Friday, February 22, 2008

cinema obscura: Richard Fleischer's "10 Rillington Place" (1971)


If you live in the New York area and missed yesterday's screening of Richard Fleischer's "10 Rillington Place" at the Film Forum, you can catch this small-gem-of-a-masterpiece on Sunday, February 24th at 1:30 p.m., being presented as part of the Film Comment Selects series at Lincoln Center.

"10 Rillington Place" is the third side of Fleischer's first-rate crime trilogy that also includes "Compulsion" (1959) and "The Boston Strangler" (1968), both equally fine films. But for what it's worth, "Rillington" is my hands-down favorite Fleischer. It's almost impossible to see, of course. It is not available on home entertainment in any format - at least not in this country.

One of those rare crime thrillers that is not only frightening but genuinely unnerving and disturbing, Fleischer's movie stars Richard Attenborough in a thoroughly creepy performance as John Christie, a muderer who posed as a doctor, performing illegal abortions and going a step further by drugging, raping and then strangling his patients. He murdered eight women in London between 1940 and 1953.

John Hurt (and never did a name fit an actor so well) matches Attenborough every step of the way in a sadly wrenching performance as Timothy Evans, the husband of one of Christie's victims, who is falsely accused of killing his wife (Judy Geeson) - while Christie stands by and watches his arrest.

The Film Forum, by they way, is also showing two other Fleischer titles - his minunderstood and maligned “Mandingo” (1975), being screened tomorrow, Saturday, February 23, at 2 p.m., and his minor classic, “Violent Saturday” (1955), which will begin a weeklong run at the theater on Friday, February 29.

Fleischer, who died at age 90 in 2006, directed about 50 films in his lifetime, most of which tended to come in under the radar, despite their accomplishments, and were given left-handed references at best by the critics during his lifetime.

He was part of the Fleischer dynasty ("Popeye," "Betty Boop" and "Koko the Clown") but he never commanded attention as an auteur the way, say, Robert Altman did. In retrospect, that could be because Fleischer didn't make the same movie over and over again, à la Altman. I mention these two great directors in tandem because they died about six months apart in 2006 and, for a while, my mind was filled with elusive thoughts about how much I admired (and perhaps overrated) Altman when I was a young Turk - and how I too often took Fleischer for granted as so many other critics had.

Altman's chatty ensemble films all began to seem like undisguised variations on each other, while each Fleischer film, even the disposable, inferior ones, showcased the filmmaker's knack for trying different things, different genres - to change and keep growing. I mean, Altman's "Nashville" and "A Prairie Home Companion" may have been separated by 30 years, but they could have been made back-to-back. (I like them both, however, and think that "Prairie" is an especially effective rumination on death.)

But enough about Altman. I am here to praise Richard Fleischer - and not at the expense of another filmmaker (who I still actually like) - and reminisce about all the joy he gave me. My mind jumps from "The Happy Time" (1952), the Charles Boyer-Louis Jourdan romp, to "The Vikings" (1958), with Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, one of the key films of my youth.

A Richard Fleischer Film Festival would be incomplete without such idiosyncratic titles as "The Girl in the Red Swing" (1955) with Joan Collins as Evelyn Nesbit; "These Thousand Hills" (1959), a fine Western with Don Murray and Lee Remick; "The Last Run" (1971), a crime flick with George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere; the nifty "Soylent Green" (1973); "The Incredible Sarah" (1976) with Glenda Jackson as Sarah Bernhardt and Daniel Massey as Victorien Sardou, and "Tough Enough" (1983), an engaging Dennis Quaid boxing film.

And in a league by itself is Fleicshcr's sublime anti-Biblical epic, "Barabbas"(1962), with the perfectly cast Anthony Quinn in the title role.

For more on this unhearalded filmmaker, check out Dave Kehr's astute New York Times essay, "In a Corrupt World Where the Violent Bear It Away," timed to coincide with the Forum's screenings of the three Fleischer films.

Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.

(Artwork: John Hurt and Richard Attenborough give superb performances in Richard Fleischer's criminally neglected gem, "10 Rillington Place." Fleischer himself)

* * *

Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com

4 comments:

jbryant said...

Heartily agree on 10 Rillington Place, which I've seen twice, and Fleischer in general. I still have a lot to catch up on, but his eclectic, idiosyncratic career is packed with gems. I had the privilege of seeing Fleischer in person twice in recent years, both times at American Cinematheque screenings in Hollywood, when he did Q&As for The Narrow Margin and The Boston Strangler.

A title you didn't mention that impressed me recently on DVD is The Don is Dead. Though clearly made in the wake of the enormous success of The Godfather, Fleischer seems more interested in making a gritty crime thriller than an operatic gangster epic. The downright Shakespearean plot splits the protagonist function across three roles (Anthony Quinn, Frederic Forrest, Robert Forster), creating a welcome level of unpredictability in an overworked genre. I found myself surprised by a number of twists, both large and small, and Fleischer even takes pains to transcend cliche in his action scenes. Just as you begin to scoff at the old "car-plowing-through-a-fruit-stand" shot, you're suddenly caught up in a riveting, brilliantly staged shoot-out.

The guy definitely had the goods, and it's great that he's getting some serious recognition, however belated.

jbryant said...

Heartily agree on 10 Rillington Place, which I've seen twice, and Fleischer in general. I still have a lot to catch up on, but his eclectic, idiosyncratic career is packed with gems. I had the privilege of seeing Fleischer in person twice in recent years, both times at American Cinematheque screenings in Hollywood, when he did Q&As for The Narrow Margin and The Boston Strangler.

A title you didn't mention that impressed me recently on DVD is The Don is Dead. Though clearly made in the wake of the enormous success of The Godfather, Fleischer seems more interested in making a gritty crime thriller than an operatic gangster epic. The downright Shakespearean plot splits the protagonist function across three roles (Anthony Quinn, Frederic Forrest, Robert Forster), creating a welcome level of unpredictability in an overworked genre. I found myself surprised by a number of twists, both large and small, and Fleischer even takes pains to transcend cliche in his action scenes. Just as you begin to scoff at the old "car-plowing-through-a-fruit-stand" shot, you're suddenly caught up in a riveting, brilliantly staged shoot-out.

The guy definitely had the goods, and it's great that he's getting some serious recognition, however belated.

moviezzz said...

I am a bit surprised at the new wave of praise for him, mainly because I thought there was a critical reevaluation back in the early 90's when his autobiography was published. He came out favorably then.

It is good to see though. While I have yet to see as much of his work as I would like (or finish his book which I bought back then), what I have seen has been impressive.

jbryant said...

I read his book, but I guess I missed the earlier wave of appreciation (I didn't move to L.A. until '93). At least he got a taste of it before his death, via such events as the American Cinematheque screenings.