Based on a short story by the Austrian writer Vicki Baum, The Great Flamarion is full of film history resonance and would seem ripe for critical reassessment: set in the world of vaudeville, depicting an embittered artiste who kills at the behest of a femme fatale, the picture was an early directorial effort from Anthony Mann, who would later become renowned for his series of Westerns starring James Stewart, featured the great Austrian actor and auteur director Erich von Stroheim in the lead role, and was produced by William Lee Wilder, a couple of years older than his better brother Billy. A film noir which relays its narrative by means of an extended flashback, The Great Flamarion was released in January 1945, in the midst of thematically related works such as Double Indemnity, Detour, and Scarlet Street, which appeared between the previous September and the following December.
Yet even at the time of its release The Great Flamarion received little press. The New York Times at least noted the film’s release on 13 January 1945, writing ‘Today’s lone film newcomer is “The Great Flamarion,” a melodrama with a show-world background’, continuing on to mention revivals of Walt Disney’s Fantasia and the Ginger Rogers vehicle Vivacious Lady, and the imminent departure from screens of the Soviet war film The Rainbow. But neither the Times film critic Bosley Crowther nor industry magazines like Variety provided The Great Flamarion with a review. And as William Ahearn has indicated, the picture is listed neither in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style nor A Panorama of American Film Noir (1941-1953).
While his brother completed Double Indemnity before setting to work on The Lost Weekend, William Lee Wilder had just founded his first short-lived production company, The Great Flamarion serving as its debut film. After a handful of comedies, The Great Flamarion saw Anthony Mann making an early foray into film noir, the likes of T-Men, Railroaded!, and Raw Deal following before in 1950 the director turned his hand to the Western with The Furies and Winchester ’73. When Queen Kelly in 1929 and Hello, Sister! in 1933 had been beset by production quarrels and spiralling costs, Erich von Stroheim had been forced to return to the role of actor, The Great Flamarion falling roughly between his standout performances in La Grande Illusion and Sunset Boulevard. And Mary Beth Hughes, who plays the Flamarion’s love interest, was making her appearance in the film shortly after The Ox-Bow Incident, with 20th Century Fox deciding not to renew her contract when it expired towards the end of 1943. Thus the main players in The Great Flamarion were at various crossroads in their careers, perhaps explaining why the film seems to have slipped through the cracks.
One contemporary reference to The Great Flamarion came in The New York Times on 15 July 1945, six months after its release. In an article entitled ‘Hays Code Irks Britain’, Clifton Daniel discussed the set of moral guidelines then governing film production in the United States, identifying three British films recently objected to in America: Fanny by Gaslight for its name and opening sequence, located in a brothel, The Way to the Stars for the line ‘get the hell out of here’, and Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, in which the expression ‘Norman bastards’ had to be converted into ‘Norman dastards’. Daniel cited the response of Ernest Betts in The Sunday Express, who in a review of The Great Flamarion had written ‘it gives me a laugh to see the American Hays organization cutting the word ‘damn’ out of ‘Henry V’ and letting this film get by’. And indeed the subject matter of The Great Flamarion is fairly coarse, featuring two murders and a glamorous young woman intent on bringing all the men in her life to ruin.
It is Mexico City, 1936. We follow a throng of customers into a theatre, where a man performs a pasodoble on stage to the genteel strumming of a Flamenco guitar. In the next act a clown (Lester Allen) mimes, japes, and jigs about in oversized shoes. Suddenly shots are fired backstage, and amid all the commotion we see a man in a top hat, with an apparent pain in his side, surreptitiously ascending to the catwalk. The director of the theatre announces to the audience that in the circumstances they are forced to terminate the night’s show. And a police officers climbs the catwalk and shines his torch, but misses the man in the top hat, who ducks just out of view.
Though we are not shown the body, we come to understand that a female performer has been murdered, her partner accused of shooting her to death, and as the rest of the cast and crew gather on the stage for questioning, the man in the top hat looks down from above through a set of grates. It transpires that the woman has not been shot after all, but instead strangled. As people disperse, a stagehand remarks to the clown, ‘That fellow was right: life’s nothing but a stage, and everybody plays on it’, before he too departs. Then a noise comes from the rafters, followed by a thudding sound, and the clown discovers a man who he recognises as the Flamarion (Erich von Stroheim), lying prone and struggling through his last breaths. Confessing that he is guilty of the woman’s murder, the Flamarion slowly begins to recount the steps that brought him to this fate.
In Pittsburgh we witness the Flamarion’s act: performed within the context of a love triangle, with two pistols he fires bullets that pass close enough to light a woman’s cigarette and remove the right strap of her dress, while intimidating but never striking her intruding lover. His prowess with a gun wins him the girl, and the Flamarion’s act ends to applause.
The couple he hires to perform alongside him are married, and six years ago made up according to the Flamarion’s description a third-rate dancing act. He had always considered their marriage happy, but in private we see them arguing, Al (Dan Duryea) reciting Connie’s (Mary Beth Hughes) history of using men for financial gain, and telling her ‘If you think I’m going to let you go so some other guy can have you, you’re off your nut’. Al’s drunkenness is causing problems on and off stage, and Connie uses the situation to get closer to the Flamarion, presenting herself as trustworthy and implying feelings of romance. The Flamarion loved once but was double-crossed, and now lives a lonely life, haughtily devoted to his art, but gradually Connie emerges as a way out. Disguising a plot as a dream, she suggests that she and the Flamarion would be happy together if only something could be done about Al.
As a noir The Great Flamarion can seem fairly flat, the narrative resolute in Connie’s guilt, while the cinematography offers little beyond the conventional lights and darks of clandestine meetings and brief moments of reflection lit by the moon through window slats. Dan Duryea, already an accomplished actor, later that year featured again as the third man in Scarlet Street, while Mary Beth Hughes is at once brash and alluring, utterly convincing as the gorgeous temptress who enjoys provoking men while keeping her eyes coolly on their finances. But the texture here, what sets The Great Flamarion apart from the mundane, owes largely to the presence of Stroheim – who moves from imperious asceticism to a love-stricken stupor without ever losing a certain vulnerability and an overweening but protecting sense of pride – and to the conceit of the framing narrative.
Von Stroheim was no fan of the flashback structure, his biographer Arthur Lenning quoting him as saying ‘All my advices were for nothing. The end was the beginning and that was the beginning of the end. Again and again I say that people at large are not interested in a story when they know from the beginning that one of the principal actors is dead’. Yet this conceit lends The Great Flamarion depth if we consider that it renders the body of the film solely one man’s point of view. The facts are that a woman’s husband was killed, followed at a later date by the woman herself: everything else is conjecture, the negative depiction of Connie perhaps showing nothing more than misogyny, unrequited love, or the desire to commit murder in cold blood. How are we to interpret scenes narrated by the Flamarion on his deathbed which show Connie and Al behind closed doors?
Waiting with his cowl and cane before fatefully taking the stage with Al and Connie, Flamarion recalls ‘I was like a man who walks through a nightmare with feet of lead. I didn’t speak, I didn’t dare to. I simply went on because now there was no turning back’ – but this is before the decisive action has taken place, and by resorting to the language of nightmare and betrayal, is the Flamarion simply speaking in self defence? At other points he belabours language, as when he describes ‘Mechanically I moved about the stage like a machine’, while the climax in Mexico City becomes archly horrific, the Flamarion intoning to Connie ‘this one time you’ll keep your date’.
On the other hand there are points of detail which might appear to corroborate the Flamarion’s account, like the preparations he makes ahead of Connie’s expected arrival in Chicago, when he orders bouquets of flowers, roses, six gardenias for her pillow, and a corsage with ‘three orchids, white’. Alone the Flamarion dances about the suite, the only time his rigid manner gives way to something circular and spontaneous. But later that evening, in one of the film’s few comic moments – the other is when a tramp lingers between the Flamarion and Connie on a park bench – as an expectant Flamarion sits in the lobby of the hotel, a messenger rushes down the stairs with a telegram ostensibly shouting his name, only there has been a mix-up of near homophones, and the Flamarion is left with nothing.
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‘Somewhere in the shadows, Anthony Mann’s “The Great Flamarion” got lost. It doesn’t appear in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference To The American Style (“Encyclopedic”) or in A Panorama of American Film Noir (“Panorama”). This film is critical to understanding how film noir was left for dead by Hollywood and it is part of a group of films that defined for a brief dark moment the influence of the French film noirs on Hollywood filmmakers.’ – William Ahearn, ‘The Death of Film Noir Part II: The Film Noirs of Antony Mann’
‘In Mann’s highly inventive low-budget film, Stroheim plays an artist whose severe self-discipline and exacting standards come at a high price: isolation, naïveté, and vulnerability. It’s Mann’s film, but Stroheim’s performance, character, and story are so powerful and so exemplary that his very presence in a movie makes it his own—a reflection of his life as well as of his art, on both sides of the camera.’ – Richard Brody, ‘DVD of the Week: The Great Flamarion’, The New Yorker
‘Film historian Jeanine Basinger has written that The Great Flamarion “contains the prototype of what would become the Mann hero – a character whose present is shaped by a scar (or secret) from his past.” Von Stroheim plays that character, a vaudeville performer whose specialty is a trick gunshot act, and whose “scar” is a failed romance many years earlier which has left him hating women ever since. His gunshot-act assistants, played by Mary Beth Hughes and Dan Duryea, are married, but Hughes seduces von Stroheim into getting rid of her husband only to then betray him, in true femme fatale style. Von Stroheim winds up learning the hard way what it’s like to fall for the wrong woman in one of these movies: miserable.’ – Jeremy Arnold, ‘The Great Flamarion’, TCM
‘One interesting aspect is the striking similarity of the reckoning between the lovestruck older man and the manipulative younger woman in this movie and in Scarlet Street, which was released almost a year later, near the end of 1945. Apparently Lang had been hoping to adapt Renoir’s La Chienne for quite some time, according to David Kalat’s Kino DVD commentary for Scarlet Street, so any similarities are probably coincidental. Still, consider some of the last lines spoken by each of the two female characters in their final, fateful moments:
Connie Wallace to Flamarion: Why, you poor sucker. How could anyone love you? That fat, bald neck; those squinty eyes. You’re old, you’re ugly. Even the touch of you makes me sick. I hated you, and I’ve always hated you.
Kitty March to Chris Cross in Scarlet Street: I’m not crying, you fool, I’m laughing! Oh, you idiot, how can a man be so dumb? I’ve been waiting to laugh in your face ever since I met you. You’re old and ugly and I’m sick of you–sick, sick, sick!’ – Haggai, ‘The Great Flamarion (1945)’, Film Noir of the Week
‘“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.’ – Monica Sullivan, ‘Movie Review: The Great Flamarion’, Movie Magazine International