Thursday, March 13, 2008

Movie: The Great Flamarion (1945)

I’ve had this movie parked on the DVR for almost two years. During that time, I consistently referred to it as “The Great Flame Iron.” (For the record, the name is pronounced Fla-marion.) Catching a pair of Anthony Mann films at Noir City finally got me to fire it up.

It doesn’t start out so good. I take that back; the opening shot is a gem. A long, unbroken take ushers us into a third-rate Mexico City nightclub, showing us latecomers filing in, the acts on stage changing.

But the story is too familiar. Older man, younger woman, her permanently soused husband. You see where this is going. There’s some novelty in the older man being a professional trick shot artist and the couple serving as his nightly targets – but of course, when hubby’s number is up you already know how he’s going to meet his fate. The film begins with the older man recounting the entire tale in flashback after he’s been shot. The other famous example of that device is Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, made the previous year. As it happens, Flamarion was produced by William Wilder, Billy’s brother. (Were they both called Billy?) Bet that family reunion was a pip. At least in Double Indemnity Fred MacMurray doesn’t wave off an offer to call the police by saying “I’ll be dead before they get here,” and then proceed to talk for seventy minutes.

Erich von Stroheim plays the title role. He’s better known now for his work in front of the camera instead of behind it, most famously as Norma Desmond’s enabling butler in Sunset Blvd. (Hey, Billy Wilder again! No, not him, the other one.) But von Stroheim isn’t much of an actor. The first half of the movie is like watching a stone gargoyle get the Blue Angel treatment.

And yet ... damned if the ol’ Teutonic blowhard didn’t grow on me. A rock may not be able to tell you much, but you can still read changes in the weather by looking at its surface. Same effect here. Plus it turns out von Stroheim is surprisingly nimble for a gargoyle.

Other casting helps. Mary Beth Hughes, a staple of the Mike Shayne movies, initially seems too wholesome to play a femme fatale, but that quality ends up working in her favor.

It’s Dan Duryea who walks off with Flamarion as the one-time dancer reduced to dodging bullets to buy his bourbon. No one plays weak like Duryea; he actually gives petulance a kind of charm. To quote Eddie Muller’s Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, “He was a serviceable good guy, but a delectable bastard.” I’ll watch any movie he’s in.

This in spite of the fact that, to me, anyway, Duryea bears an uncommon resemblance to ... Stephen Colbert.

These photos aren’t the best, but work with me here. Just look at the eyes and face. Blond Colbert up and he’s Duryea’s dead ringer. Not that I’m comparing the two. I’m a fan of both. Besides, one is famous for playing the pushy, overbearing type, always certain he’s right but still capable of being weaselly. The other is Dan Duryea.