Flashbacks and double crosses, love triangles and scheming women, blackmail, obsession and murder. Add in some moody and expressive visuals as well as the type of rich-looking set design a studio like 20th Century Fox would have been proud of and it sounds like The Flame (1947) has all the ingredients necessary for a top film noir, yet it doesn’t entirely hit the mark. That said, it’s not a bad movie and I think there’s actually quite a lot to enjoy over its 90 minute running time. Basically, it’s one of those odd cinematic creatures, a movie I get on with well enough but just wish I were able to like a little more; it has what can be summed up in that vaguely dreadful word, potential.
We come in high, skimming the urban skyline, and then swooping down to street level to focus on one man on that thoroughfare. He looks thoughtful as he pauses at the entrance to a swank looking apartment building. Passing in and up again, up through the splendor of its striking interior design, he moves along a corridor whose unique skylights are suggestive of a watchful eye from above, along to the grand door at the far end. Beyond those doors lies violence, for no sooner has the figure entered than shots are heard ringing out with a shocking abruptness, not least the last one. In a very real sense, this is an opening to die for. Sure, in terms of structure, it’s not quite as bleakly audacious as the tale told by a dead man in Sunset Boulevard, but it’s a close relative of sorts. When George MacAllister (John Carroll) arrives back at his apartment with a bullet hole in his back there’s a fatalism on display as he sits down to peruse the letter which will lead the viewer into the long flashback making up the body of the movie.
The letter in question is a long epistle from Carlotta Duval (Vera Ralston) detailing the tangled circumstances that led to a killing, how George MacAllister’s egoistic wastrel let his greed and his jealousy of his brother take hold of him, how that brother (Robert Paige) found a reason to live and how the writer herself became entrapped in a kind of ethical maze where every turn appears barred by thorns of her own manufacture. A plot to exploit an apparently ailing man evolves from double to triple cross, and threatens to become even more complicated with arrival on the scene of a disgruntled and lovestruck heavy (Broderick Crawford) and the subject of his passion (Constance Dowling). By the time we reach the end of the road the plot has twisted and turned around to such an extent that one of the characters performs a complete volte-face. The entire movie has a heightened sense of spirituality about it, alluded to via some of the early visual motifs and then made wholly explicit by a moment of enlightenment sequence at the mid-point. If that “road to Damascus moment” does lack a certain subtlety, the thinking behind it and the redemptive path it lays out for some of the characters is not in itself unwelcome.
The Flame was directed by John H Auer, a filmmaker whose work I’ve not seen all that much of. One movie by Auer that I am familiar with is Hell’s Half Acre, and it’s another which I think doesn’t quite deliver as much as it initially promises. It looks fine throughout, with Auer framing some very attractive compositions and cinematographer Reggie Lanning (Wake of the Red Witch) lighting them effectively. However, it all drifts somewhat in the middle, with the pace and energy fading and flagging. Now that’s not uncommon and lots of movies can be said to suffer from a similar soft center without it becoming all that noticeable. Perhaps part of the problem is the absence of a genuinely commanding presence among the leads.
In the three principal roles, Vera Ralston, John Carroll and Robert Paige are all adequate but that’s about it, and the movie could have used more dynamism in at least one of those parts. It’s long been fashionable to take shots at Ralston due to Herbert Yates’ insistence on her being the leading lady in picture after picture. She is certainly limited but her work isn’t poor, just not especially memorable. Robert Paige was tasked with playing a man of great kindness and understanding, and again while he’s not bad in the role I did find myself wondering whether there was enough in the characterization to melt a hardened heart in the way he’s supposed to do. And something similar can be said for John Carroll, where it’s debatable that he gets across the meanness, the duplicity and the manipulative nature his role demands.
On the other hand, the supporting parts are much more interesting: Broderick Crawford does have an aura of menace about him despite the hangdog bulkiness and the movie gets a lift every time he appears. Then Constance Dowling really raises the temperature when she is on screen, which isn’t anywhere near as often as one might wish. Her opening nightclub number is remarkable and full of raw sensuality, and her subsequent scenes allowed her to put across her coy, kittenish and waspish sides in succession. Beside those two, there are welcome turns from Henry Travers, Blanche Yurka, Hattie McDaniel and, giving a rather touching performance, Victor Sen Yung.
To the best of my knowledge, The Flame has never had a commercial release but it is easy enough to view online, and with very good picture quality too. It’s a solid film noir, with all the trappings and tropes of the genre or, if you prefer, the style intact. Personally, I enjoyed the redemptive aspect of the yarn, even if the handling of the spiritual conversion is a touch clumsy and bordering on jejune. That along with the essentially anonymous work of the three leads drag it down some, although the stylish visuals and the supporting cast do add balance. So, a pretty good and enjoyable movie that could have been very good with just a few tweaks here and there.
This an entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Hidden Classics blogathon. Click here for the full list of participants and their contributions.