Flamingo Road (1949) begins with Joan Crawford’s narration about the town in which her character, Lane Bellamy, will try and carve out a life for herself. About the places and people that make it what it is, but especially Flamingo Road, the street reserved for the wealthy and successful. The place that she tells a friend later on that she will have a house on.
The film isn’t one that you’ll find on lists about the best films made about politics or corruption, which is a pity, because it does a fine job of exposing the dirty, sick making side of politics and the men who engineer who will be in power. With American politics being what they have during Trump’s administration, this film is extremely timeous, especially in the role of corrupt fat man, Titus Semple, played by the brilliantly sleazy Sidney Greenstreet.
Flamingo Road tells the story of Lane Bellamy, a carnival “girl” who decides to leave the show when the carnival head tells them they have to leave town yet again due to unpaid dues. She decides that Boldon City is as good a place as any to set down roots, and her resolve in made firmer by the appearance of Fielding Carlisle (played by Zachary Scott) who is deputy sheriff, and who instantly becomes smitten with Lane, who he first sees inside the abandoned carnival tent. She is lying across a cot, her lovely legs exposed just passed the knee, whilst singing the film’s sort of theme song “If I Could Be One Hour With You (Tonight)” in a wonderfully throaty manner.
He gets her a job as a waitress at The Eagle Café, and for a while their romance blossoms, but Titus Semple, the corrupt, revolting sheriff, who has plans for Fielding that don’t include someone like Lane, soon gets her fired from the café and Fielding safely married to a simpering local girl. Meanwhile Lane is picked up on a prostitution charge, and her education in regards to the corruption of Boldon seems complete.
But when she gets a job at Lute Mae’s, a roadhouse run by the madam of the same name played wonderfully by a platinum haired Gladys George, she is even more embroiled in the machinations of the powerful men in the town. It is there that she meets Dan Reynolds (played by David Brian), a construction boss turned political heavyweight, who has been involved with Titus in rather shady politics. It seems that Titus is not done with Lane, and when she becomes Dan’s wife, things become very dangerous for Lane, her husband and Fielding, and tragedy seems inevitable.
What I love about Flamingo Road is that it not only reunites many of the people who Joan worked with on Mildred Pierce, such as director Michael Curtiz, composer Max Steiner and costar Zachary Scott, but that it is a film that examines and exposes how power absolutely corrupts.
Titus Semple sits on the veranda of the Palmer House and plots and plans how he will elevate himself to the highest offices in the state, and perhaps even the country eventually, and he will allow no one to stop him. It also shows how men who are initially honest become corrupt, such as Dan who explains to Lane that he began making political connections so that he could get good construction contracts. Later on Lane tells him that she wishes they could get out of this hotbed of corruption and double crossing, but he explains that he would be taken down if he became honest and other corrupt men would take his place.
Flamingo Road is especially effective in showing how people are aware of the rot that permeates where they live and who governs them, but how they either cannot be bothered to change things, as shown by Lane’s waitress friend, Millie (played by Gertrude Michael) earlier on in the movie, who tells Lane to leave things as they are and not aspire to impossible things like living on Flamingo Road; or how they feel too mired in the filth of political corruption to do anything about it, like Fielding who eventually becomes a severe alcoholic and unwittingly furthers Titus’ plans to ruin Lane and Dan.
When watching Flamingo Road, you can feel the oppressive environment of Boldon, of the heat in the Southern United States and the festering corruption of those in power. Curtiz’s direction is brilliant, as he bathes everything in almost impenetrable shadows that cement the film noir elements of the film and further the claustrophobic reality that Lane keeps trying to escape from. It seems that the more she tries to fight against Titus, the tighter his grip becomes on her world. Sidney Greenstreet’s performance as the film’s antagonist is nothing short of brilliant. He looks like a great, bulging toad in his white Colonel Sanders suit, with his eyes half lidded and his braying laugh. My favourite scene between he and Joan is when she confronts him on the Palmer House veranda and she tells him that she “won’t run!” and proceeds to slap him sharply across his sweat glistened face. From that moment on you know that he will despise her forever, and he very nearly succeeds in destroying her completely. But as with pretty much all of Joan’s film roles during this era, she will not be broken and the desire to survive and thrive emanates from her in a palpable way throughout.
Like The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and later on, Body Heat, the film examines the darkest desires and machinations of people, and how they will do anything to come out victorious be it in terms of sex, wealth or power. Titus favours the latter, as he is as sexless as they come, moving about like some great bloated thing. Lane desires wealth, but most of all, she desires love, a desire that Joan was incredibly good at conveying in her films. As Donna Marie Nowak writes in her book about Joan, Just Joan: A Joan Crawford Appreciation: “Crawford is the intriguing combination of contrasts that make her so fascinating and powerful a star: elegant but earthy, seductive but girlish, assertive but demure: vulnerable but no one’s fool.” In Flamingo Road, Joan is the underdog, fighting tooth and nail to retain some kind of home after having a nomadic existence for many years. She is the one light in the film against all the dark shadow characters that exist around her, Titus Semple being the largest one. The final confrontation between the pair is really something, and it leaves you hopeful that Lane and Dan may just be able to lead a happy life together after all.
But what the film really underlines is this: there will always be corruption. There will always be men like Titus Semple, who sit on figurative verandas and decide the fates of others, because people are so often easily manipulated and controlled if it means that they do not have to make the hard decisions. In a world of Titus Semples, the film in its own way, urges us to be a Lane Bellamy: strong and relentless in her pursuit of a world in which there can be a place for people to carve out a home on their own terms. Flamingo Road shows, however, that we will all become tainted by corruption along the way.
This is my contribution for the CMBA Politics on Film Blogathon. Please visit their wonderful blog to learn more about this fascinating blogathon.