'Every bullet is a caress.'The movie starts out at a vaudeville show in Mexico City, 1936. During a comedy act, shots are fired and a woman working in one of the acts is found killed backstage. The police quickly arrest her husband, who claims he is innocent. Later that evening, when the theater is empty except for the vaudeville group's comedian who's packing up his stuff, someone falls down from the rafters, mortally wounded. The comedian recognizes the dying man as The Great Flamarion (Erich Von Stroheim). Flamarion confesses it is he who killed the woman, his former assistant Conny (Mary Beth Hughes), and he wants to tell the story of why he did it to the comedian, so he can come clean, as he'll be dead soon. In a long flashback, he recounts his own vaudeville act as an expert marksman. The act involves a small theater play where his assistants Conny and her husband Al Wallace (Dan Duryea) play secret lovers. Flamarion, Conny's husband in the act, crashes their secret gettogether by surprise. He then starts shooting all kinds of targets, such as lighting a match by shooting it, shooting a strap of Conny's dress and shooting lightbulbs surrounding a mirror with Al moving in front of it. The act is very successful and Flamarion is quite popular. There's trouble in paradise however. Al's an alcoholic and he uses Conny's past of hustling guys for money against her to keep up his drinking habit. Conny wants to get rid of Al and starts to work her charm on Flamarion, making him believe Al's jealous of him and that she has feelings for Flamarion. Resisting at first due to a failed love in his past, Flamarion eventually falls for her. Once Flamarion's ready to kick Al off the act and start a new life with Conny, she starts to work him even harder. She wants Flamarion to get rid of Al by 'accidentally' shooting him during one of their shows. Flamarion does so accordingly, and gets off scot-free due to Al being intoxicated during the act, making the coronor believe it was Al who made a mistake in timing. Behind Flamarion's back however, Conny's started up a relationship with Eddie Wheeler (Stephen Barclay), who rides a bicycle in another act. By the time Flamarion figures out he's been double-crossed by Conny, she's long gone with Eddie. But Flamarion still wants Conny, so he goes in search of her for revenge.
The movie doesn't stand out in the tension department, primarily due to the story starting at the end and giving away too much within the first 10 minutes. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as classics like 1944's 'Double Indemnity' and 1950's 'Sunset Blvd' prove, but here too much of the mystery is given away too soon. Apparently the flashback structure was not an idea of Mann but of producer William Wilder, the brother of legendary director Billy Wilder. Wilder possibly thought he could cash in a bit on his brother's directorial success with 'Double Indemnity' using a similar plot device, but it didn't turn out to be the classic or hit he had hoped for, although the movie didn't do too bad in the cinemas either. Both as a producer and as a director ('The Glass Alibi', 'The Big Bluff'), William Wilder had nowhere near the talent or success of his brother.
'Any guy that wouldn't fall for you is either a sucker or he's dead.'There are some great scenes tho, Mann does show he knows what he's doing here, and the cinematography is above average as well. Flamarion's act, showing off his marksmanship, is a lot of fun to watch, as is the scene where he's practicing his skills, mechanically repeating the same shot over and over again. The movie uses stock footage of Mexico City to start off the movie, transitioning into the theater, and studio lots are used from there on. In some cases, such as some scenes taking place in a park, it's too clear it's a studio lot, but overall the sets look great, including a fancy hotel in Chicago, where Flamarion rents the massive bridal suite where he waits for Conny, who never shows up. There are some shadowy scenes, but also scenes which take place during the daytime, even if most of the movie takes place indoors. There's also some nice make-up work done on Von Stroheim, who looks physically much worse for wear near the end of the movie, his face noticeably thinner and more rugged.
Erich Von Stroheim plays the title character, The Great Flamarion, with a very harsh and stoic frame, always seemingly unemotional, utterly professional and completely detached from those around him, almost coming off as feeling superior. He's not nearly as great here as he would be 5 years later in the classic 'Sunset Blvd' tho, and at various points in the movie when he's involved in some lengthy dialogue he even seems disinterested. Von Stroheim was one of the great silent movie directors, but he was also renowned, and infamous, for being a very stubborn eccentric with a near-insane attention to detail and accuracy and spending a lot of money on his very lengthy movies (his 1924 epic 'Greed' ran somewhere between 7 to 10 hours in its original form, most of it cut by the studio), which more often than not did not do well at the box office. His eccentricities were such that he was banned from directing in 1933. He was also an actor for most of his career, but his name and fame hit rock-bottom in the mid 40s, which might explain his occasional lackluster attitude here, forced to take roles he felt were beneath him. Von Stroheim, who always thought of himself as a director first and an actor second, did not hesitate to offer some advice to director Mann: 'Do you want to be a great director? Photograph the whole of 'The Great Flamarion' through my monocle.' He also disagreed on the non-linear structure of the movie, and probably felt disgruntled in general. Famously, Mann said of working with Von Stroheim: 'He drove me mad. He was a genius. I'm not a genius, I'm a worker.' Despite all this, I enjoy Von Stroheim here, he's got something about him that makes you want to watch him.
'Don't you realize Al that every time we step on that stage you're nothing but a live target which I must miss.'Dan Duryea is also a well-known name in noir circles, his many noir roles include 'Scarlet Street', 'Black Angel' and 'Criss Cross'. He's his usual solid self here, altho his role is pretty one-dimensional. His Al Wallace is an alcoholic who has got his act together well enough to keep performing on stage, but who's addicted enough to use Conny's past, it's implied she's left behind more than one guy after taking his money, to keep the marriage and thus their work for The Great Flamarion going. While usually playing a crook, a villain or an otherwise unsympathetic character, Duryea gives Al more of a pitiful edge here, even though he essentially blackmails Conny to keep his habit going. Conny is the classic noir femme fatale. She's played quite effectively by Mary Beth Hughes. Hughes played almost exclusively in B movies her entire career including a ton of westerns, her noir credentials include 'The Lady Confesses', 'Loophole' and 'Inner Sanctum'. She's a real femme fatale here, and it's always fun to watch a femme fatale at work, the glances she gives when she's putting ideas into Flamarion's head are stereotypical but great. While I wasn't overly impressed with her work in 'Inner Sanctum', she's pretty good and seductive here, and is able to convincingly portray (fake) tenderness and repulsion towards Flamarion at the same time.
As mentioned before, the movie lacks the necessary tension to make it a great noir, but it's definitely still a solid noir in my book. Despite knowing the outcome right from the get-go, the movie is still entertaining and interesting. The story's good enough, and so are the performances of the main actors. Von Stroheim is always interesting to watch, and he does make The Great Flamarion quite a unique character, and Mary Beth Hughes balances out their twisted relationship quite well. The music is pretty forgettable unfortunately, and it's not exactly a stunning noir visually either. But on a whole, it's a good noir which I enjoy quite a bit. Recommended.