The Great Flamarion

After Erich von Stroheim failed as a director in Hollywood, he could only get employment as an actor, and mostly in pretty crummy films. Why did he "fail"? He never really stood a chance. His movies cost too much to make and were too gritty and realistic and even cruel (maybe sadistic might at times be the best word?) for the ordinary viewer. His movies were often too long and just couldn't be shown at a single sitting: Greed was about ten hours long the way Stroheim wanted it shown - not particularly viable for the theatres or, come to think of it, for the audiences either. Though in all fairness one supposes it could have been shown in three or four parts? (Or maybe the very pig-headed Stroheim wouldn't have any of that?) His movies tended never to get finished - like Queen Kelly of which there seems to be a couple of radically different versions floating around. (Different enough, in fact, to be completely different movies!) There really was no way he could last as a director - it's indeed a miracle he was allowed to make any movies at all.

So, it was back to being an actor for Erich. That was after all how he started in the racket. As a silent movie heavy, a most dastardly villain, a haughty Teuton, a despicable Hun, a Prussian beast - the man you loved to hate. And how well he did it! Then he started making his own films. That was over by 1930. As an actor after that he got to do a few brilliant roles like those in Renoir's La Grande Illusion and Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. Not many of his other movies are what you might call great. However, his presence in a movie, any movie, does make it interesting and definitely worth seeing.

The Great Flamarion by Anthony Mann (1945) is in many ways seriously flawed. It's one of Mann's earliest efforts and in its way a nice little film noir. Stroheim is Flamarion, a cool and distant marksman, who displays his superb shooting skills in a stage show. He has two assistants, the married couple Connie and Al. Al (Dan Duryea, who usually plays the sniveling crook) has a drinking problem and Flamarion threatens to sack him. Connie talks him out of it. Al's drinking gets worse and becomes a risk - he's supposed to perform the routine like clockwork or otherwise he just might get shot. Connie gets an idea. She starts to woo the standoffish Flamarion. She says she's horribly in love with him and if he fires Al she must go with him. And she simply can't be apart from Flamarion. Little by little Flamarion gives in and soon he's head over heels.

Then Connie starts dropping heavy hints. Wouldn't it be horrible if Al made a mistake on stage and got shot? It would be all Al's fault, him being drunk and all, and no blame would be attached to Flamarion. Flamarion is aghast. Then he starts thinking. Yes, it would be an accident. Not his fault in the least. And with Al gone he would get Connie, Connie would be all his. So he waits and bides his time till the drunken Al makes a false move and then he shoots - and kills. Horrible accident! Now they can be together. Not so, says Connie, not yet my darling. What do you mean, says Flamarion. We can't get together at once, says Connie, that would look bad. Connie will go away with another show and in three months they will meet and then the future is theirs and nothing can stand in the way of their strong love.

Three months later Connie doesn't show up. She's quite gone. The address she's given him turns out not to exist at all. Flamarion suddenly grasps the ghastly truth - she's used him! She's betrayed him! She's destroyed his life! What else can he do but track her down? Which is what he does. He finds her on tour in Mexico - and the wife of another man. She claims she's tried to contact him, that she still loves him, how could she ever really love another? He puts down his gun. She snatches it up and tells him the truth. He attacks her, she manages to shoot him twice, but he strangles her all the same. Having killed her he dies - but only after he's told his sad sad story in a slightly heavy-handed flashback.

As early film noirs go this is a pretty fair effort. And it's always good to see Stroheim as the duped, used and tormented inhuman monster who's quite the most human character in the entire film.

After The Great Flamarion Stroheim did another dozen or so movies. There's Sunset Boulevard in 1950 but not many other good ones. There were plans, many plans, but they all fell through. He wrote a couple of novels in French and plotted what magnificent things he would do if somebody gave him enough money to direct. Nobody did.

No comments: