Last night was Round 2 of Joan Crawford vs. Barbara Stanwyck. I wasn’t there for Round 1, largely because I had seen both films (Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity) dozens of times. But what was curious about this bout was that the two leading ladies weren’t nearly as prominent as their top on-screen billing suggested. So it was difficult for any reasonable person to judge which lady was more noir.
Flamingo Road (1949): Flamingo Road was a last-minute swap for Possessed. Eddie Mueller informed the audience that the print had been pulled at the last minute. Sadly, the negative is in bad shape. Flamingo Road wasn’t really a noir picture, more of a passable political drama. The film was weakened by Ted McCord’s photography, which drew needless attention to itself with deliberately arty angles, but it may very well have been director Michael Curtiz’s odd, quasi-Expressionist positioning of actors.
Joan Crawford plays a carny dancer who comes to a small town and falls in love with aw-shucks deputy Zachary Scott, who wears a preposterous hat and is more wholesome than the collective insides of an apple pie truck. Scott is an actor who looks like something you might get if you threw Joel McCrea and Tony Curtis into a blender, punched in both eyes while playing lacrosse with the cheekbones, and forced the ectoplasmic concoction to drink about a half gallon of bourbon in one sitting — in other words, the perfect rolled over hicktown look.
Enter Sydney Greenstreet as the sheriff who controls the town’s political workings. Greenstreet, as you might expect, remains sedentary throughout most of the film. When he does move, it’s with all the effort of an overloaded locomotive trundling up the hill. He is a painful and imposing sight, and yet Greenstreet makes for a fascinating heavy. He wants Scott in the State Senate. So he frames Crawford and gets Scott coupled up with a superficial rich gal. Crawford gets out, and meets up with politico David Brian. Brian, whose face, believe it or not, is more hickory-cut than John Kerry’s, is suave as fuck — so suave that he kisses Crawford and then asks her what her last name is.
The film’s best moments are the scenes between Crawford and Greenstreet, an antipodal smackdown that is nothing less than brilliant. Crawford’s hard face and harsh words versus Greenstreet’s corpulence and highfalutin mumblings. But the unfortunate thing about Flamingo Road is that too much time is devoted to the corrupt yet chipper Brian and the sad-sack Scott. The real interest lies not with the unfettered angles, the smoky political backrooms or the dimebag caricatures, but with Crawford and Greenstreet.
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946): About half the audience bolted after Flamingo Road. Whether it was out of disappointment over Possessed being nixed or a need for a nightcap, I cannot say. It may very well have been the 16mm print. But whatever the case, they missed a good one. You’ll probably be able to find Strange Love easily, given that it’s in the public domain.
A number of talented people are involved on this. A young Robert Aldrich assistant directed. Kirk Douglas appears in his first film role. And if that weren’t enough, you’ve got Barbara Stanwyck, the goregous Lizabeth Scott, the underrated Van Heflin, and a script by Robert Rossen. Rossen wrote this shortly after helming All the King’s Men. The story is well-plotted, balancing its characters with a chess master’s assurance, weighing childhood against adulthood. The story concerns the truth of the streets, a theme Rossen would later pursue again with The Hustler. There are fascinating undercurrents involving trust, the true nature of people, and the sum of our actions and convictions. But the script also bears the mark of a young writer going out of his way to prove his streetcred. The dialogue, with its clipped poetics, is aggravating for its actors. Stanwyck, for one, has difficulty with it. Kirk Douglas disguises the awkward pauses by delivering slow cadences, but he offers a hell of a debut. But it is Van Heflin who makes the dialogue stick, spinning fluidity and poise with each line. Even when Rossen demands banter along the lines of “You spend a lot of time reading Gideons in hotels.”
The film is solid, offering a great melodramatic ending. But there is a larger concern.
I am now madly in love with Liz Scott. Whatever her thespic limitations, whatever the silly motivations of her character, I don’t care. Liz Scott now haunts my dreams and distracts me from my writing. All Liz Scott need do is turn her head and I will happily swoon. If God does not exist, it would be necessary to invent Liz Scott. Liz Scott is still alive. I will happily give blood for her. I will take a bullet for her. It is time for a cold shower. Film noir is dangerous.