Thursday, September 24, 2009

Flaxy Martin (Warners, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked out was Flaxy Martin, an obscure and oddly title Warners’ film noir from 1949 written by David Lang and directed by Richard L. Bare, who seems to have taken the noir “look” to almost terminal extremes. Plenty of scenes in this film, including what are supposed to be big action moments, take place in almost total darkness punctuated only by shards of light and sudden flashes on the screen and explosions on the soundtrack — time and time again we hear someone shooting someone else but we have to wait until the lights come back on to see who shot whom. The film is named after the femme fatale character played by Virginia Mayo, though the real lead is Zachary Scott as Walter Colby, young attorney (one had to do a bit of suspension of disbelief to accept Scott as the youthful age his character is supposed to be) who just got out of law school two years earlier, encountered Flaxy Martin, and was seduced by her — literally — into working for gangster Hap Richey (a nicely sinister performance by Douglas Kennedy, who ably portrays him as the small-time Mafia wannabe Lang wrote).

Colby naïvely hopes that by working for Richey he can raise enough money to marry Flaxy and get them out of that lifestyle — what he doesn’t know, but we do, is that she’s really Richey’s mistress. (We’re told that in a surprisingly blatant scene for a Code-era film; he slips her a wad of cash and says, “Here. Go buy yourself something.”) The opening scene is a typical Warners whirlwind of rapid action; Richey’s hulking hitman Caesar (Jack Overman) shoots down a woman in a tenement building, another woman in the building sees it go down and registers his face, and without any tiresome exposition about how the police put a name to her description the very next scene shows him in custody, then cuts to Richey anxiously summoning Colby at 2 a.m. and saying he must represent Caesar in court and get him acquitted because otherwise — we find out later — Caesar will turn state’s evidence and blow the whistle on Richey’s gang. Without telling Colby, Richey and Flaxy bribe a witness to provide Caesar a false alibi, then Flaxy goes to their phony witness and kills her herself when she tries to blackmail more money out of Richey. When Colby refuses to play along, Richey and Flaxy frame him for the woman’s murder, and he’s arrested — though later he breaks jail and, with the help of his garage mechanic friend Sam (Tom D’Andrea), flees to the countryside and meets “good girl” Nora Carson (Dorothy Malone). Nora hides him out, at first not knowing who he is but eventually putting two and two together and associating him with Colby from an article on the case in her local country newspaper, even though that paper (unlike the big-city dailies whose front pages we’ve seen earlier) ran the story without his photo.

Alas, Richey’s hit man Roper (Elisha Cook, Jr. in one of his very best bad-guy performances — as good as he was as the milquetoast in over his head in the criminal life, he could be equally effective as a black-hearted killer, and if anything he’s even better here than in The Maltese Falcon because he’s got more to do) traces them and is ready to kill Colby, Nora and the dumb country sheriff who was checking up on them when Roper arrived — only Colby gets away again and the finale occurs back in the city, where Flaxy re-hooks up with Colby and decides to get rid of both men in her life by enticing Colby to steal a $40,000 payroll from Hap, then killing Colby herself and getting the money. Of course it doesn’t work that way, and eventually the bad guys get what they deserve — and Colby offers the $40,00 to Nora so they can flee and start a new life together, but she won’t have anything to do with him unless he turns himself in and faces up to what he’s done, so the film ends with him becoming honest, facing a two-year sentence for perjury and the loss of his law license but at least back on the moral straight-and-narrow.

Flaxy Martin is an odd movie, not only because of how far it pushes the visual tropes of film noir but because of some of the intriguing spins it puts on the noir clichés: Flaxy herself is a businesslike femme fatale who doesn’t get a particular thrill out of manipulating the men in her life but does it coldly and calculatingly, just for the money. Colby is a marvelously complex anti-hero — well suited to Scott, whose reputation up to that point had been almost entirely built on out-and-out villain roles in movies like The Mask of Dimitrios and Mildred Pierce — who rises to the challenge of Lang’s script and suggests a man finding and getting in touch with an inner decency that had been beaten out of him by long years of economic struggle. (This isn’t stressed in Lang’s script but we do get the impression that he impoverished himself to work his way through law school.)

Certainly there’ve been plenty of other movies in which a crooked but not entirely unsympathetic protagonist disappears from an urban environment, finds himself in the country and is wholly or partly redeemed by the love of a good country girl — previous examples include The Life of Jimmy Dolan, They Made Me a Criminal, High Sierra and Out of the Past — but this one is edgier than most because Lang’s writing is good enough to give both Scott and Malone the chance to play walking-wounded characters, and they rise to the occasion. I had been under the impression that Flaxy Martin was a “B,” but that’s belied by the length (87 minutes) and a cast that, though lacking any superstars, at least featured actors that had played with superstars in major films: Mayo with James Cagney in White Heat and Scott with Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce. Flaxy Martin is quite an engaging movie even despite its big weakness — the title character disappears midway through and only turns up at the end — and though the title seems rather silly (I suspect it meant “Flaxy” as in “flaxen,” and was supposed to make us think Virginia Mayo was playing a “bottle blonde”) the film itself is a crackling-tough noir boosted by Warners’ trademarked breakneck pace and bolstered by a music score by William Lava, whose apprenticeship at Republic had certainly trained him to write action music!