This movie got off to a good start with me because we’re told right away that Flamingo Road was the road in this town (Bolden) where all the really powerful people lived. I like a movie that explains its obscure title early on because otherwise I’ll spend my time watching the movie and wondering just what the dickens the title is supposed to mean.
Even better, a sleazy carnival is visiting the wrong side of the tracks in town and Lane (Joan Crawford of Possessed) is dressed up in one of these harem girl outfits and shimmying along to that “there’s a place in France where the naked ladies dance” song that most of us had committed to memory by the second week of first grade.
Naturally, I was thinking that we would have one of these “carny slut takes on closed minded townspeople” affairs that at some point would involve the big top burning down and an elephant stampede down Flamingo Road.
The carnival angle is sadly written out of the movie almost immediately and for reasons that I never understood, Lane was the only carny person left and was just hanging out in one of the tents when the hunky and borderline ambitious deputy sheriff, Fielding Carlisle appeared.
In spite of the fact that he was supposed to be having dinner at the home of his regular girlfriend’s dad, he invites Lane to dinner! Of course Lane was the kind of gal who didn’t mind changing her shirt in front of strange cops, so what’s a guy to do, right?
Fielding works for the sheriff Titus Semple. Sidney Greenstreet plays Semple as a sweaty behemoth of evil and is prone to use his distinctive deep mumbling voice to emphasize his bad intentions.
Semple runs the county and is the kingmaker regarding local politics. He has Fielding pegged as his boy and is planning on putting him into state politics with the ultimate goal of making Fielding governor some day.
There’s a lot of talk about how Fielding never finished law school and how he came from a really respected family where his dad was a much beloved judge and everyone wonders why he’s hanging out with the slimy Semple.
I have to admit that I was wondering that myself. Why didn’t he finish law school? Never in the movie is Fielding portrayed as being happy in his position as Semple’s stooge, but never in the movie is there any reason given as to why he has to be in that position.
I guess we were supposed to assume that he was hungry for political power, but he never evidenced anything like that in the movie.
Lane and Fielding fall in love as quickly as forbidden love usually happens in these kinds of movies and just as quickly, Semple recognizes that this is a threat to his chances to hang out at the governor’s mansion and sets about ruining Lane and Fielding’s chances at happiness. And he does it just the way you would expect him to: he frames Lane for streetwalking!
She swears vengeance on Semple, does her thirty days in lockdown, comes back to Bolden and declares that Semple will never run her out of town.
Meanwhile, Fielding marries the high class girl he doesn’t like and Semple gets Fielding elected as state senator. Once Lane is out and back on the streets of Bolden, she gets a job at an upscale roadhouse frequented by the political movers and shakers including the head of the state political machine, Dan Reynolds.
Lane and Dan somehow hit it off (though we strongly suspect that Lane is just using him to get back at Semple) and they get married and they even buy a house on Flamingo Road.
Semple wants to keep Dan in line regarding Semple’s political plans so he frames up the son of Dan’s construction foreman for a hit and run. Later he frames up Dan for using convicts on construction jobs without paying them.
I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a movie where one guy framed up so many people. And just for variety’s sake, he also beats up Fielding for crawling into a whiskey bottle and developing a conscience.
Things come to a head when Semple informs Dan and the rest of the political guys that he’s decided he’ll be the next governor. Everyone looks at him and realizes that the public may have a real problem swallowing a distasteful evil fat man as governor.
Semple blackmails them all into supporting him, but Dan won’t budge so guess what Semple does? Frames up Dan for something else!
Final, unsatisfying confrontations ensue and you’re left wondering what exactly happened to cause this movie to kind of limp across the finish line like it did.
Crawford’s performance is quite subdued, so if you’re looking for campy moments, you’ll probably want to check out her later films, but it’s really Greenstreet’s effort that makes the movie worth seeking out.
His Semple is one of the great “regular guy” villains who’s frightening because of how effortlessly and callously he plots. This is a guy who acts like it’s practically in his job description as sheriff to ruin people who get in his way.
He and Crawford have some good scenes together whether its when he’s comparing her to a rat that bit off his toes or when she was comparing him to an elephant they had to shoot at the carny or when he’s smacking her upside the head with a telephone.
The ending is a let down because Lane makes a big deal out of showing up Semple by staying in town and marrying up and living on Flamingo Road and then she doesn’t have any kind of scheme cooked up to destroy this guy.
For the first two-thirds of this movie, I thought they were portraying these two as intellectual equals and I was looking forward to a final matching of wits between them, but it never came.
Add to that the unexplained motivation of Fielding to ever get embroiled in all this right from the get go and you’ve got a solid performance by Crawford and classic performance by Greenstreet wasted in a standard issue forties small town melodrama.
This one just didn’t have the smarts to achieve what it seemed to aspire to. And as far as Sydney heaving a telephone at Joan all I can say is “dude, you don’t bring a knife to a gun fight!”
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