' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Flamingo Road (1949)

Friday, January 18, 2019

Friday's Old Fashioned: Flamingo Road (1949)

Joan Crawford, as Clarisse Loughrey put it for The Independent in August of last year, was a master of reinvention. Crawford’s screen story is well known, going from smashing success to barely hanging on, taking a contract at Warner Bros. and fighting Michael Curtiz tooth and nail before and throughout the production of “Mildred Pierce” (1945) for which she won an Oscar. If she eventually fell out with Warner Bros. too, she made 1949’s “Flamingo Road” before she left, also directed by Curtiz, which feels, in light of all that came before, like a kind of career summation and statement, a blending of person and persona. Though the film’s title refers to a well-to-do stretch of Boldon City, located somewhere in the American South, where the upper class is shielded from all the rank strangers, signaling plenty of class tension, “Flamingo Road” ultimately is about the age-old struggle between women and men.

The movie opens in the throes of a traveling carnival where Lane Bellamy (Joan Crawford) works as a gypsy dancer, a shot of precocious kids looking up at these dancers with wide eyes a throwaway moment that nevertheless deftly evinces the absurdity of the entire enterprise, a pretty astute mockery of cultural appropriation for peanuts. After the carnival leaves town, however, Lane stays behind, laying in a tent and listening to records, a wonderful shot where Curtiz briefly lets the character luxuriate in her newly declared independence. Of course, the harsh reality of that supposed independence is immediately put into perspective when Deputy Sheriff Fielding Carlisle (Zachary Scott) shows up and takes an interest in Lane. He gets her a job at the local diner and takes her out on a date. But even if the character is presented and played by Scott as a good-natured fella, his help casts her independence in a harsh light, and that light will only grow harsher as it quickly becomes clear that Lane’s lot in life will be tied up in Carlisle’s superior, Sheriff Titus Semple (Sydney Greenstreet).

Greenstreet evinces a helluva heavy, his girth intrinsically suggesting an immovable object though his smug air does too, speaking in a kind of casual, self-satisfied grunt that suggests he knows whatever he says is gospel. Indeed, much of “Flamingo Road” roads turns on Semple’s desire to turn Carlisle into a marionette of a Senator, a process that is not shown, simply declared; Semple says it will be and then, a few scenes, later it is, including Carlisle ditching Lane at Semple’s behest and instead marrying a more Political Spouse appropriate woman. That’s how “Flamingo Road” views politics, less a matter of ideals out in the open than deals being cut in back rooms, predominantly between Semple and his frequent foe, Dan Reynolds (David Brian), the two of them discussing who is best fit for what office as if suggesting that the votes of hard-working Americans mean nothing, everything merely pre-arranged by the Flamingo Road elites. That Lane eventually marries Dan might well evince real love, but it’s also hard not to read this marriage as being Lane’s best career option.

If, however, noir conditions lead us to believe that whichever way the protagonist turns, fate will sticks out a foot to trip you, as Al Robert memorably observed in “Detour”, a linchpin of the genre, “Flamingo Road” flips the script. The conclusion might feel oddly sunny for noir yet it is nevertheless supremely satisfying and engendered by an intense confrontation anyway. If neither Carlisle nor Dan nor anyone else for that matter manage to stand up to Semple and stop him, Lane does, refusing to stand by her men any longer. She might pull a gun but this is no mere evocation of Chekhov’s dramatic principle; this is Lane taking matters into her own hands.

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