Flamingo Road (1949)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Writer: Robert Wilder; based on Flamingo Road (1946) play by Robert Wilder and Sally Wilder
Cinematographer: Ted D. McCord
Producer: Jerry Wald
by Jon Cvack
In my thoughts on The Comancheros (1961), I mentioned Curtis’ unique chameleon style; exemplified by these disparate back to back features. Flamingo Road is one of those mid-budget thrillers which portrays the underworld of corrupt politics. It opens on carnival dancer Lane Bellamy (Joan Crawford) soon meets a Sheriff’s Deputy Fielding Carlisle (Zachary Scott) who’s currently being groomed for state senate by Sheriff Titus Semple (Sydney Greenstreet), moonlighting as the town’s corrupt political boss who dominates the state machine.
Carlisle is currently courting Annabelle Weldon (Virginia Huston), who while an attractive and charming woman, isn’t exactly providing the most passionate relationship. Nevertheless, Semple knows the optics of marriage would bode better for a state senate run. However, when Carlisle runs into Bellamy during one of his late night calls, he’s taken aback; immediately in awe of her beauty and sensuality.
Joan Crawford is one of those classical era actresses who most recognize the name, but few could name specific films. I had always imagined some hyper-sexualized performer such as Bette Davis or Marilyn Monroe, but discovered a stunning woman who simply had a type of pre-feminist confidence in both independence and sexuality.
Carlisle learns that she’s been fired from the circus, and with only dollars to her name, he offers to try and get a job at the local diner. In a hot scene, we watch as Lane undresses in front of him; again, with Crawford not making it seem like a proposition so much as her freedom.
Carlisle delivers on the job and Lane is hired at the local diner, but when Semple catches whiff that Lane and Carlisle are having an affair, he works his muscle and gets her fired only days later; clearly talking to the rest of the town as well, forcing her to leave. During a late night, she’s arrested on the street for indecency charges - that is, for being a hooker - and taken to jail where she meets an inmate that has contacts at a local brothel (or at least what I think is a brothel) where most of the political machine and prominent businessmen frequent.
Lane starts work at the club where she meets Semple, Carlisle and the others. Semple flips, demanding owner Lute Mae Sanders (Gladys George) fire her. But knowing the leverage such a hire provides, Lute keeps her on and Semple is forced to take other means. Lane soon catches the eyes of local businessman Dan Reynolds (David Brian) who, like Carlisle, quickly falls madly in love with her. One evening, Reynolds and Lane bump into Carlisle and his wife at dinner, and Carlisle’s enraged with jealousy.
With Lane seemingly out of the picture, Carlisle marries Annabelle and wins state office; however, a mixture of an empty marriage, corruption, and grind of the job cause him to increasingly lean on the bottle. Semble nonetheless appreciates Carlisle’s commitment and plans to run him as governor.
Reynolds disagrees with the plan and opts to challenge Carlisle, enraging Semple who then leans further on Carlisle until Carlisle finally breaks down, visits Lane to get her back, and then blows his brains out. Desperate, Semple enters himself into the race, using his political muscle to run Reynold out of business. One night, he meets with the local politicians and reveals all of the dirt he has on each of them; demanding they ruin Reynolds or pay the price.
They follow orders and soon Reynold’s is charged with corruption and with his life near ruins, and fearing for a similar result as Carlisle, Lane takes matters into her own hands, visiting Semple with a gun, and after a fight between the two, shoots him dead; a fight mind you that takes place with Joan Crawford and 250+ pound man and she makes it look entirely real.
At just a bit over ninety minutes, Flamingo Road is on par with any great political thriller - The Ides of March (2011), Three Days of the Condor (1975), The Manchurian Candidate (1962; 2004), and The Ghost Writer (2010). What stands out between this and all other political films (thriller or not) is the complexity of Joan Crawford’s character. From the synopsis you might assume a type of exploitative movie, in which a woman is overly sexualized and uses that power to climb the political ladder. Instead, we see a character that almost wishes they weren’t both beautiful and on the downside of luck. The latter brings undesirable men promising happiness and prosperity, but who knows the dangers of being with a lower class, independent woman like Lane.
Crawford conveys the frustration and suspicion, along with the utter joy when she ends up with Reynolds. At first we wonder if perhaps Semple was right, but then we see the genuine love and care they have for one another, making the climactic confrontation plausible. I believed Lane would go there for Reynolds and be willing to fight for the good man she finally found. Lane doesn’t just take down Semple, but exposes and destroys the entire apparatus. It’s one of the most progressive characters I can recall from the era.
BELOW: Little low-res taste
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