I either really like this movie or feel nothing for it at all, I can’t decide, because even though it doesn’t quite dawdle, and the story unfolds at a steady-enough clip, there’s something that feels overlong and ponderous about it, even though it’s just a little over two hours long – and as a result of this it came as no surprise to learn, when looking at the Wikipedia page afterward (I was tryna find an interpretation of the title – it’s a Bible verse), that the movie isn’t just based on a novel, it’s based on a gigantic novel. 1,200-pages. It crossed my mind as I closed in on the second hour that the movie did kinda feel like a miniseries. I guess that’s because there are so many characters and sub-plots all complementing each other so beautifully while at the same time feeling isolated from the rest. Although it did seem like almost every scene, especially toward the end, was tryna be a whole setpiece, something the actors could add to their reel.
And I guess that’s just what happens when your story is as much a portrait of its characters and era (1948, the immediate postwar vibe of small-town America, with the repressed suburban tranquility of the 1950s taking shape) as it is of a community.
Sinatra here, in his fourth appearance on the List (and greatest performance yet), plays a two-time novelist who’s fresh out of the army and disenchanted with his craft. He drinks too much and, while plowed with some army buddies, he gets stuck on a bus back to his home town. There’s a charming young party girl named Ginny (Shirley MacLaine) tagging along, loving on him, but now that he’s sober he wants nothing to do with her.
He ends up at a hotel and then he’s visiting his brother and then he falls in love with a high school teacher who’s too prim for his rowdiness but is also a huge fan of his work – it’s a massive novel tossed up on the screen in a way that, while beautifully cinematic and fun, is also overstuffed. For better or worse, the movie doesn’t lend well to summary.
But I’m totally enchanted by Sinatra here just as I was in Man with the Golden Arm (I see the talent in his turn as the small drunken punk of From Here to Eternity, but I’m a little puzzled by his winning an Oscar for it; I guess what I like here is that he’s sporting a kind of mordant demeanor that I think was a little more keeping with his natural self).
Shirley MacLaine and Dean Martin also stole my attention, holy shit, they’re both right up there on par with Sinatra – but, to be fair, this particular trio might just stand out because they heave the meatiest roles. Martin plays a southern gambler, drawling and cool and suave (though there’s an awkward rapey vibe from a scene where he manages the movements of a tranquilized woman).
In the third act we see Sinatra’s character publish a long story in The Atlantic for $500 and then we see how Ginny, his unappreciated and enthusiastically loving girlfriend, listens closely as he reads it aloud. When he’s done, she says she loves it. True to form, he’s a writer who can’t take the praise (easy to see how Sinatra’s own career as a singer influences the performance), and he starts grilling her about what she liked, and what she thinks the story is about. Gets angry when she can’t give a good academic answer for either question.
But Ginny flexes some spine here and bites back when he gives her shit for not understanding it. She says that she doesn’t need to understand it to know that she likes it. Then, the clincher, “I don’t understand you, either, but I like you just fine.”
I blushed. Loved it. I’m still not comfortable telling people I’m a “writer” because I don’t (yet?) make money off of it – but I do see myself, deep down, as a writer and I delight in little episodes, in novels or TV or film, where the life and habits of a writer, and the strange beat to which they march, is addressed. There’s something decidedly toxic about how Sinatra’s character treats Ginny, and finally even cruel, but that exchange really touched me. I feel like I, too, am so critical of myself that it makes me dodgy about accepting love and praise.
And while we’re on the subject of mistreating women: I just recently had my eyes opened to the concept of “fridging,” which happens int his movie. It’s a word used mostly in the world of comics and it derives from an issue of X where the hero comes home to find his girlfriend dismembered and her body parts stuffed in the refrigerator. Something similar happens here, at the very end, and it’s a pretty poorly kept secret, judging from certain stills and posters I’ve seen from the movie’s early publicity.
Something to learn from, in any case.