Sunday, November 13, 2016

façade: richard fleischer

Although never fully appreciated in his lifetime, filmmaker Richard Fleischer does have a loyal cult following. And with good reason.

Actually several good reasons. And they are ... "The Narrow Margin" and "The Happy Time" (both 1952), "Violent Saturday" and "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" (both 1955), "The Vikings" (1958), "Compulsion and "These Thousand Hills" (both 1959), "Barabbas" (1962), "The Boston Strangler" (1968), "10 Rillington Place" (1971), "Soylent Green" (1973) "Mandingo" (1965) and "Tough Enough" (1983).

Fleischer, of the famed Fleischer dynasty ("Popeye," "Betty Boop" and "Koko the Clown"), 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 died at age 90 in 2006, about six months before Robert Altman passed.  But Fleischer never commanded attention as an auteur, as Altman did.  At the time of their deaths, 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.

That could be because Fleischer didn't make the same movie over and over again, à la Altman.

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 - and reminisce about all the joy he gave me.

A Richard Fleischer Film Festival would be incomplete without such idiosyncratic titles as "The Girl in the Red Swing" 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; the nifty "Soylent Green, "The Incredible Sarah" (1976) with Glenda Jackson as Sarah Bernhardt and Daniel Massey as Victorien Sardou, and "Tough Enough," an engaging Dennis Quaid boxing film.

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

If I had to pick what I think is the best Fleischer, it would be "10 Rillington Place," 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.

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.

"10 Rillington Place"is an award-worthy film.

And yet the only Fleischer title nominated for a best picture Oscar was, of all things, the original movie musical "Dr. Dolittle" (1967). Fleischer himself was not nominated. (Herbert Ross staged the musical numbers for him.) He was the only director of the five nominated films that year not to get a nod; his slot went to Richard Brooks for "In Cold Blood," which was not nominated for best picture that year.

Actually, "Dr. Dolittle" is much better than its unfairly tainted reputation suggests. The film expresses an urgently empathetic regard for animals and boasts a tricky, literate song score by Leslie Bricusse, one of whose numbers posits the nifty observation that "a veterinarian should be a vegetarian." And his "When I Look In Your Eyes" is one of the most affecting, heart-breaking love songs to grace any movie musical.

And given that title star Rex Harrison (pictured above with a game co-star) had already taught linguistics to a guttersnipe in "My Fair Lady," it seemed like a natural progression for him to ply his skills on ... animals.

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," which was timed to coincide with a Fleischer tribute at New York's Film Forum in 2008.


Andrew said...

I imagine Fleischer's reputation took a hit from his last work...
The New York Times obit refers to him as a director of "popular films," which is accurate, but it doesn't really acknowledge the popular films of Fleischer's day (or the ones he made) were a lot better than the popular films of today...

Roberta said...

Thanks for reminding me not only about Fleischer but also about how Dave Kehr has rhapsodized about Fleischer. I remember Kehr's postive take on "Mandingo," for example. So, thanks also for the link. Yes, Fleischer does have his following. A good, underrated filmmaker. I hope to check out "Dolittle" again one day.

Brian Lucas said...

Heartily agree with you on "10 Rillington Place," which I've seen twice, and on Fleischer in general. I still have a lot to catch up on, but his eclectic, idiosyncratic career is packed with gems.

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

Jim 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.

Alex said...

I read his book, but I guess I missed the earlier wave of appreciation.

nicolas said...

Fleischer was honored twice at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood, where he discussed “ The Narrow Margin” and “The Boston Strangler.” At least he got a taste of recognition before his death, via such events as the American Cinematheque and Film Forum screenings.

john k. said...

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.

joe baltake said...

Yes, "The Don Is Dead." Vastly underrated film, John, and shrewdly Shakespearean, as well. I appreciate that Fleischer strives to transcend the usual cliches of the genre.

john k. said...

I found myself surprised by a number of twists, both large and small, in "Don." I'm fascinated that Fleischer split the protagonist function across the three roles played by Anthony Quinn, Frederic Forrest and Robert Forster. Pretty ambitious.

Anonymous said...

Any Fleischer festival has to have ARMORED CAR ROBBERY which is a brilliant little film starring Charles McGraw,William Talman,Douglas Fowley,Steve Brodie,Adele Jergens.

S.M. said...

Sure Fleischer has a few stinkers along the way like every director, but he was genuine professional craftsman and one of the best Hollywood directors ever. And I agree the 10 Rillington Place is just an amazing, stunning film. I'll take Fleischer over Altman any day of the week