether you're new to the film or have seen it before, it’s essential viewing. Here's a look at the original trailer, which really doesn't do the movie justice, but is typical of its era: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jv362svYC2U.
This post is part of the Dean Martin Centenary Blogathon, hosted by Samantha, my fellow blogger over at Musings Of A Classic Film Addict. I'd like to thank her for including me in the Blogathon! To check out the rest of the entries, please follow this link:https://annsblyth.wordpress.com/2017/06/05/the-dean-martin-centenary-blogathon-is-here-day-one-recap/. Thanks for reading!