That are certain expectations that immediately present themselves in connection with a film made at MGM in 1958, starring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, and directed by Vincente Minnelli, and not the least merit of Some Came Running is that it completely defies them. It's not a musical, for one thing, though that's a superficial way to start off. Many films - I daresay most films - are not musicals. Even a great many Minnelli films are not musicals, though his best work all is clustered in that genre.

But there's not-musical, and there's something as caustic and bitter in its not-musicality as Some Came Running, which I am tempted to call one of American cinema's first great masterpieces about the psychological dislocation of the war generation in the years following the war (it followed, by three years, an actual MGM musical on the same topic, the Comden & Green masterwork It's Always Fair Weather, directed by Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly); it is based on a massive novel by James Jones, the chronicler of wartime anomie whose books also found cinematic expression in From Here to Eternity (another Sinatra picture - the one he won his Oscar for, no less) and The Thin Red Line, and it is probably the brusquest, cruelest of those films. Which is no mean feat coming from a director whose better-known film from '58 is the romantic, if also distinctly, wearily worldly musical Gigi, and whose masterpiece is the nostalgic, and sharply melancholic Meet Me in St. Louis. So perhaps it's not that surprising, on the face of it.

Still, it's a bleak movie. Sinatra plays Dave Hirsh, a onetime promising writer who has taken his time about coming home after war - which war, and exactly how long ago it ended, is something the film rather conspicuously refuses to detail, and by the time it pins things down to 1948 deep in the second half, it's far too late for the film to end up feeling schematic or overtly sociological, thank God. And longer still it would have taken him, except that after a bender in Chicago, he was put on a bus to his hometown of Parkman (an American Everytown that is specified to Indiana the same time that 1948 is named), with a blackout drunk on, and a dimwitted party girl named Ginnie Moorehead (Shirley MacLaine) by his side, convinced that the meager attention the blazed Dave threw her way was proof of his deep affection for her.

Parkman is one of those '50s soap opera towns where everybody is in everybody else's business, and then is shocked, shocked, to find that everybody is in their business in return, and superficially, Some Came Running is a soap, though the sheer caustic energy of the film, particularly in the form of Sinatra's scorched-earth performance (it is the best work he ever gave on film) makes it hard if not completely impossible to file the film into the same generic box as the tawdry, heaving Peyton Place. And the subplots that remain from what I gather to be a much more sprawling, ensemble-based book certainly give the impression that a more typical soap is to be found somewhere in the material; I am pleased that screenwriters John Patrick & Arthur Sheekman, along with Minnelli, elected not to focus on that aspect of the story, because the most broadly melodramatic sequences are also by far the film's worst: the bits about Dave's brother Frank (Arthur Kennedy) having an affair and being found out by his daughter (Betty Lou Keim) stop the film dead in its tracks.

No, where the film lives most electrifyingly is in a battle of wits between Dave and the whole stinking, rotten world: the world of Nice People like Frank and his oh-so-prim wife Agnes (Leora Dana, absolutely terrific despite being a performer that you never, ever heard of), the kind who behave in shitty and hypocritical ways but understand the social codes that make it okay and even respectable to do so. But it's not a stock "lone truth-teller against the nasty suburban world" story, because for all that the film clearly looks down on Parkman and the kind of judgmental people who live there, it doesn't do much to sugarcoat Dave, either, seeing him as a brooding force of indiscriminate anger who has more or less lost the ability to function around people - his unrelentingly dismissive, sarcastic treatment of Ginnie (perhaps the only person in the cast that the film genuinely sympathises with, even as it paints her as an undereducated floozy) comes from a place of real bitterness and cruelty that, if it doesn't quite turn him out to be an anti-hero, sure as hell makes it problematic to see him as a valorous figure in the face of small town small-mindedness.

This is about as far outside of Minnelli's wheelhouse as I'm aware of him ever having gone (the only greater outlier is perhaps the romantic drama The Clock, mostly because it was made in black and white at a time when he'd graduated to color), which makes it incredibly fascinating as an auteur theory test case; and MGM's most florid stylist certainly managed to put a stamp on the film, though in some very odd ways. It's a visually-driven film, it hardly seems possibly to deny that: the set design and the placement of the camera within those sets is at least as important as the words and deeds performed by the characters in exploring the themes of the piece. It's in CinemaScope, as would certainly have been expected from a top-tier MGM production of that period, and it uses the expansive spread of that frame tremendously well, just about as well as any American film had up to that (point, nerdy aside: the film came out the same year as The Hidden Fortress, the first film by Kurosawa Akira in anamorphic widescreen - between the two of them, I think we have the first truly great works of the format). What jumps out, in looking at the compositions, is their frequent emptiness, and remove from the characters: while many directors, Minnelli among them, had been prone to treating CinemaScope as just a special case of normal filmmaking, with the same blend of shots that anybody had ever used, in Some Came Running, the director and cinematographer William H. Daniels exploit its capacity for making scenes into tableaux, stressing isolation and loneliness within spaces. The interiors, often as not, look like fish tanks, with far too few fish in them. And when combined with the unique blankness and monochromatic feel of Willam A. Horning and Urie McCleary's art direction, the result is a film that feels lifeless.

Minnelli was, above all things, a great director of color: all of his best musicals use the full range of Technicolor to create lush spectacle that doubles as marker of narrative and psychological development. In this regard, Some Came Running is an outlier, even a renunciation, for much of its running time: the first act especially is a tremendously, unrelentingly brown movie, with more than one scene of Dave, in his drab uniform, melding into the tastefully, soullessly beige walls of the town. The first real burst of color comes from a bar where he meets the hard drinking gambler Bama (Dean Martin), and where Ginnie re-enters the picture - MacLaine, throughout the film, is particularly draped in bright, contrasty color by costume designer Walter Plunkett - and throughout, there's a tension between neutral colors and bold splashes of color that obviously symbolises Dave's passions coming into conflict with the tamped-down mores of Parkman. But because it is obvious, does not mean it doesn't work, and the visual scheme of Some Came Running does absolutely splendid work of suggesting the mental imbalance of a man having conformity shouted at him from one side while liveliness and emotion beckon from the edges. I half wonder if the imagery isn't a bit more sophisticated than the script entirely deserves (it does have those drifting subplots, and some scenes that feel like they make their point a couple of times before finally ending), but that's obviously silly thinking. The result is pretty great, and who doesn't want great: an examination of how a man comes home from the War to find that he is unfixed and unable to position himself within the places he finds himself.

What this does tend to mean, and it's not really a problem although I can see where it would annoy plenty of people, is that Some Came Running isn't necessarily populated by characters, so much as personifications of ideas and attitudes: this is most evident, sadly, in the women, Ginnie and schoolteacher Gwen French (Martha Hyer), the latter being the woman Dave bullishly courts in an attempt to find himself an anchor. Ginnie is an especially rough job for MacLaine, who to her credit does amazing things to make the character's aching neediness feel like it speaks to an emotional void and not the male screenwriters' decision to over-write a shrill stock figure; while I can't imagine the character filling any other function in the movie than she does, and it's a function that needs to be filled, it's not remotely to modern tastes how much she serves as a facilitator for Dave's arc, rather than as an individual in her own right.

But this is really true of every single character in the film - it is, in fact, why I think the Frank subplot feels so off to me, it's predicated on a Frank who has a more autonomous personality than the one we necessarily get onscreen. For all its clear and deliberate lack of melodrama (though in a melodramatic genre) and tender emotion (though made by an especially tender filmmaker), both of which would apparently speak to its hard-boiled realism, Some Came Running isn't really realist. It's myth-making, really, the formation in real time of a myth of mid-century American life, and its mode is more expressionist than anything, though that expressionism is mostly of a peculiarly low-key and deceptively naturalist sort.

That, anyway, helps to explain the final sequence, the most visually potent in the film, in which Minnelli finally uncorks all his characteristic technique for a busy carnival that fills the wide frame to the point of bursting with lights and color and visual noise that all build up to something oppressive and horribly frenzied. It is the point where Dave's experiment in rejoining small-town life (what's more small-town than a carnival?) finally explodes, tragically, in the one scene of gentle, real emotions, with a dead body flopping like a bird that some kid couldn't save, and a bit too much music from Elmer Bernstein that tells us a bit too explicitly what we are meant to be Feeling. But one tiny misstep is a little thing in such a roundly impressive passage, in which Dave's mental state goes from being subtly intimated by the movie and suddenly threatens to devour it. In a decade that spent quite a lot of energy depicting people who didn't Fit In to the strongest culture of conformity that its country ever lived through, I can't name anything that depicts the failure to conform - the willful refusal to conform - with more impact, and though many films have done exemplary work in portraying the weariness and discomfort of post-WWII modernity, nearly all of them feel, to me, like they're working mostly within this one film's shadow.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1958
-Joshua Logan's heinous butchery of South Pacific does not prevent it from being the year's highest-grossing film
-Director/producer Stanley Kramer makes his first message picture, The Defiant Ones
-Orson Welles returns to America long enough to direct Touch of Evil, usually cited as the final film of the classic noir period

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1958
-Youssef Chahine's Cairo Station broadens the world's awareness of Egyptian cinema
-At Britain's Hammer Film Productions, Christopher Lee plays the vampire Count Dracula for the first time
-The three film producer Shaw brothers of Shanghai buy a Hong Kong-based studio and thereby form the basis for that territory's future action movie industry