As in Mildred Pierce, Germanic technique flourishes in Americana: Michael Curtiz’s camera prowls through a Southern carnival and reveals a Caligari sideshow even before Joan Crawford materializes as a cooch dancer, the veil not quite hiding her concretelike makeup. The Dixie burg is split between plebeian River Street and the ritzy aristo stretch of the title, the Sheriff (Sydney Greenstreet) swells like the overripe fruit of corruption he is. Chicanery and frame-ups are the rule, candidates are chosen between poker hands on the second floor of the bordello, "that’s politics." Crawford’s trajectory is a political odyssey of its own -- the heroine falls for the spineless deputy-cum-gubernatorial-puppet (Zachary Scott), gets railroaded by Greenstreet, lands on the local "roadhouse" ("I lost that some time around the Spanish-American War," madam Gladys George says of her reputation), and returns swathed in furs after hooking up with the construction honcho (David Brian). The atmosphere of widespread and accepted venality (Fred Clark’s tabloid editor is the lonely voice of lucidity) is pitch-noir, the dialogue is rich: Professional jellyfish Scott feels "like the tail on a runaway kite," the Sheriff savors the police-car siren ("Pinch its ear, bub, I like to hear it squeal"). An early draft of Sirk’s South, given a luxuriously gaseous air by Curtiz’s ornate framing. (No front porch is complete without a low-angled ceiling fan, the detention ward at a women’s prison gets Brecht Theater design.) Tennessee Williams’ Big Daddy, Gore Vidal’s The Best Man... Crawford’s classic punchline about the dead elephant is set up earlier by Greenstreet’s drawling remembrance of rats in a warehouse. The "nasty streak of honesty" ultimately prevails, for the love of a woman and the relief of a circle of blackmailed politicos. With Virginia Huston, Gertrude Michael, and Alice White. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce