Flamingo Road (1949)
Mildred Pierce is one of Michael Curtiz’ most famous films, and it may be the role that Joan Crawford is best known for. But a few years later the two collaborated on another film, which is lesser known today, but I think actually more interesting.
Flamingo Road tells the story of Lane Bellamy, a woman who we first see dancing in a cheap carnival, but who rises to become the wife of a powerful politician. The story is pure melodrama, but the film is an interesting study of power and corruption. The action plays out in a small town, and the title refers to the section where the rich folks live. When the carnival she dances in skips town to escape the law, Lane decides she’s tired of running and stays behind, going to work as a waitress in a local cafe. All she wants to do is work a job and make a living, but she inadvertently gets drawn into a conflict between two powerful politicians.
Lane is a woman living in a world run by men. She’s happy enough waiting tables in the local diner, but when she falls for lawman Fielding Carlisle she incurs the wrath of Sheriff Semple, who has other plans for his deputy. Semple has her fired, and tells her she’d best leave town. Angered by the way she’s been mistreated, Lane decides to stick around and goes to work as a “hostess” in a “road house”. Here she meets politically connected businessman Dan Reynolds, who is immediately taken with her.
This sets up the conflict that drives the movie on more than one level. On the one hand, you have Lane growing closer to Dan, even though she’s still in love with Fielding. At the same time, Semple is infuriated by Lane’s rise in society, and ends up mounting a political attack on Dan as part of a power grab.
Robert Wilder’s screenplay offers a fascinating view of the way politics and business intertwine, showing how deals are made behind closed doors long before they ever see the light of day. (Wilder also authored the original novel, and adapted it for the stage with his wife, Sally.) Curtiz knows this territory well. In the later part of his career, the director made a number of films exploring the crooked world we live in, notably in Casablanca, but also in Four’s a Crowd, The Breaking Point, The Helen Morgan Story and King Creole. Lane, like many of Curtiz’ protagonists, is someone just trying to stay in the game even though she knows the deck is stacked against her. In the 40s and 50s the director repeatedly focussed on characters who struggle to survive in a world that seems bent on grinding them down.
The most complex character in the film is Dan Reynolds, the powerful contractor who falls for Lane. He’s essentially an honest man who knows that projects don’t get built on honesty. Dan understands that everybody’s looking out for themselves, and he’s willing to play the game, but he tries to make sure all the players get taken care of. Curtiz takes us into the smoke-filled rooms where local businessmen play cards, booze it up, and make deals. These scenes play out with a smooth, matter-of-fact ease. The screenwriter and the director both know this melieu, and they also know that, whether we like it or not, this is how the world works.
There are people who say Crawford is too old for the role, but I disagree. I have no idea how old the character was in the novel, but I think the fact that Crawford was in her 40s when she played the part brings added layers to it. When we first see Lane dancing in the carnival it’s clear she’s been in this game way too long. A young woman might see it as an adventure. A middle-aged woman can’t see it as anything more than a way to make ends meet. After the carnival has fled, we see Lane by herself, lying on a cot in a tent, listening to the radio. She’s tired. She feels ground down. A younger actress couldn’t have expressed the weariness that Crawford brings to this scene. When the deputy walks in on her, she’s too tired to be fearful. She’s been hassled by the law before.
This is the kind of role that Crawford knew well. She probably could have played it in her sleep, but she’s not sleepwalking here. Lane’s weary cynicism rings true. The way Crawford plays the part, we know she’s been around the block a few times. And she makes her part in the love triangle believable. Lane likes and respects Dan, but she can’t get Fielding out of her mind. And when Dan realizes where he stands and walks out, Crawford makes us feel Lane’s misery and shame. Yeah, she’s done all this before, but she still does it really well.
David Brian has a smoothness and an easy charm as Dan that makes it easy to believe he’s one of the boys in the back room, but he also projects a strength that makes it clear he’s got principles. He’s not just out for a buck. As always, Zachary Scott slides right into his character and makes us forget he’s playing a part. Maybe his unobtrusive skill is the reason his flawless performances never attracted the attention that lesser actors got. Scott shows us early on that Deputy Fielding Carlisle is basically a decent guy with absolutely no backbone. He loves Lane, but he won’t fight for her, and so he not only loses her respect but his own self-respect.
But maybe the most impressive performance in the film is Sydney Greenstreet as the Machiavellian sheriff. Greenstreet was a masterful actor, and he’s a powerful presence in this movie. There’s no ambiguity in the character. Sherrif Semple is absolutely ruthless and completely corrupt. So it’s impressive that Greenstreet’s performance is as compelling as it is. It could have been a total cliche, but the actor brings so much life to the role, he makes this vile old man so vivid, it’s hard to take your eyes off him.
Part of the reason this melodrama works so well is that the world these characters inhabit is so completely imagined. Curtiz was surrounded by technicians who were masters of their craft, and they were expert at creating cafes, carnivals and construction sites on a soundstage. Art director Leo K. Kuter and set decorator Howard Winterbottom breathe life into all the places and spaces that make up this small town. Ted McCord’s subtly textured cinematography brings everything together as an expressive whole. I can’t understand why McCord has never gotten the attention he deserves. A seasoned pro with an incredible eye, he had gift for creating images with depth and texture whether he was working on a set or on location. Curtiz and McCord worked together a number of times, which leads me to believe the director valued his abilities. I don’t see how anyone could look at his work on Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Breaking Point, and East of Eden without coming to the conclusion that he was one of the best cinematographers in Hollywood.
I probably don’t have to tell you that Lane’s situation goes from bad to worse, until the film comes to a harrowing climax, and then quickly settles into a reassuring resolution. I’m sure you already know the territory. Curtiz knew it, too, and he knew he had to deliver what audiences expected. It’s not the big dramatic moments that make this film, it’s what comes in between. It’s the way the townspeople bend over backwards to stay on the sherrif’s good side. It’s the glimpses we get of men making deals over liquor and cigars. And it’s the way the director presents the poignant reality of a middle-aged woman stranded in a small town, trying to figure out what her next move is.
Mildred Pierce (1945)
When producer Jerry Wald read Mildred Pierce shortly after it was published in 1941, he knew it could make a good movie. He also knew it would be an uphill battle to turn it into a screenplay that would be acceptable by Production Code standards. Mildred’s divorce, her fling with a charming playboy, her daughter’s sexual escapades were just a few items that would be troubling for censors. And possibly more troubling than all the rest would be the fact that the author, James M. Cain, tells Mildred’s story without moralizing. He does not condemn her. He merely follows Mildred’s progress, presenting a detailed and convincing portrait of a woman fighting for success, while also exploring the reasons for her ambition.
The Production Code demanded that Hollywood films adhere to strictly defined standards of morality. So to satisfy the censors, Wald injected a murder into the story, and reshaped the ending to assure the audience that justice was served. According to Thomas Schatz’s book The Genius of the System, the producer struggled long and hard with the script. In order to achieve the right tone for a “woman’s” picture, he first assigned Catherine Turney to the project. But to get the tension he needed for a thriller, he had Albert Maltz work Turney’s material over. Other writers also took a shot at the script, but Ranald MacDougall received sole credit for his extensive work on the final version.
The film was directed with smooth precision by Michael Curtiz. By this point in his career Curtiz had refined his approach to the point where his films had a fluid, compelling visual style. He often follows the characters with his camera, using long takes and careful lighting to define space and create atmosphere. On Mildred Pierce he was aided by art director Anton Grot, who had worked on many films with the director. Cinematographer Ernest Haller also played an important part, giving the film the gloss the studio demanded, but still doing justice to the story’s grittier aspects.
The movie is also interesting for the way it portrays Los Angeles in the mid-forties. Cain had written the book as the Depression was ending, and his portrait of the city makes vivid the bitterness and despair of those times. Since Curtiz and his collaborators were shooting the movie a few years later, they captured a different Los Angeles. Granted, the studio would certainly not have allowed them to dwell too much on the city’s seamier side, but the war brought the economy roaring back to life and the film reflects the vitality that was in the air. Curtiz gives us a fascinating, if skewed, picture of Los Angeles as WWII was winding down. Customers eat in their cars in the drive-in dining area at Mildred’s restaurant. Sailors whistle at Veda as she sings at a seedy dive on the Santa Monica pier. Monty shows Mildred his house at the beach, revealing an interesting mix of rustic and modern.
Joan Crawford is excellent as Mildred, and the supporting cast is amazing. Jack Carson combines his usual energy with overbearing arrogance to make the lawyer/hustler Wally thoroughly repulsive. Eve Arden’s impeccable sense of timing and inflection make Ida a joy to watch. Zachary Scott is both seductive and appalling as Monte. And just as impressive as all these seasoned pros is the young Ann Blyth, who gives a chilling performance as Veda.
Cain’s novel is unsparing in its depiction of the characters, while the movie tends to smooth away the scarier edges. This wasn’t just the Production Code. A star like Joan Crawford would probably not want to play a character if it meant crossing certain boundaries. Even if they did, the studio would probably not allow them to play a part that might damage their image. In the film Mildred may be weak, may be fearful, but she is never pathetic or awkward as she was in Cain’s book. When Mildred looks for work in the movie, her voiceover narration accompanies a quick montage in which she rises to the challenge. In the book we accompany Mildred as she learns how difficult and humiliating it can be to work for a living. In the movie Mildred shows her anger at Veda with a sharp slap. In the book’s climax, Mildred is so consumed with anger she tries to strangle her own daughter. Most tellingly, in the final scenes of the movie Mildred acknowledges her mistake in divorcing Bert and they walk off together as the music swells. The book ends with the two of them clinging to each other in the depths of despair.