Neon Angel

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Watched Vincente Minnelli’s CABIN IN THE SKY and SOME CAME RUNNING in quick succession and was surprised to see that in both films a gambler gets stabbed. Is this a Minnelli motif? Does AN AMERICAN IN PARIS have a deleted scene where Oscar Levant takes a scimitar thrust after buying a lottery ticket? Am I forgetting a moment in BRIGADOON involving Cyd Charisse, a straight flush and a decisive dirk-thrust?

I’d seen CABIN before but to my shame had somehow never got around to the other. My, it’s good. Shirley MacLaine may be the world’s most heartbreaking actress. My Dad doesn’t cry at films because he is a man, but TERMS OF ENDEARMENT reduced even him to salty face leakage. As Ginnie Moorehead in SCR she essays perhaps the screen’s most moving portrait of neediness and dumbness, making both qualities sympathetic rather than pitiable or pathetic. Partly she sneaks up on our emotions by playing it funny where she can, notably in a wonderful bit of business where she doggedly follows Frank Sinatra into his closet as he dresses. Twice.

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And then there’s her drunken singing scene, which is so funny it arguably blows a hole in the movie — very good catatonic work from Carmen Phillips… But the heartbreaking thing about Ginnie is that she’s not bright enough to know if she’s being insulted, and she usually is. But she gives everyone the benefit of the doubt because she can’t be sure they meant it. She’s really a saint.

Also there’s Dean Martin who manages to be a largely likable alcoholic layabout misogynist, which is quite a feat.

The film isn’t perfect, but as Pauline Kael may have remarked in a startling moment of lucidity, great films seldom are. In common with other James Jones adaptations, it has a whole heap of characters and could probably spare a couple. It’s set in a small town where we meet the same twelve people again and again and they meet each other wherever they go. And if two of them go to nearby Terre Haut, they’ll bump into each other. Which isn’t a particularly serious problem, but you do notice.

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There’s a scene where Martha Hyer has to tell disillusioned author Frank Sinatra that his unfinished story is really good (“The people are so real…”), and it’s probably the worst attempt at onscreen intellection ever written. Both actors are very good in the film, but they both look ridiculous here. Although I’m intrigued by an implication that Shirley’s faltering analysis of the story, which makes Sinatra angry because she likes it without understanding it, is basically the same as Hyer’s — she likes the people.

Minnelli, who has been doing quietly brilliant compositional work throughout, dividing the widescreen frame into subsections, isolating the dysfunctional characters from each other, lets rip with a climax that’s so luridly coloured and dynamically choreographed it does rather seem to have gatecrashed the movie by way of the Freed Unit. Brilliant, dazzling stuff, but is it too much? Possibly, but if it’s a stylistic error it’s one we can’t regret — a case of Minnelli getting it wrong with such panache that it’s better than if he’d got it right. Which makes no sense, but there it is.

Look!

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17 Responses to “Neon Angel”

  1. Well I actually think there’s more to Martha Hayer’s character than people give credit to. James Jones disliked Some Came Running the film. I haven’t read the book but I think the main reason for its greatness is Minnelli rather than him.

    Chris Fujiwara noted that the main theme of Minnelli’s films is one of sadness, a sense of loss, failure and disappointment and that shines through entirely in this film. The thing about the end is that everyone is sad, even the guy who fired the gun is shocked by what he did and for once all of them are humbled in the great human family. It’s one of the great endings in American movies. Also in THE COBWEB, Minnelli’s first melodrama and first film in CinemaScope and with which it shares a lot of the same dynamic framing and focus on dysfunctional characters. Though that film isn’t tragic, it’s gothic as the rather notorious plot of the film should make clear.

    I like Bells Are Ringing and The Clock but this film is probably Minnelli’s greatest.

  2. Minnelli famously said that he designed the palette of Some Came Running, especially the finale on the “inside of a jukebox”.

  3. Tashlin got closer to that effect with The Girl Can’t Help It, as Lindsay Anderson’s aghast review observed.

    Hyer’s character has some nice edges, we change our feelings about her several times. When she’s mean to McLaine it’s intolerable, though. That’s the unforgivable movie sin.

  4. Everyone in the film is mean to Shirley MacLaine at some point or the other in the film.

  5. Yes, it’s terrible! With Sinatra we sense that maybe he’s going to learn better, and so we kind of wait and see. Dean Martin’s conversion is really powerful, though, since he’s established as a man of inflexible habits.

  6. Everyone learns when she dies for him and they are all thoroughly ashamed of realizing that she was better than all of them. It’s a story about a sacrifice and its effect on people, done entirely in secular terms(even the Bible quote in the title and the end doesn’t change that).

    Dean Martin taking off his hat, the first time in the entire film is the gesture of casting off cynicism par excellence. Godard deliberately quotes that in CONTEMPT.

  7. Some Came Running made Shirley Maclaine a star — a status she has maintained to this very day. Even though she’s (quit happily) playing a supporting role in Bermie, she’s playing it as a star. Her ability to “go” where precious few ators ever think of “going” is as vivid as it it is here –

  8. IN an interview he gave several yeas back, Jacques Rivette took exception to Minnelli’s talent, specifically in relation to Some Came Running. He cited a scene involving MacLaine and complained he doesn’t “do anything” with her. Well what Minnelli does is simply let Shirley be Shirley. When you’ve got a force of nature working for you there’s reeally no other way to go.

  9. Tony Williams Says:

    SCR is so difficult to adapt. Before reading the book, I liked it as a Minelli melodrama then began to hate it very much like Jones did after UI read his epic work. However, the fairground scene works as an example of Melodramatic excess very much like the spinning car in TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN. Shirley does emerge much more positive than her character in the novel and, as Jones recognized, Dino is a great ‘Bama. Emerging a year or so after Jones’s novel, the film can ot engage in the author’s acute dissection of American society so Minelli can only turn it into a melodrama. Both novel and film operate on different levels and it is important to recognize this.

  10. I agree that Minnelli’s look at American society in SCR is melodramatic but I’d also argue that the film’s visual inventiveness and formal look conveys a great look at American society in the 50s(even if it’s set in the 40s putatively). One key part is the background detail, the way the clubs and bars and restaurants are animated, and there’s this one scene where Frank Sinatra is talking in the bar and behind them we see some 50s greaser types, just part of the scenery but not quite extras.

    The other thing that’s changed is the ending of course, I believe in the book it’s Frank Sinatra who gets shot.

  11. Tony Williams Says:

    The greasers are obviously substitutes for those diaplaced veterans who are marginalized in the post-war era who either commit suicide or re-enlist as they have nowhere else to go. As for the ending, after all you can’t kill the star,

  12. Can’t speak of the book as I haven’t read it, but in the film, Minnelli’s ending is absolutely right. I think if Shirley were bereaved at the end it would be unbearable. Maybe Sinatra’s death would make some kind of larger point about the new lost generation post-WWII, I dunno. But that’s less of an issue since the film feels so 50s.

  13. According to Shirley Maclaine it was Frank who asked Minnelli to change it so she would die at the end of SCR, cause that would make the film hers.

    Please note that her killer is played by Stephen Peck — a Norma Shearer discovery who can also be seen crawling all over Cyd Charisse at the Roman party in The Bad and the Beautful’s Little Dividend

  14. This is one of my favorite films, and i dearly love the ending. David, I hope you got or get to see this on screen–it’s stunning.

  15. I’d forgotten all about the Le Mepris connection until I was watching it — Michel Piccoli keeps his hat on in that one in homage to Dino.

    I’ll certainly watch out for big screen viewing opportunities for any Minnelli films!

  16. I am shocked, SHOCKED at the obscene exposure of M. Piccoli’s head in that scene! Get a hat on, you filthy swine.

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