The dark side of sexuality was seldom handled honestly by major Hollywood studios in the thirties and forties. Mickey Rooney once observed that movie eroticism in that era ran the gamut from a light kiss on the lips to a deep kiss…on the lips. No tongues, since, as a movie buddy once helpfully explained, they didn’t HAVE tongues in those days. The Breen office paid less attention to films turned out by poverty row studios, so occasionally audiences might see something that resembled “real” life.
“The Great Flamarion,” released by humble Republic studios in 1945, is a brilliant study of low-life sexual politics, directed by the great Anthony Mann. It stars Erich Von Stroheim, then sixty, in the title role of a dedicated master marksman, reduced to headlining a novelty act in a succession of cheap theatres. His assistants are Connie and Al Wallace, (played by two much underrated actors, Mary Beth Hughes and Dan Duryea) whose marriage clearly hit the skids in the middle of the first night. While Al nurses his bitterness and frustration in a string of bars, Connie chases after power in the only way she knows how: seducing guys, and the more reluctant the guys are, the better she likes it.
It would be hard to imagine how anyone could resist Connie, as played by Hughes, then 26. For her pigeons, she turns on a soft sparkle in her eyes, and a deceptive knack for projecting vulnerability and desire. For the voyeurs in the audience, a subtle shift of her face reveals the truth: her eyes are cold and hard, and she physically withdraws when anyone tries to return her advances. Remorse is not in her vocabulary, but she does hyperventilate when she’s forced to face the consequences of her deadly game of playing both ends against the middle.
Von Stroheim’s Flamarion is an ideal target: a dignified, suspicious bullfrog of a man, he’s destroyed again and again by the passion and tenderness he feels for this emotional con artist. Duryea, too, was one of the few actors who could reveal an underlying anguish and wistfulness while playing creeps and sleazeballs. The only weak link in the cast is the truly wretched Stephen Barclay as one of Connie’s pigeons: you can tell that the director was aware of what a terrible actor he was: Mann hardly ever shows his entire face and he focuses on the other actors in every single one of Barclay’s sequences. By way of compensation, though, we can see wonderful Esther Howard as one of the backstage troupers. “The Great Flamarion” may not have the reputation of “Scarlet Street” or “Out of the Past,” but this stunningly frank film noir is definitely worth an evaluation.
© 2006 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 7/26/06
The Great Flamarion
USA - 1945