Erich von Stroheim X2 … The Great Flamarion (1945) and The Mask of Diijan (1946)
Far removed from his days commanding sets and cameras and a few short years prior to his most recognized role as an actor, “The Man You Love to Hate” was turning out “B” films for the poverty row crowd. For my money, one a gem and the other just another “B”.
Right from the opening credits of Flamarion, you know this might be worth a look when you see the title card reading, Directed by Anthony Mann. The Great Flamarion as played by Erich is a trick shooting vaudeville act. He never misses what he’s aiming at. This Noir like tale is told in flashback after a woman is killed backstage at a vaudeville show and Erich, clad in black makes his way seemingly wounded to the rafters where he hides himself among the ropes, ladders and pulleys.
Backtracking the narrative, we’ll find the stern task master Erich running his trick shooting show with a married couple played by Mary Beth Hughes and Dan Duryea. Duryea’s participation should immediately raise one’s interest in checking out this early Mann flick.
“You’re a bad habit I can’t cure.” Duryea tells his wife through the haze of alcohol that he continues to abuse himself with. His wife Hughes has much on her mind and is plotting like any bad girl of Noir to rid herself of him. She’ll turn to Erich for assistance in her devious plans. Erich may be the stern character here that we all expect him to be but behind the hard exterior is a lonely man who is ripe for the attentions of Hughes. She’ll plant the seed that to be together and rid of Duryea, he might miss his bullet’s mark leaving her a widow.
It’s a trap that he’s going to fall into and when he’s exonerated, Hughes suggests they stay apart for a few months and she can rejoin him at a later date. Off she goes into the night a free woman and with the roll of cash he hands her to tide her over till their blessed reunion. Did I mention she might have been interested in the young man in the bicycle act that opens the show?
As one might expect, this is an expertly directed “B” from the early days of Mann’s career with shadows and angles utilized for a top notch black and white low budget effort. It’s Erich’s picture all the way and while the first thirty minutes played up to his cold hearted image, he quickly captures our sympathies when he shows his inner warmth and need for affection. By the film’s end when he’s a broken man we’re pretty much cheering him on as we know the outcome based on the opening scenes of the film.
Erich may be a killer, but in Noir terms, he’s just in his cause.
The Mask of Diijon clocking in at 72 minutes casts our leading man as a mysterious illusionist who has retreated from the public eye to dabble in hypnotism. From the outset when his wife Jeanne Bates takes Erich to see a new trick created by Edward (Van Helsing) Van Sloan, Erich spurns the idea of a comeback to the stage. His arrogance and disdain for the whole idea leaves his wife feeling cold and alone. In essence he’s retreated into himself and with little prospects, he and Jeanne are going broke with no money to their name and bills piling up.
With Erich withdrawing from society, his wife will find an interested suitor in William Wright and soon after leaves Erich. This will trigger an evil side to him and when by chance he realizes he’s mastered the art of hypnotism by foiling an armed robbery, he tests his power on another guest at the boarding house where he rooms. This leads to his first murder made to look like a suicide.
In the end, an imbalanced Erich wants his wife and her supposed lover out of the way which will lead to the fade out where our bald headed villain will pay for his evil transgressions.
Lew Landers directed this low budget production from Western Television. Landers was a long time B film specialist giving us The Return of the Vampire, Boston Blackie titles and the popular thirties terror, The Raven with Boris and Bela. Speaking of Boris and Bela, this role of Diijan seems to be right in their wheel house. I am quite confident that if they had played the hypnotist, this black and white special would have a far greater following.
Long time character player George Chandler who’s face is one most classic fans will recognize from his numerous roles in film and television makes an appearance as well. Here he is cast as the diner’s cook where Erich foils the robbery to Chandler’s amazement.
While this title might not be up to the thrills of The Great Flamarion, it makes a suitable double feature allowing us to get a look at Erich von Stroheim through the lean years leading up to his role as Max in one of cinema’s greatest films, Sunset Boulevard.