Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
Mexico City 1936: shots ring out backstage during the performance by a theatrical variety
troupe. The protesting husband of a murdered woman, half of their trick bicycle act, is
promptly arrested. But as the theatre grows silent and eventually clears, an injured man
falls from overhead onto the stage, gasps out his guilt and begins his sad story in flashback...
Directed by the great Anthony Mann, starring the even greater Erich von Stroheim, and including a strong supporting role for a memorable Dan Duryea, The Great Flamarion is a cult film waiting to happen. The fact that it hasn't yet, over here, can be put down to the rarity of its appearances on TV (not least in the UK - where there is no DVD available, either) or the poor versions in which it only exists on region one, stateside. Only in France apparently can there be found a decent edition, as over there they presumably know a good thing when they see it.
Anthony Mann's career started in B-movies, where he quickly made a mark for himself with some superlative film noirs such as T-Men (1947), and Border Incident (1949), films frequently characterised by striking monochrome cinematography as well as taut and assured direction. Appearing a couple of years before this first great period in his output, The Great Flamarion anticipates some of the highlights of the films to follow, as it includes some especially noteworthy scenes with chiaroscuro and expressionistic lighting effects, as well as exhibiting what once critic has identified as a consistent theme of this director: that of a hero haunted by past trauma. In the case of The Great Flamarion it's the turn of the eponymous, dying, theatrical sharpshooter initially played as a martinet by Erich von Stroheim: a man driven by his most recent betrayal as well as haunted by a doomed romance of some years before.
Von Stroheim's career as a great silent director arguably reached a pinnacle with Greed (1924) before crash-diving through allegations of budgetary extravagance, orgies on set, as well as his own professional disdain for the front office. After Queen Kelly (1929) he never really directed again, instead existing as a character actor or technical advisor in the films of lesser men, his charisma and abilities on screen occasionally granting real star status in such classics as La Grande Illusion (1937). His presence as Flamarion is a masterstroke, as the weight the actor brings to the role, and the sad decline of the proud, arrogant shooting master he portrays is inevitably complemented by the real life pathos of a giant of cinema, reduced Welles-like, to B-movie parts in order to keep the wolf from the door. (A similar feeling attends another, ultimately pathetic, variety turn also played by Stroheim: the ventriloquist The Great Gabbo, 1929.) Not that Mann's film is at the poverty row level of inspiration of such other vehicles for the actor as The Lady And The Monster, made two years before. Quite the contrary; but one is still aware of a great man working beneath himself, one whose fall from grace must have been as painful as Flamarion's from the catwalk above. And, as Mann admitted during the production of The Great Flamarion, where he and Stroheim apparently clashed: "He drove me mad. He was a genius. I'm not a genius, I'm a worker."
Von Stroheim apparently took a particular dislike to the flashback structure of Mann's work, perhaps not surprisingly for a silent director famed in his heyday for his realism, thinking that it was crafted to make the film seem 'more important' than it was. Whether or not this is true, the device is typical of film noir a genre to which The Great Flamarion is closely related, through its portrayal of doomed and cheated character types, a splendid femme fatale in the form of Connie Wallace (Beth Hughes) as well as the presence of the archetypal noir fall-guy-come-villain, Dan Duryea. The underrated actor, who plays Wallace's unfortunate first husband, had a fine line in portraying whiners and shifty losers, which his role here allows him to make the most of. As Von Stroheim's alcoholic stage stooge Al Wallace, Duryea is perfectly cast, jealous of his own wife, alternating between self-loathing and marital depression as he cages his next drink from friends and boss. As in his later noir work, Mann shows his skill in drawing out the perilous moments before violence, a process heightened in one scene here by having the unknowing Wallace act out the part of target on stage in a parody both of real peril and an unfaithful wife caught with her lover.
Of course The Great Flamarion is not so great in all respects; the cuckold-revenge plot is hardly original, and the dialogue in some scenes has been criticised. But if the film is ultimately less than the sum of its parts, then it's not for want of trying, nor for the talents it includes, before and behind the camera. Arguably, Mann would not make a really psychologically acute drama until the start of his great series of westerns with James Stewart in Winchester '73, five years later - also co-starring Duryea - taking advantage of the bigger budget and an altogether better script. Interestingly, as in that film, marksmanship is associated with honour here too, as Flamarion finds himself unable to shoot professionally on stage once his betrayal becomes clear. The crucial difference between the two films is that in Winchester '73 the prized gun is won then stolen, leading to a vengeful Stewart's further wrath, whereas Flamarion's treasured shooters are dispiritedly sold by one whose self esteem is already broken. As the unfaithful wife Beth Hughes is very effective as the cause of that collapse: a woman whose scenes with the initially gun-proud Flamarion have been noted for an undercurrent of the erotic, due to the obvious symbolism of a gun barrel. However, Gun Crazy (1950) showed more persuasively how exciting the incendiary mixture of arousal and arsenal can really be, a B-movie that is even more successful in its own terms. The infatuation between Flamarion and Connie ultimately remains one-sided, a lure that is largely unconsummated, either on the firing range or in the bedroom, and we never see the two in either.
The French DVD of The Great Flamarion offers excellent picture quality with only some slight signs of wear, and it can be readily recommended. There's not much else, just filmographies and a multiple choice quiz in the home language, which is fun, if a little juvenile. Not so the main feature, which remains a title that ought to be better known and enjoyed.