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The Flim-Flam Man, The (DVD Review)

12 Sep, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available at ww.screenarchives.com
Twilight Time
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars George C. Scott, Michael Sarrazin, Sue Lyon.

A relatively soft-sell comedy trapped in one of the hardest-selling genres of all, this acclaimed sleeper of its day probably helped lead the way to the more heavy-handed rural comedies with Burt Reynolds (usually directed by Hal Needham) that always played to me as if they were aimed at the “wife beater at the drive-in” demographic. As such, the unknowing might not routinely peg FFM as a George C. Scott vehicle — though it boasts one of the actor’s signature performances in a role (it has been said) that he regarded as his personal favorite.

The title definitely merits a truth-in-advertising citation, in that William Rose’s script (adapted from a Guy Owen novel) cast the 39-year-old Scott as a 70-ish con artist who travels by train (boxcars to be precise) while earning his living bilking hardware store loiterers in games of chance. He maintains, as W.C. Fields once did in a 1939 Universal comedy, that you can’t cheat an honest man — another way of saying that those who get bilked more often than not have it coming. And it’s true, as Julie Kirgo notes in her booklet essay for this limited-edition Twilight Time release from the 20th Century-Fox vaults, that you tend to forget about Scott’s extensive old-age makeup after a while — which is not to say that it isn’t a piece of work.

The movie’s setting is someone’s fantasy of the rural South, and North Carolina specifically, which may explain why the result made more noise at the time with reviewers than with a general public that had Vietnam, racial turmoil, free love and drugs on its mind. Scott takes a young protégé under his wing (the recently deceased Michael Sarrazin in his first big-screen role of note) — a kid who is, in fact, on the lam from Fort Bragg after having popped his sergeant amid some altercation. But real-life considerations never interfere too much here; the blonde Southern belle who captures Sarrazin’s eye (Sue Lyon, a long way from Lolita) isn’t even as political as, say, most of femme Caucasians in the current theatrical hit The Help. Though she is less brassy.

The two youngsters “meet cute”: Scott, with Sarrazin, shows up at blindly at Lyon’s home and eventually takes off with one of the family cars — plowing into a second vehicle that finds her daddy behind the wheel during an ensuing chase. This is even more of an impediment to getting along with your girl friend’s family than the age-old “Wake Up, Little Susie” situation, but you always have the feeling that matters will work out well enough in the end. The supporting cast is packed with familiar character actor faces: Harry Morgan (just how many law enforcement figures did he play, anyway?); Jack Albertson (who’d win an Oscar the following year for The Subject Was Roses); and those two great future “friends of Peckinpah” — Slim Pickens and Strother Martin.

For a movie that was a little soft at the box office despite its subsequent cult, screenwriter Rose managed to plunk FFM in the middle of three of the decade’s biggest comedy hits: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming on one end with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner on the other. The movie’s director was Irvin Kershner — who, despite landing The Empire Strikes Back and 007’s Never Say Never Again relatively late in his career, was typed as a filmmaker known for “good little movies” substantially more quirky than even this one: The Hoodlum Priest, The Luck of Ginger Coffey, Loving and Up the Sandbox. (In theory, I’d really like to add A Fine Madness to this list, but the only thing about it that really gets me going about it is Jean Seberg in a hot tub).

I’m usually pretty resistant to wheel-screeching car chases in down-home comedies, but give Kershner credit for staging the one here pretty well, even though it’s unlikely he was to Goodyears born. Working with shaky ‘60s DeLuxe Color, the Fox/Twilight Time print look better than decent — and better than it has looked to me on Fox Movie Channel airings. Though, truth to tell, post-Technicolor-era renderings have never looked too hot to me on FMC; perhaps one of Rupert Murdoch’s deposed execs has been running the transmitter.

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