Interesting Joan Crawford melodrama/film-noir. Lane (Crawford) is a hard-luck carnival dancer who takes up with local deputy Fielding Carlisle (Zachary Scott). Trouble is, Field’s boss Sheriff Titus (Sydney Greenstreet) wants to manage the whole town, and not get “mixed-up with that stray cat from the carnival.” The respectable alternative is local girl of good family Annabelle Weldon (Virginia Huston).
All the political action in town happens at a roadhouse, Lute-Mae’s. That means when a neighboring county sheriff Dan Reynolds (David Bryan), mosies into town, he heads to the poker game at Lute-Mae’s to deal with Titus and his assorted cronies. Dan gives Field advice on how Titus would just as soon ruin a protege as build him up. Lane’s mere existence seems to cross Titus–partly because she’s assumed to be carnival ‘trash’, but mostly because she stands up for herself.
The newspaper editor, Doc Waterson (Fred Clark), runs an article lambasting Field, obviously on Tate’s dime. Just like that, Titus gets in Field’s face about when he’s gonna marry Annabelle (like flipping a switch from Titus’s viewpoint). It’s either Lane’s good name or marriage to Annabelle and a state senatorship. He proposes so indirectly to her, that she more or less asks herself.
So, he reluctantly breaks it off with Lane. The worst news for her is that Titus leans on her boss to get rid of her. She goes looking for a job in town, but, by now, her face is the proverbial mud. Amazingly, she confronts Titus–remarkably, he doesn’t lie about his influence. Without any qualms, compares her to a nuisance, specifically a rat. Next thing, she’s getting rousted for soliciting. “She just disappeared” exclaims co-worker Millie (Gertrude Michael). That’s because she’s in jail.
Her cellmate tells her about prospects at Lute-Mae’s; sounds like it’ll be her next stop. A moody, quick scene shows the newlyweds on board their honeymoon train, Field looking morose from a window; the train roars past the prison, Lane hearing its lonely whistle. Lane gets out. At Lute-Mae’s, Mae (Gladys George) figures she’ll take a chance on her, even though she’s “moody.” Thing is, soon she’s serving the good old boys (Titus, Dan, etc.) in the upstairs room.
Titus threatens Mae, but she can more than handle him. Mae gets Lane to admit that she might still be in love with Field. Pretty funny moment when Lane opens the curtains in Dan’s room, and he, obviously hungover, complains “What’s that stuff?” Lane let’s on, nonchalantly, “Daylight.” In between jokes, it’s obvious that they like each other. “I’ve got a soul that needs a lot of purging” he admits.
More great dialogue, this time between Dan and Mae “I’ve got a hangover from opening bottles for you” she says. All of a sudden Dan and Lane are “crazy” about each other. Meanwhile, at the capital, in a swanky hotel, Field is getting the cold shoulder from just about everyone. Oh, boy, here’s Dan and Lane show at an adjoining table. Titus can’t resist coming by and threatening her. She aptly compares him to a troublesome circus elephant who had died uncared for.
Of course, Dan gets into it with Field–whose drunk and mopey. Titus bears the intriguing news that the happy couple is in fact now married. She’s up-in-the-club, in a mansion on fabled Flamingo Road. Oh, nice: Titus comes calling, for tea (!) no less. “C’mon Titus, out with it!” They argue over who (Field v. Parkhurst) will be governor; so, it’s going to be a real fight now. Dan still doesn’t know the whole thing with Lane and Titus, but he’s certainly in her corner.
Titus comes to blackmail Dan’s business partner. It’s a very cunning plan: the contractor will turn in Dan for using peonage (prison) labor, which Titus will indirectly force on him. Field, lost in drink, is “turned loose” by Titus (proving Dan’s prediction). Back at Flamingo Road, Dan hasa powwow with Titus’s lackies; Titus shows, “Something on your mind, Titus?” says Dan. Now the boss’s plan is to run for governor himself. He’s got dirt on everyone. Plenty of threats all around.
Dan has it out with his wife, as she tells him the whole of her history with Titus. It looks to Dan that she opportunistically married him to get away from Titus. Good point. Disgusted, Dan heads back to the capital; lurking around Flamingo Road, Field comes to bug Lane. Very drunk, he’s at his wit’s end, having lost Annabelle, Lane, and his career “I crawled into a bottle and I can’t get out.” More significantly, he tells her that Dan’s been framed by Titus, but he doesn’t say how. In a side room, he shoots himself.
Dan’s going over his grand jury indictment over the peonage deal. Doc fills in Lane on more bad news: now Lane herself is in danger from a self-proclaimed “Mothers’ Commitee.” They don’t waste time vandalizing her house; she splits to Lute Mae’s to confront Titus. She calls him out, and then pulls a gun on him. The idea is to get him to call the D.A. and quash Dan’s indictment. But he clandestinely unplugs the phone; they scuffle, she manages to shoot him.
Well, the inquest exonerates her, but what about Dan? Well, the future will have to take care of itself. Good ending to a pretty thrilling story. The plot weaves the romantic element very deftly into the political shenanigans. That works because everything pivots around the central characters, Titus and Lane. The corruption angle is very palpable; we see that only Titus’s death can stop his machine.
Meanwhile, Field sort of wilts; his character is so weak that he appears to have no will of his own Dan, on the other hand, is his own man–probably the only one in town. Annabelle is more or less a cipher. At first I thought it was a weakness having both Annabelle and Field (in different ways) fade into oblivion. But that really had to happen to open up the stage for Lane and Dan.
Titus is an interesting addition to the pantheon of Southern ‘big daddy’ types; Greenstreet, like Burl Ives and Orson Wells, among others, projects that inherently bombastic, slimy personality just so. He’s actually so awful, that we can almost admire the unrelenting schemes and traps he lays.
What remains sort of odd is that Annabelle and Lane, clearly opposite personalities–which is a good way to play them as rivals–are also clearly from different generations; Crawford was 45 in 1949, Huston only 24. Lane is old enough to be Annabelle’s mom. Admittedly, both Scott and Brian fall between the women’s ages–but it still seems strange that they both fall for Crawford’s character so automatically.
My other issue is the unnecessary speechifying (mostly from Doc) about corruption. Why do we need a textbook version of what we have scene after scene, in spell-binding fashion, hovering around Titus? There was no danger of this script glorifying dirty politics; it goes out of its way to expose just that.
All told, Flamingo Road is an entertaining ride. It’s a bit drawn out, with characters that could stand another dimension or two; but it fashions a steamroller plot that doesn’t let up until the end.
Farmermouse didn’t mind the tons of prewar and early post-war cars here, so he’ll hop a ride in that most improbable of official vehicles, a Buck convertible sedan. 7/10.