Based on the novel by Guy Owen, The Flim-Flam Man (1967) is a highly energetic comedy-drama about noted con man Mordecai Jones (George C. Scott) and his new sidekick, Curley (Michael Sarrazin), a young man wanted by the army for punching out his sergeant.
Curley’s personal and professional relationship with Jones begins out of compassion – he jumps off a moving train when he sees the old man and his precious suitcase chucked into a ditch – and initially helps him con locals to acquire food, but the two slowly develop a great team spirit, and the money proves to be too good for Curley to live without.
As their professional relationship blossoms, Curley gets hooked on the excitement, he learns a trade that’ll help him survive while on the lam from the military police, and he gets to travel and see the lovely rural sights of the South, but the morality of his new life comes into question when Curley is forced to help Jones “borrow” a shiny red car from a well-to to family, and falls for the car’s owner – pretty Bonnie Lee Packard (Sue Lyon, looking even more like Ann-Margret than in her prior film, Lolita [M]).
When the two men are eventually caught by the local law, Curley’s chance at going steady with Bonnie Lee one day seem very, very slim.
As film historian Julie Kirgo outlines in the DVD booklet ’s essay, Flim-Flam Man exists in a fantasy South, where the counties are picturesque, police guns miss their intended targets, no one’s mortally wounded in spite of deadly car chases & collisions, and it is possible to avoid severe cranial trauma when a bookcase filled with law texts comes tumbling straight for the noggin’.
Perhaps another way of regarding the film is of a mythic southern adventure tale that’s been transplanted from the 18th century into contemporary 1967, and in spite of cars, telephones, and a wired police network, old-time conmen are able to survive quite well.
Jones & Curley never bother with hotels; they use the plunder taken from green-eared fools with “14-karat ignorance” to buy hammocks, cured meat and tins, and camp out under the stars like 18th century rebels. Jones even sports a velvet smoking jacket, and seems perfectly at home under God’s radian stars.
William Rose’s screenplay is filled with rich details that not only deepen the broad characters, but makes their improbable lifestyle and luck possible in ‘67. (Of course, it does help that in the township of Cape Fear, there are four policemen, and one car.)
It’s also important that Curley is the one who goes through a learning and morality curve, but his circumstance is never tragic; we believe that in the end he will end up with the girl, and her father (Jack Albertson) will probably learn to tolerate and maybe love the lanky lad with an anti-authority issue.
In the main credits, Lyon gets second billing after Scott, but she’s really a minor character who exists purely to instill a sense of deeper conscience in Curley. Her scenes are few if not brief, and her emotional status generally hovers around concern for Curley and little else.
Sarrazin is really Scott’s co-star – he’s in virtually every scene with Scott – but given this is his ‘official feature film debut,’ his billing is reduced to an "introducing" header near the end of the main credit roll. (By 1967, Sarrazin had already appeared in several Canadian TV and feature films, and played a small role in the Universal programmer Gunfight in Abilene.)
To maintain the film’s fantasy realm, the car chases are classic slapstick, the dialogue is sharp & punchy, and the performances play off Scott’s insanely energetic delivery. One suspects he channeled a bit of Bugs Bunny into the role, if not General Buck Turgidson from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964). Sarrazin is less punchy, but as Curley, the actor had to maintain a similar energy because Jones would never have kept a wet rag for a partner.
Scott also manages to pull off a character twice his age in spite of the dated latex makeup and grey-dusted hair, and he becomes quickly believable as a wily old man who may well outlive Curley, and ‘dance on his grave’ before his own finale faedout.
Every small part has been meticulously cast with fine character actors, and Charles Lang’s cinematography is beautifully composed, often framing the actors like natural wildlife gently travelling across the wide frame.
Yakima Canutt’s stunt work is highlighted by a lengthy car chase where Jones not only trashes the town, but completely destroys Bonnie Lee’s lovely red car (which is a terribly tragic spectacle to observe). The slapstick tumbles, crashes, and tearing through once-immutable structures were probably an indulgence by writer Rose, who penned the epic slapstick homage It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World [M] (1963), as well as the charming British comedies The Ladykillers (1955) and slow car race Genevieve [M] (1953).
Flim-Flam Man is a balance of all three films, offering doses of large and small comedic moments, little gestures and brief drama, but there’s a constant lightness to the material, even when vehicles get destroyed every few minutes.
Director Irvin Kershner made very few feature films after 1967, but they were always well-produced, and benefitted from a great sense of pacing. As many fans of the Star Wars films have noted, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is still regarded as the best of the franchise because Kershner was always at his best when every element was in top form, particularly script and cast.
Twilight Time’s DVD sports a clean transfer of the film, and the original mono mix is fine, with only mild noise during a river crossing sequence that’s probably present in the original audio elements. Jerry Goldsmith’s largely monothematic score has been isolated in stereo on a separate track, and there are comparative differences between the mono and stereo mixes – particularly in some finer details which were brought out better in the final mono film mix.
The vintage trailer reveals all of the prime slapstick moments, so it’s best to avoid seeing any clips of the film, and just get into it without any prior impressions.
Kershner would direct few comedies among his final 8 feature films (1970-1990), but he did reteam with Goldsmith for S*P*Y*S (1974) when John Scott’s score was rejected for the North American release, and he directed Barbara Streisand in Up the Sandbox (1972).
William Rose would write two more classic films – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), and The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969) – before stepping away from feature films.
Whereas Scott would maintain a fairly strong career into the late-seventies, earning an Oscar for Patton (1970) and moving between genres in film & TV productions, producers didn’t seem to know what to do with Lyon nor Sarrazin.
Lyon gradually slid into TV and later virtual obscurity, whereas Canadian-born & bred Sarrazin went through westerns, thrillers, and international co-productions before disappearing in largely crappy Canadian TV, rarely getting any role of note, and lacking the energy and earnestness of his early performances, such as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), and the quiet sadness he brought to Frankenstein: The True Story (1973) and the cult favourite The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975).
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan