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The Great Flamarion (Anthony Mann, 1945)

 

Anthony Mannís The Great Flamarion is undoubtedly a film noir, but it is only ostensibly a detective story. Sure, thereís a murder and an investigation into the murdererís motives here, but due to the filmís unusual construction it plays instead as a regretful lament about the corruption caused by sexual desire. The film begins with a vaudeville revue filled with song, dance and comedy but while the opening shot that captures this action is extended, the jovial tone is short lived. Gunshots ring out from backstage and the plot is afoot. As a mystery, The Great Flamarion is flawed. Though the scenes after the murder involve the husband of the victim (and the likeliest suspect) being interrogated, the audience is aware that a man has crept into the stage rafters after the killing from the start. When we find out ten minutes later that the mystery man was the same Flamarion who gives the film its title (Erich Von Stroheim), the film launches into a flashback structure that makes the sad story behind the murder clear.

 

Flamarion, a performing sharpshooter uses a husband and wife team (Dan Duryea and Mary Beth Hughes) in his act. Although the trademark meanness that made Stroheim a star in front of the camera is here in full effect (ďYour personal feelings do not interest me in the least!Ē he barks), his co-star eventually melts his cold heart. As the two prepare to launch into an affair, she hatches a plan to have Flamarion shoot her alcoholic husband and claim the death was an accident. Itís a simple plot, perhaps the most familiar in film noir, but it is somewhat beside the point. Instead, the extent to which The Great Flamarion is great is due to its surprisingly frank take on sexuality.

 

For a film of its era, Flamarion is unafraid to equate sex to dangerous power. Hughes in this film is one of the screenís great ice queens. All too willing to flirt at first, she turns like a snake the moment she is expected to reciprocate a manís affections. The film hinges on her ability to convincingly manipulate the three leading men against one another, and she more than succeeds. Her unrepentant character is rotten even by the standards of the femme fatale. As commanding as she is, Stroheim is equally impressive. His performance demonstrates considerable range, taking him from being an impersonal professional to a man so happily in love that he literally dances across the frame to a pathetic, lovesick wreck.

 

Their story about obsession and control is told with skill by director Mann. His mise en scene is extremely sexual at times, turning the film into an extended assault by the female body. Even beyond this theme, though, many moments are impressively staged. Thereís a haunting scene where Flamarion sits outside on a trainís caboose watching the tracks go by. A covert meeting between Connie and Flamarion on a park bench is interrupted by a vagrant and passersby as the two actors remain almost impossibly uptight. All of the backstage razzle dazzle that surrounds the actors rarely alters the mood, which is as dour as in any noir story.  Though a plot synopsis might not do The Great Flamarion any great favors, the film stands out for its pessimistic view of sex and its willingness to admit that our impulses sometimes ask us to act against our better judgments.

 

58 

Jeremy Heilman 

07.21.12