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Flap (DVD Review)

10 Jun, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Available Now via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive.
$19.95 DVD, $14.95 Download
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Anthony Quinn, Shelley Winters, Claude Akins, Tony Bill.

Other than Otto Preminger’s still indescribable psychedelic comedy Skidoo, which is scheduled for a DVD release later this year, it’s tough to think of a movie-director combo more inherently warped than hiring British cinema titan Carol Reed to direct a substantially comic modern-day Western out of Clair Huffaker’s praised novel Nobody Loves a Drunken Indian.

Nobody then or now was going to slap a moniker like that on a marquee … but Flap? (Though Skidoo and Flap together would be an enticing curio.) I’ve always been curious to see what turned out to be Reed’s next-to-last movie — a case where he went from directing the Oscar-winning Oliver! in 1968 to fashioning a fairly expensive farrago whose New York premiere came in a 42nd Street grindhouse after Warner had kept it on the shelf for something like a year-and-a-half. At the time, this irony made an impression on my film-school buddies and me because Midnight Cowboy — which came out the year before — had done a lot to portray the elegance level of those Manhattan viewing venues.

Until the Oliver! comeback, Reed’s career had been in tough shape, though many have made the case that from about 1947 through 1953, few filmmakers have ever been more in the groove. Though some would even extend his streak through 1955’s A Kid for Two Farthings (which I love) and maybe even following year’s Trapeze (which, at minimum, is irresistible), it’s absolutely impossible to deny a seven-year run that consisted of Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, The Third Man, Outcast of the Islands and The Man Between. According to his biographer, Nicholas Wapshott, Reed wanted to get as far away from musicals as he could following Oliver!’s success, which had a lot to do with his taking on the Flap assignment. Uh huh.

Released in November 1970, the movie was ahead of its time in anticipating Native American protests at Wounded Knee, SD, in 1973 and the same state’s Oglala incident in 1975 that killed two FBI agents and led to the imprisonment of Leonard Peltier, which some consider to be a miscarriage of justice. In all other ways, it’s out of its time, starting with the casting of so many non-Native Americans in key roles, headed by Anthony Quinn (who replaced Richard Harris) as Flap, short for “Flapping Eagle.”

Though the screenplay (by Huffaker) eventually showers him in belated dignity, Flap is mostly portrayed as a perpetual Southwestern drunk in a Yankees cap who spends a lot of time at the local bordello. The movie’s hot-tempered madame, played by Shelley Winters, is named Dorothy Bluebell — and truth to tell, I didn’t even realize she was supposed to be a Native American and am still not sure, though the name has the right ring. Beware of any movie in which Winters gets to swing a purse (or plays opposite Quinn in the first place) because the storytelling tone is going to be mighty broad.

Also cast as Indians are Claude Akins, Victor Jory (who’d previously played one in John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn) and, of all people, Tony Bill — who just seven years earlier had played Frank Sinatra’s kid brother in Come Blow Your Horn. There’s also a resident young babe (Susana Miranda) working in the reservation’s general store, simply because every movie like this has to have one when you’re otherwise looking at Quinn, Akins and Jory in Technicolor Panavision for nearly two hours.

The plot hinges on freeway construction that is supposedly infringing on sacred burial grounds when it isn’t — though never let it be said that Flap isn’t above a scam or two. The foreman, who turns out to be a good guy, is played by Don Collier, who’d previously been seen as the dad whose young son runs off to the New York Yankees’ training camp in 1962’s Safe at Home! — presumably making Collier the only actor in screen history who worked with Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Carol Reed.

Even though it’s always photographing humble settings, the movie looks expensive and apparently was. The cinematographer was Fred J. Koenekamp, the same year as his Oscar-nominated work for Patton (he also shot Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Billy Jack around this time; man, what a carnival, and I’d like to hear those stories). To complete the strange bedmates array, the music is by Marvin Hamlisch with a title song sung by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. Do you get the sense that the parties in charge here never quite knew what they wanted the movie to be?

Anyway, this is what the Warner Archive on-demand titles (available as well) are designed to do – make available curiosities, which, in some cases, are not even televised very much. At least there’ll be better news for Reed’s memory at the end of the month when Criterion brings out 1940’s Night Train to Munich, which is a lot closer to being one of the director’s prime cuts.

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