The Great Flamarion might be a poverty row knock-off of Scarlet Street, but it has much to offer to those fond of noirs and who like effective performances from unexpected sources. In Mexico City in 1936 at a second-string variety act theater, shots ring out in the middle of a clown act. The performers congregate back stage, the audience starts to panic and a clown tries to convince everyone to take their seats...that nothing has happened and everything is under control. We learn that a woman who was part of a bicycle act has been strangled and her husband is the chief suspect. But what were the gunshots for? Why did we see in the shadows a figure in a greatcoat and hat struggle to climb the stairs to the catwalk? Why has he hidden himself? We find out when everyone but the clown has left the theater. We learn that the man was The Great Flamarion (Erich Von Stroheim), an expert marksman, and this is his story...of a man brought low by his love of a heartless woman. Please note that elements of the plot are discussed.
Flamarion had a top-drawer variety act using two stooges and starring himself and his pistols. The audience would see a man and woman canoodling at a table when Flamarion would enter in formal dress. The man would hide, the woman would lift a glass of wine, and Flamarion would use his pistols to shatter the glass, light her match, shoot off a garter, and use bullets to take off the tiny ornaments on her hair comb. Then the man would come out of hiding and quickly weave back and forth among the light bulbs of a dressing table while Flamarion with split second timing would shoot out the bulbs, barely missing him. The audience would go wild.
Flamarion himself is a stern, no-nonsense older man with a bull neck and a shaved head. He has no friends and practices ceaselessly with his pistols. The two stooges are man and wife, a former second-rate dance act. Connie Wallace (Mary Beth Hughes) is a conniving temptress who collects men like other women collect bracelet charms. She has a baby face with lips as plump and lush as the red wax lips you buy for Halloween. Her husband, Al Wallace (Dan Duryea), is chump change. He's a drunk, a jealous man whose many weaknesses include loving his wife. He won't divorce her and she has other plans. "Connie," he tells her, "no matter what you do you're the only dame for me. You're a bad habit I can't cure...even if I wanted to. Any guy who wouldn't fall for you is either a sucker or he's dead." It's not long before Connie breaks through Flamarion's reserve and finds a lonely man ripe for the picking. He believes Connie loves him...and he believes Connie when she says Al will never let her go. It's not long before Flamarion makes an error in his stage act and Al has a bullet in his heart. Then he learns that Connie has other ideas than marrying him.
From then on we witness the downward trajectory of Flamarion as he realizes how he was used. He spends his money searching for Connie, who has disappeared. He even sells his pistols. By the time he learns that she might be in Mexico City and goes there, The Great Flamarion is just an unshaven, aging man in a rumpled, dirty suit. The only things he has in his pocket are a few dollars...and a pistol. The whole movie has a sad, hopeless, inevitable air about it, and so does the conclusion. As a noir, it's not bad.
The story line is simple and is told in flashback. It goes from A to B to C. What makes it interesting are the performances. Mary Beth Hughes as Connie turns in a performance which is both sexy and heartless. Dan Duryea is excellent as a drunk mug way out of his depth with Connie. Duryea plays the drunk convincingly, but he also layers in the pity and the weakness. We don't like Al very much but we genuinely feel sorry for him. Erich Von Stroheim is the heart of the movie and he pulls it off. I suppose nowadays most people think of him only as one of Norma Desmond's former husbands who is now her butler. Von Stroheim always played the impassive Teuton. Even with the reserve he would bring to a part, he could hint at all kinds of submerged feelings. In The Great Flamarion, Von Stroheim has to show us a man who has improbably fallen in love and feels the joy of something he never expected. He's the grim, impassive Flamarion most of the time, but we also see his heart being torn apart by Connie, we see his smile of sheer happiness when he thinks she loves him. We even see Von Stroheim do a little dance of anticipation when he thinks she's going to meet him at a hotel in Chicago. The Great Flamarion is no Scarlet Street, but the theme is the same. It's well handled in this Republic Pictures programmer.
The Alpha Video DVD transfer is awful. It's watchable, but that's about it. The picture is fuzzy, gray and with little contrast. Specks and lines show up frequently. It's hard to make out what's happening in the dark scenes. There is often a low hiss. There are only six chapter stops placed arbitrarily in the film. Unfortunately, this will probably be as good as it gets. If you like simple, interesting noirs and if you're intrigued by Erich Von Stroheim, I'd pick it up if the price is low enough.