Flamingo Road (1949)

Flamingo Road (1949) is a woman against the world Southern local bully class-status drama hostess-at-a-roadhouse film noir of complicated romances, and double crosses.

Directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Joan Crawford, Zachary Scott, Sydney Greenstreet, and David Brian, the screenplay for Flamingo Road (1949) was written by Robert Wilder. It was based on a 1946 play written by Wilder and his wife, Sally, which in turn was based on Robert Wilder’s 1942 novel of the same name.

The plot follows an ex-carnival dancer who marries a local businessman to seek revenge on a corrupt political boss who had her railroaded into prison. Some of the more salacious aspects of the novel were downplayed in the film due to the Hollywood Production Code.

Robert Wilder, who died in 1974, was later credited as the creator of the American TV series Flamingo Road (1980–1982), which drew elements from both the novel and the film

Joan Crawford does burlesque in Flamingo Road (1949)

When we dim the lights for a 1949 film noir beauty such as this we are ready to partake of the purity of the form and the style. This classic of that very style is directed by Michael Curtiz. Starring the legendary Joan Crawford, alongside a cast of characters that are more twisted than a pretzel in a tornado, we’ve got Zachary Scott, Sydney Greenstreet, and David Brian turning the drama up to somewhere beyond ten, if noir ever reaches that zenith. Personally I am not so sure, as the best of noir is in its understatement, at times.

The story of this multi-modal female story of survival of bullying and romance, decline and crime, is of a woman in the noir world of that late great post-war period when America boomed and the weakened male leads and lousy husbands started to surface in the noir alleys and suburban living spaces.

Zachary Scott and Sydney Greenstreet in Flamingo Road (1949)

Lane Bellamy, a carnival dancer with more sass than a cat with a feather boa, or rather actually and attractively played by Joan Crawford, decides she’s had enough of the carney life. She sashays her way into Boldon City, instead of leaving it as the local bully boss bids.

The plan of the movie is about how and why she tangles up with Fielding Carlisle, a deputy sheriff who is as controlled by the town’s big bad bad man from the movies, in this case one certain Southern Sheriff Titus Semple, who must have Fielding operating in the seedy borough as a puppet might on strings.

Semple’s got a grudge against our gal Lane and starts a smear campaign that’s dirtier than a mud-wrestling match. Poor Lane can’t catch a break or a job, and ends up behind bars on a charge so fake, it could be a three-dollar bill. It is actually substantially worse than that, but a variety of ragefully misogynistic hate-fuelled bullying. Kinda noir.

Joan Crawford and Zachary Scott in Flamingo Road (1949)

In film noir mythology, the American family is often depicted in an unflattering light. This hallmark noir theme is evident in Flamingo Road (1949), which begins with the marriage between Fielding Carlisle and the aristocrat Annabelle Weldon, orchestrated by Titus. 

Annabelle, portrayed as simple-minded and high maintenance, is thrilled to marry Fielding. However, Fielding would prefer the long-term company of Lane over Annabelle’s constant nagging. As Titus demands, his lackey Fielding becomes a state senator, partly due to his marriage to a socially prominent woman.

Ironically, it is this same woman who ensures Fielding’s downfall by complaining to Titus about her husband. Throughout his marriage, Fielding spirals into a typical film noir descent, developing an addiction to alcohol, losing the support of both his wife and his political backer, and ultimately succumbing to moral decay, leading to his suicide. Solid film noir bottle moments are purposed for the fateful character degradation made needful of the dark slide to the dark side, that is the noir feel evoked here.

Night diners of noir in Flamingo Road (1949)

What truly redeems Flamingo Road is the relentless drive of its narrative and the formidable nature of its antagonists. In the towering presence of Sidney Greenstreet, Joan Crawford found a rare male adversary worthy of her mettle. 

The only time Crawford seemed overmatched was by Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? though Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar and Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce also proved to be formidable foes.

In his earlier roles in Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, the most distinctive and Greenstreet portrayed grasping, amoral characters with a sardonic charm. As Sheriff Titus Semple, he allows people to maintain their stereotypes of joviality associated with his girth, but beneath the surface, he is a cold-blooded grafter. 

His smiles are mostly grim, and if he has any emotions, they are so well concealed that they never emerge. As Crawford’s character transitions from a potential nuisance to a clear and present lethal threat to his plans, he never shows anger. Instead, he drinks pitchers of milk, rocks on the porch of the Palmer House Hotel, collects his graft in cash, minimizes his movements, and pulls strings to eliminate anyone who stands in his way.

Zachary Scott made a short fat habit of portraying characters who are easily manipulated, as seen in Mildred Pierce. Gladys George, known for playing savvy survivors, adds a touch of wit to the escalating melodrama. Fred Clark, playing against type, embodies an idealistic newspaperman who dares to criticize the corrupt state and local government. 

The state is not specified, but the title suggests Florida, a state where democracy has yet to fully take root, though the setting feels as much western as southern. David Brian plays a uniquely written role of a builder-turned-political boss due to the rampant corruption in state contracting, which prevented him from being an honest builder. He falls quickly and deeply for Crawford’s character, ensuring that Greenstreet’s character will orchestrate legal troubles for him.

Sydney Greenstreet in Flamingo Road (1949)

If one can accept Joan Crawford beginning her ascent looking obviously over 40, and enjoys watching evenly matched characters battling to the death like a mongoose (Crawford) and a cobra (Greenstreet), Flamingo Road is immensely enjoyable. It possesses a consciousness of class that is often absent in contemporary American films. 

Despite its cynicism about electoral democracy, like many late-40s Hollywood movies, Flamingo Road affirms the American dream of rising in the social and economic hierarchy through individual effort, making it an intriguing document of postwar American ideology. 

"...the honest men get eaten up. There are too many other men waiting, watching, probing for the soft spots, the graft. No, it's better to be one of them."

It also demonstrates that 1949’s Oscar-winning Best Picture, All the King’s Men, was not unique in depicting graft-ridden government and political bosses, a theme Preston Sturges had already explored in The Great McGinty. A bonus is the noirish cinematography by Ted D. McCord, known for his work on Treasure of the Sierra Madre and East of Eden.

Tito Vuolo in Flamingo Road (1949)

Dan demonstrates his integrity by remaining committed to George Parkhurst for governor and refusing to support Titus’s puppet, Fielding. Dan’s steadfastness sets him apart from the more despicable Titus, who is willing to sink to much lower levels of depravity. Titus lounges on the Palmer House porch like a slug when not engaged in his exclusively dishonorable activities. 

He likely first envisioned controlling the entire state with the easily manipulated Fielding under his thumb while perched on that porch. Power-hungry men like Titus support candidates who are strong enough to get elected, often due to their family name, but weak enough to be controlled by their backers who remain hidden behind the scenes. 

There is a noticeable homoerotic subtext in the sheriff’s endorsement of Fielding, who marries Annabelle but is, in a sense, already married to Titus. After Fielding proves he lacks the stomach for Titus’s tactics, the portly county sheriff shows a propensity for bold violence by throwing a drunken Fielding out of his own office, a scene staged like a lover’s quarrel. 

Ultimately, Titus double-crosses his own inner circle and positions himself confidently as the next governor. In a particularly hypocritical and dirty move, Titus forces Dan’s project manager, Burr Lassen (William Haade), to use convicts as unpaid labor to set Dan up for peonage charges. 

In a moment of honest reflection about Titus’s political prominence, Dan admits to local newspaperman Doc Waterson (Fred Clark), “…it’s men like me that make them possible.” 

To discourage a communist interpretation of the film, Doc conveys a more optimistic mindset, saying, “…I don’t think our form of government’s so bad that honest men can’t run it.” 

However, to emphasize Flamingo Road’s overarching cynicism, Titus recognizes the need to control the bothersome journalist eventually. The brand of cronyism Titus favours operates best with the newsman either passive or as a partner.

In this narrative, assumptions about capitalism apply, with Fielding falling while Lane rises. However, Lane’s marriage to Dan brings its own challenges, particularly in terms of class relations. The society woman Annabelle dismissively refers to Lane as “a woman of that sort.” 

Eventually, Dan turns his back on Lane when she reveals why Titus judges her so harshly. The film’s resolution leaves us uncertain about Lane and Dan’s future. Presumably, Dan will continue to play the capitalist game with his wife along for the ride, but there could be a significant change in his business mentality after being manipulated by Titus. 

Dan’s future ethical boundaries are left to conjecture. He seems set to stick by his wife, but whether he will allow his state to be governed by honest men, as Doc suggests, remains uncertain.

"The people haven't elected anyone in this state for so long they've lost the habit. It's a lot of trouble to go to the polls. Usually it interferes with a baseball game or a fishing trip. When people don't care, they get about what they deserve."

David Brian in Flamingo Road (1949)

The classic noir movement champions the working woman. Time and again, the genre’s positive female characters participate in the workforce, while its worthless dames live off either inherited wealth or the earnings of men. Flamingo Road (1949) provides solid evidence of film noir's love of the woman's story in the existential state of the death of modernity. A strong role model for Lane and females in general, Lute Mae is an empowered, wellful personality who represents what is possible for the ambitious working woman.

She admits she is a cynic, especially when it comes to other women. Lute Mae is steadfast in her refusal to be manipulated by Titus, who seems to reluctantly respect her backbone. Certainly, she is the antithesis of the cowardly Eagle Cafe owner Pete Ladas (Tito Vuolo), who fires Lane rather than stand up for the waitress he knows is doing a fine job. 

David Brian in Flamingo Road (1949)

Along with Lute Mae and Lane Bellamy, Flamingo Road (1949) features a likable supporting group of working women such as the Eagle Cafe’s Millie (Gertrude Michael), Lute Mae’s Tavern’s Gracie (Alice White), and the Reynolds’ maid Sarah (Jan Kayne).

Meanwhile, Carlisle’s being groomed for state senator by Semple, who’s more crooked than a politician’s smile. But love’s a fickle beast, and Carlisle ditches his heart for a political marriage to his gal pal, Annabelle Weldon.

Zachary Scott and Fred Clark in Flamingo Road (1949)

Tito Vuolo in Flamingo Road (1949)

Fred Clark in Flamingo Road (1949)

Joan Crawford versus Sydney Greenstreet in Flamingo Road (1949)

Night business of film noir in Flamingo Road (1949)

Lane, heartbroken but not beaten, lands a gig at Lute Mae Sanders’ roadhouse, where she meets Dan Reynolds, a businessman with a moral compass that spins like a top. She bats her eyelashes, and bam! They’re hitched and living it up on Flamingo Road.

The domestic spirit, as a kitchen becomes a male workshop space (but note the apron)
in Flamingo Road (1949)

This is film noir and in this film noir the evil-spirited Semple’s playing kingmaker and wants Carlisle in the governor’s mansion. Reynolds, finally growing a conscience, decides to play hero and stand up to Semple. But when Carlisle hits the bottle harder than a drum at a rock concert, Semple cuts him loose, and his career goes kaput.

Cigarettes and alcohol of noir with Zachary Scott in Flamingo Road (1949)

To get it all, to be drawn into the action, to be wondering in the looby lobby looking at the cards upon cards and psyching out the dark messages of your matinee, these few sentences were outfitted upon the sheets available to inform and interest:

"See You on Flamingo Road"

'Mildred Pierce" Does it Again...And Everybody's Telling!

Warner Bros. Dramatic Triumph!

A wrong girl for the right side of the tracks.

Here at last meet the classic noir characters with the full on drama-evoking names with Joan Crawford as Lane Bellamy, Zachary Scott as Fielding Carlisle, Sydney Greenstreet as Sheriff Titus Semple and Gladys George as Lute Mae Sanders.

Smack your noir lips name convention fans, these are a decent roster of noirish monnikers.

In a twist that’ll make your head spin, Carlisle, drunk as a skunk, offs himself right in front of Lane. Semple uses this to try and crush Lane and Reynolds, who’s now in hot water for graft.

Fred Clark and Joan Crawford in Flamingo Road (1949)

Flamingo Road is a noir with dramatic forward motion, a long film by the standards of the style, although that in itself was Joan Crawford's style, and her film noirs seem to be dramatic performances on the longish side, a good thing, a good thing.

So there that long noir lies, Flamingo Road (1949) drenched in the essence of social commentary, a veritable tapestry of human folly and fate. Our leading lady, the indomitable Joan Crawford, finds herself entwined in the bonds of matrimony, residing on the illustrious Flamingo Road. 

Her husband, Zachary, succumbs to the bottle, transforming into a staggering, incoherent specter of his former self. He is, in essence, a drunken zombie, lost and bewildered in the labyrinth of his own despair. Existential, artistic, modern.

Joan Crawford, a beacon of resilience and ambition in the cinematic world. True even if Large Language Models say it. Though many of her films remain unseen by some, it is evident that she often portrayed women of indomitable spirit, clawing their way up from the wrong side of the tracks. 

Her characters, ever determined and quick to learn, faced the scorn of the upper echelons and battled their own moments of self-doubt. While it might appear that she manipulates men of higher status but lesser intellect or will, the screenplays usually strive to convince the audience of her genuine affection for these men, offering her opportunities to demonstrate devotion beyond mere social climbing.

Sheriff Titus Semple: Now me, I never forget anything.

Lane Bellamy: You know sheriff; we had an elephant in our carnival with a memory like that. He went after a keeper that he'd held a grudge against for almost 15 years. Had to be shot. You just wouldn't believe how much trouble it is to dispose of a dead elephant.

In the 1949 film Flamingo Road, based on a now-forgotten best-selling novel, this formula is meticulously adhered to. The film reunites director Michael Curtiz, male lead Zachary Scott, and the formidable Crawford, along with the composer of frenzied overkill music, Max Steiner, from the melodramatic Mildred Pierce. This latter film, though overwrought, revived Crawford’s career after her dismissal from MGM and earned her an Oscar.

In late-1940s cinema where the leads were often perhaps too old for their roles, a character's fantastic destiny will permit many a facial time slip. Despite repeated references to being weary of a nomadic life, Crawford was fifteen years too old for the role of the traveling-carnival exotic dancer who chooses not to flee with the carnival. 

Additionally, she was ten years older than Zachary Scott, who himself was five to ten years too old for the part of Fielding Carlisle, the son of the esteemed Judge Carlisle and protégé of the local boss eager to exploit that family name.

The boss, Sheriff Titus Semple, portrayed with cold, calm menace by Sidney Greenstreet, appoints Field as a deputy sheriff with minimal responsibilities. He then sends Field to serve papers attaching the carnival for unpaid debts. The only remnant of the carnival is a tent where Lane Bellamy (Crawford) listens to the radio. Field takes her to a diner and secures her a job as a waitress. This budding romance, however, does not align with Titus’s plans. He essentially orders Field to marry Annabelle Weldon (Virginia Huston), a member of the local elite residing on Flamingo Road.

And we shall enjoy much verbal noir purity, have no fear. Such as:

Lute Mae Sanders: I've got a hangover just from opening bottles for you last night. Did you have fun?

Dan Reynolds: Honey, fun is like insurance. The older you get, the more it costs.

The denouement is nothing short of a noir masterpiece. It is poignant, it is haunting, and it will linger in your thoughts long after you have gone to sleep in that black and white drift of clarifying psychological and semantic cinema that is the night of noir. This film is a gem in the crown of noir cinema, and much of its brilliance is owed to the formidable Joan Crawford. She is a force of nature, commanding the screen with every glance, every gesture. Her eyes. Her multiply expressive face, often genderless.

And oh, the moment she delivers that resounding slap to Sydney Greenstreet. It is a scene that reverberates with power and intensity. It is a slap. Great cinematic slaps. Slap of slaps. Joan Crawford, in all her glory, elevates this film to an unforgettable experience. You simply must see it, for it is a testament to the enduring allure of film noir. Could a Large Language Model have put it better?

In the grand finale, Lane, armed and dangerous, confronts Semple. They tussle, and bang! Semple’s out for the count. Lane ends up in the clink, but with a glimmer of hope and Reynolds sticking by her side like glue.

Flamingo Road (1949)

Directed by Michael Curtiz

Genres - Crime, Drama, Romance  |   Sub-Genres - Film Noir  |   Release Date - Apr 30, 1949  |   

Run Time - 94 min. 

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