Saturday, January 11, 2014

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "THE GREAT FLAMARION" (1945)

It's a question not asked in polite circles but... aren't there some people who meet unhappy ends that, y'know, are just asking for it? The Great Flamarion has enough to field a basketball team: four saps and one no good dame. 

The titular Flamarion (sap #1) is a sharpshooter touring vaudeville with two assistants, Connie (the no-good dame) and her dipso husband Al (sap #2). A sociopathic grifter from way back, Connie seduces Flamarion into "accidentally" killing Al during their act one night. Once a cold-hearted loner, now hopelessly in love, Flamarion sees his plans for marriage go kablooey when Connie suggests they split up for a few months in order to divert suspicion. 

When she doesn't show up at a pre-arranged time and place -- and his telegram to her is returned with a taunting "ADDRESS UNKNOWN" -- Flamarion realizes he's been had, and spends his last dollar tracking her down, eventually finding her in a Mexico City vaudeville theatre. Connie's now an assistant to her latest lover, Eddie the trick bicyclist (sap #3), while putting the moves on an acrobat (sap #4). Startled by Flamarion suddenly shooting out the lights in her dressing room, Connie gives him the ol' Honey-where-were-you routine to no avail. Grabbing her own gun, Connie shoots Flamarion, who has enough strength to strangle her to death before he himself dies onstage after falling from the rafters. If only show business was really this exciting.

"The drink's on me! Or is it you?"
A surprisingly sophisticated noirish drama from Republic Pictures -- whose releases tended to be B-Westerns with the likes of Roy Rogers -- The Great Flamarion provides a tremendous showcase for Erich von Stroheim (Flamarion), Mary Beth Hughes (Connie) and Dan Duryea, whose portrayal of the perpetually hammered Al veers from irritating -- as Connie asks him, "Can't you stay sober long enough to stooge for a couple of guns?" --  to boorish to, eventually, pathetic without missing a beat. He's the kind of alky who generously offers to buy a drink for the guy from whom he just borrowed five dollars. 

Load your pistol, Erich, before it's too late.
But this is von Stroheim and Hughes' show all the way. Once one of Hollywood's outstanding directors and character actors, von Stroheim -- who seems to have been born wearing a monocle -- was now punching the clock on Poverty Row. Imposing (despite his 5'7" height) with a gleaming head, a neck the size of a concrete pillar, a guttural Austrian accent and perpetual scowl, von Stroheim -- "the man you love to hate" -- seems out of place in the seedy world of vaudeville, making his descent into the arms of a deceitful jane that much more pitiable. By the time he's fatally shot, both you and he are relieved just to see him put out of his misery. It was a rare, perhaps unique, chance for von Stroheim to portray vulnerability and, as such, was probably one of his more challenging career moves -- even more than just walking through the lowly Republic gates to begin with. 

Mary Beth Hughes, with her sexy-girl-next-door style, is like a silver dollar gleaming in the gutter. No matter how beautiful it shines, once you pick it up you're covered in muck. Initially
Hey ladies, wouldn't this turn you on?
resistant -- "Your personal feelings do not interest me in the least" -- Flamarion gradually succumbs to her faux-charms. Connie breathily claims to be aroused when he shoots off the strap of her dress onstage, murmuring, "Every bullet is a caress." (This is another compliment I've yet to hear from my wife.) Of course it's all a lie, a far cry from her final insults before her death: "Why, you poor sucker! How can anyone love you? That fat bald neck, the squinty eyes. You're old, you're ugly. Even the touch of you makes me sick!" I wonder how von Stroheim -- who, frankly, looks exactly the way he's described -- felt while hearing those words spat at him by a woman who, in real life, would have probably said the same thing.  


The Great Flamarion overflows with great noir dialogue. One exchange is almost a textbook example of the seedy B-movie world. Connie, already having hooked Flamarion, is at a bar planning to run away with Eddie when Al stumbles over.

AL: I was lookin' for ya. I need some dough.
CONNIE: I don't have any with me.
AL: Well, what did you do --
CONNIE: What did I do with it? How much do you think is left in the grouch bag after the way you've been kicking it around? 
AL: For the love of Mike, cut out the preachin'. (to bartender:) Hey George, gimme a bourbon. And see what the boys in the back room will have. Better make mine a double bourbon, George. (glaring at Connie:) I'm in kind of a hurry. 
CONNIE: Y'know, no matter how fast you can drink, the distilleries can stay way ahead of ya.
AL: Yup. But by next week, I'll have 'em workin' nights to do it. (Connie tries to take Al's drink; he slaps her hand away.) Some day you're gonna do that and not pull back anything but a stump!

Now that's a conversation. Did people really talk like that in the '40s? If so, they were a lot more colorful than today's dullards, who describe everything as "amazing" and "mad crazy." And while we're on the subject, were these noirs about unfaithful women playing on the fears of American soldiers overseas during the War? Or were all dolls really two-timers back in the day? If nothing else, years of watching B-movies go along way to explaining my issues involving trust.  


Flamarion spills his guts in
more ways than one.
Much of the credit for The Great Flamarion's success has to go to director Anthony Mann, still at the beginning of his career before his elevation as a film auteur in the '50s. Telling the story in flashback from Flamarion's dying confession, Mann uses the kinds of interesting camera angles and lighting that make a movie like this stand out from the rest of its kind. He's got a good way with the cast, too, allowing the actors long takes to speak their dialogue without abrupt edits. It really goes to show what some thought and care will do for a project that other directors would've considered a one-take quickie. 

Just as an example, Mann gives von Stroheim a wonderful moment the actor probably never experienced in any movie before or after.
The man you love to hate to love to
dance.
Waiting for Connie to arrive in his lush hotel room after their three-month separation, Flamarion has been primping and preening, arranging flowers just so, when he suddenly breaks out into a solo waltz like a lovestruck teenager preparing for his first date. It's charming, hilarious and very sad all at once; he has no idea that Connie's currently shacking up with Eddie somewhere in Central America. Just call him Erich von Sucker.





Wilder, von Stroheim, Hughes,
Duryea and Mann try to ignore
Billy Wilder's insults.
Just how much input producer W. Lee Wilder had is difficult to say. He was once endorsed by his brother, the legendary writer/director Billy Wilder, as "a dull son of a bitch." A former handbag manufacturer, W. Lee Wilder's other movies include Phantom from Space, Killers from Space and, in a welcome change, The Snow Creature. What The Great Flamarion lacks in his brother's Double Indemnity production values ultimately quadruples in the overall sap quotient. Never have so many marks been preyed upon by a woman in one movie -- and in only 77 minutes. 

Unfortunately for a movie perfectionist like me, the original credit sequence on circulating prints of The Great Flamarion was replaced by a generic opening by TV-Pic, the distribution company that ran it on television in the '50s. The saving grace, however, was that TV-Pic appeared to have used the original negative; the movie is excellent for a public domain B-production, with faces popping out from shadows like the bullets Flamarion fires onstage. As with many other movies dissected here, The Great Flamarion has been unjustly forgotten, probably due its orphan status. However, being available for free on YouTube can only help revive its stature for new generations of fans of film noir, B-movies, treacherous dames and the Second Amendment.


                                                      ***************

No comments: