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Richard Fleischer: A Career in Crime, Sex and Violence

by Michael Worrall

Michael Worrall majored in film history and theory at the State University of New York at Purchase, studying under Tom Gunning and Scott Bukatman. He now resides in San Francisco where he has programmed for film repertory theaters, edited the feature film "Fanci's Persuasion" and is currently attempting to secure funding for a feature length film tentatively titled "In the Flat Field", concerning abandoned and forgotten young people in the barren landscape of Central Florida.

“Did you see the Howard Hughes press announcement in today’s paper? …..He’s says he is going to devote the entire output of the studio to films of sex and violence” -Carl Foreman to Richard Fleischer, from Fleischer’s autobiography: “Just Tell Me When to Cry.” (1)

Director Richard Fleischer has taken hits since the 1960’s for supposedly being a filmmaker who would direct any script that came his way. The general line, in mainstream criticism, is that Fleischer started out with promise making small pictures but after establishing himself as Twentieth Century Fox’s choice for helming prestige films, the rest was all downhill. Fleischer supposedly sank with the studio system and was then written off for churning out either exploitation or gun for hire work.

A closer examination of Fleischer’s filmography -- one not based on the incessant focus of respectability of subject or genre, story content and/or box office success that plagues mainstream film criticism-- reveals more than just a journeyman moving from one project to the other. (2) Populated by criminals, psychopaths and anti-heroes, Fleischer’s cinema emphasizes cruelty, sadism and murder. Underneath the harshness usually lie critiques of social order, with the issues of class and race in the forefront. In bringing these elements to the screen, Fleischer employs a visceral and direct filmmaking style with an astute awareness of framing and camera movement. The overall effect of Fleischer’s cinema is to be shaken and moved by the emotional and physical violence that erupts across the screen.

Though Anthony Mann shares a story credit and an unknown hand in the direction, Fleischer’s 1949 film Follow Me Quietly lays down the thematic and visual blueprint that he would expand and refine in his subsequent work. Fleischer illustrates the work of the self-named serial killer, “The Judge”, in great detail via descriptions by police and, at one point, by confronting the viewer with a series of graphic murder scene photos. The assaults by The Judge are shot with direct and blunt force, creating a rough and tangible impact. A struggle between a newspaper editor and the killer is shot with few cuts and the action is staged in close proximity to the camera. From the struggling bodies flailing within inches of the lens to the smashing of the window as the editor falls to his death, the action registers with brute force.

Within this environment of brutality and murder there is little to no place for love. A contentious relationship between a female reporter pursuing the lead policeman on the case hints at the possibility of shifting to admiration and attraction. However, as with most of Fleischer’s work; the possibility of romance is obscured or cancelled by sociopathic / psychopathic factors. A moment of attraction between the two is interrupted by the report of a murder over a police radio, and Fleischer cuts to a shot of the policeman and then the reporter with the word homicide heard in both shots. Sex and death are inexorinably linked together in Fleischer’s cinema.

The place for love is almost nowhere to be found in Trapped (1949), where the escaped con, Chris (Lloyd Bridges), only sees his girlfriend as tool for sex or cover. Their “reunification” is marked by Chris grabbing her from the street by the arm, pulling her into an alley and clamping his hand over her mouth from preventing her from screaming. This physical violation ends not with a romantic embrace of lovers reunited, but a hard kiss filled with fury and lust.

The character of Chris is that of a ruthless and cruel man with no respect or remorse for the people around him or his actions, which are always brutal. In a fight in with a Federal agent, Chris beats him unconscious, repeatedly hitting the agent’s head against a bed rail. Confronting an ex-partner, Chris repeatedly slaps him and then proceeds to strangle him to get information. While such events take place in many films of the crime genre, it is perhaps singular in the way Fleischer shoots them in a blunt manner and for such an extended amount of time.

In comparison, the cat and mouse game between the police bodyguard and the mob hit men with their veiled threats in The Narrow Margin (1952) is almost gentlemanly. However, the tense atmosphere gives way to an eruption with a fight in the men’s bathroom. Shot entirely handheld, the fight is staged once again close to the camera with the actors almost tumbling over it. The hand held camera gives Fleischer both dexterity and intimacy in involving the camera / audience in the fight; such as when the bodyguard pushes his feet into the camera / audience. There is no music on the soundtrack to accentuate the action -- a practice that Fleischer would use in many of his films— and the whole sequence takes on a non-narrative feel, a dynamic exploration of physical violence that plays like a musical number that breaks the digesis of the film.

The violent core of The Girl with the Red Velvet Swing (1955) is the twisted affairs between showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (Joan Collins) and her admirers Stanford White (Ray Milland) and Harry K. Thaw (Farley Granger). While White appears to be the more civilized of Evelyn’s courters, --Thaw is an arrogant and impulsive member of the “respectable” upper class and a classic Fleischer psychopath-- White is revealed to a be a philanderer with a weakness for showgirls. Both men, in their own way, make Evelyn an object and prisoner of their desire. Fleischer keeps the camera at a certain distance for the first quarter of the film –it almost plays like a piece of ‘scope fluff by Jean Negulesco—but as the layers of upper class hypocrisy are stripped, he moves the camera in to capture the rupture of the lust for ownership and murderous jealousy that lies under the surface.

The savagery of war suits Fleischer well in Between Heaven and Hell (1956), where a pool of muddy water becomes the mirror of a soldier’s flashback to better days. Dissolving from the dank water to his fiancé and him emerging from a glistening pool, the better days reveal him to be a callous and classist plantation owner. (A subject that Fleischer would later return to with bristling detail in Mandingo.) The outbreaks of violence come in the form of a shelling of the prisoners camp, the death of Sergeant Wilco – a single bullet from an off-screen sniper piercing through Wilco’s helmet --, and the spark and blast of a flare that reveals Japanese soldiers attempting to sneak up on a small squadron of men. There is a moment of shock and surprise that quickly explodes into gunfire and death. Fleischer’s use of on location photography, continuous utilization of the CinemaScope via camera movement and framing, along with sharp and direct action create a maximum impact.

These qualities are used to striking effect in The Vikings (1958) where Fleischer creates a series of hard hitting action scenes via Viking rituals, the siege of an English king’s castle and what could be considered a signature scene: the Viking king being fed to a pack of hungry wolves. Fleischer tracks the camera from below, capturing the bloodthirsty and sadistic faces of the onlookers; while on the soundtrack the sound of snarls and flesh being ripped apart can be heard. While Fleischer’s filmmaking in the on-location sequences is invigorating, most of the studio bound sequences and the love affair between Eric (Tony Curtis) and Morgana (Janet Leigh) tend to be arid. The main drive is Einar’s (Kirk Douglass) lust for the torture and death of Eric, for Eric lets his eagle upon Einar’s face, taking an eye and spilling a lot of on screen blood. Revenge and war are the themes that bring out Fleischer’s skills and love is once again given a cursory nod, both thematically and cinematically.

The dark tones of Barabbas (1962) eclipse any hope or love until the tragic ending and unlike the lethargic biblical epics at the time, Barabbas is cinematically dynamic. In the story about the thief chosen over Christ to live, Fleischer creates a landscape of suffering and death where a stoning and fight to the death Gladiator “games” are filmed in graphic detail. In commenting on Fleischer’s direction of the film, Jean-Pierre Coursodon notes that “…the nightmarish sulphur-mine sequences which depict the hopelessness and physical horror of slave labor with a harrowing, Dantean vividness rarely equaled on the screen.” (3) The uncouth, lustful and brutish character of Barabbas is one of Fleischer’s most complex anti-heroes, and the bloodthirsty gladiator, Torvald (Jack Palance), who has won his freedom but yet returns to the games for the thrill of killing, is the perfect Fleischer sadist. Fleischer wisely divides the action set pieces throughout the film, allowing the narrative to sustain its drive and force.

Fleischer’s output for Twentieth Century Fox from 1966 to 1970 is indeed problematic, but The BostonStrangler (1968) is a signature work. The crimes and pursuit of Albert DeSalvo, the man who at that time was believed to be the Strangler, is a subject tailor fit for Fleischer. The investigative search for the strangler allows Fleischer to move through a gallery of sexual deviants, albeit sympathetically portrayed, and show their certain predilections in detail. The murders in the first half of the film are shown after the fact and again are described in great detail via police and coroners. Fleischer shoots these scenes with a clinical, but almost morbid, focus on the victims’ bodies. In one sequence, the naked body of a young woman stretches across the entire lower half of the CinemaScope frame. Death is laid bare and the effect is a rather disturbingly voyeuristic one.

In the second half of the film, where the identity of the Strangler is revealed as DeSalvo (Tony Curtis), Fleischer documents the Strangler’s process of selecting a victim and his acts of murder. Fleischer films the whole process of the Strangler tearing up fabric, binding a victim and, when she fights back, repeatedly hitting her. The film moves from suggestion to confrontation and, as Fleischer’s later work will, enters a world of grim humanity and vicious brutality. Once again, and to a more drastic degree, Fleischer refrains from musical underscoring, giving the film a more realistic and documentary feel. The Boston Strangler successfully blends many stylized cinematic devices, such as the multi-split screen, and documentary type styles. With the dwindling power of the code and the breakdown of the studio system, Strangler shows Fleischer’s move towards a more direct and naturalistic filmmaking style.

The 1970’s is where Fleischer has been mostly written off as a director who needed the studio system to make a coherent and successful film. With a film like 10 Rillington Place (1971), the evidence is clearly contrary. In illustrating the crimes of serial killer John Reginald Christie (Richard Attenborough), Fleischer strips the dramatic elements bare to create one of the most disturbing chronicles of a serial killer. Unlike “Strangler” there is no psychological background to explain Christie’s motives nor are the murders obscured or blunted by narrative devices used in “Strangler.” Christie’s acts are shown in graphic detail, from him concocting the “medical compound” that will do his victims in to Christie’s sexual use and then disposal of the bodies.

Shot with discomforting intimacy and without the use of a musical score, though John Dankworth is credited as composer, the viewer is caught within Fleischer’s unflinching camera. 10 Rillington Place also addresses Fleischer’s concerns on class, with the working class couple who rent a flat above Christie and his wife. Economic necessity leads the pregnant wife to seek help from Christie and the happiest moment for the couple, ironically, is at a bar with the young wife relieved in the knowledge she can abort the baby. In several instances, Chrisite takes advantage of the husband’s illiteracy and watching Christie lead the young man to his own entrapment is heartbreaking and despairing. The grimness of 10 Rillington Place is relentless, and Fleischer’s straight forward and stripped approach effectively leaves its scar.

With the marquee titles reading “The Convent Murders” and “Rapist Cult”, the opening shot of See NoEvil / Blind Terror (1971) immediately sets up an atmosphere of violence and sadism. Fleischer puts the audience through a tortuous and exhausting experience via a blind woman, Sarah (Mia Farrow), who is pursued by a murderer. If stumbling across dead people is not enough, Sarah falls down the cellar stairs, steps on glass, gets knocked off a horse, slapped in the face, deserted and locked up in a shack, thrashes about through mud and is almost drowned in a bathtub. Within all this physical and emotional agony there is a reconciling love affair between Sarah and her ex-boyfriend, but a supposedly romantic horseback ride is interrupted by Fleischer cutting back to the relatives’ house with a shot of the dead aunt in the study. Fleischer keeps the camera at a distance, always implying a voyeuristic point of view, and he makes Sarah’s blindness tangible by the use of deep focus, creating large spaces to be navigated. Class once again figures into the picture with the presence of the gypsies, a few of which are initially blamed for the murders. Fleischer ends the film with a group of gypsies watching the bodies being removed from the house, an iron gate making sure the vagrants do not trespass.

Class plays a significant role in the grim landscape of Soylent Green (1973), where overpopulation and pollution has cut access to housing and natural food to only those of the upper class. The lack of romanticism in Fleischer’s cinema is at its most pronounced here, were woman are referred to as “furniture” and the relationship between Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston) and Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young) , a “piece of furniture”, is limited to a sexual one. Detective Thorn is the Fleischer anti-hero who is full of corruption and general indifference, a deeply flawed character whose realization of the truth may ultimately fall on deaf ears. The entire film is enveloped in a haze of bleakness, where any hope or joy is punctured by the harsh realities of the environment. Perhaps no moment better conveys this as when after Thorn and Shirl enjoy their sexual rendezvous, Fleischer follows with Thorn discovering a crying child tied to her dead mother on the steps of a church.

Usually written off as rip-off of The Godfather, Fleischer’s The Don is Dead (1974) is the antithesis of Coppola’s opus in terms of style. Shot with a very no fuss approach -- with this type of subject matter one would expect graphic violence from Fleischer-- the bloodletting is very restrained. The almost clinical examination of a mob family’s disintegration -- there are no large set pieces or romantic mythology here -- has a quiet but very attentive use of the frame and the film plays like one of Fleischer’s RKO crime films, but with color and modern dress.

Fleischer also uses this low key style for the Charles Bronson vehicle Mr. Majestyk (1974), where the subdued approach to the story allows the extended chase sequence in the film’s third act to impact with full force. There is an underplayed romance between Majestyk and a Hispanic laborer/ organizer, but the main focus of the film is Majestyk settling the score with a hit man and his fellow hoodlums. In what has to be one of the most deflating entrances of a star in film history, Bronson makes his first appearance in the film by coming out of a men’s bathroom.

Fleischer paid the price critically in refusing to romanticize or mythologize the old South and its history of slavery in Mandingo (1975), as the mainstream critical press missed the film’s complexities in theme and mise-en-scene. Theorists and critics including Andrew Britton, Jean Pierre Coursodon, Robin Wood and Jonathon Rosenbaum have rightly defended the film, addressing any lingering questions about the film’s supposedly racist and exploitative elements. Fleischer’s filmmaking skills serve not to create a sensationalist curiosity but are used to maximize, as Robin Wood astutely points out in his essay: “Mandingo, The Vindication of an Abused Masterpiece”, the degradation of humans that arises within a master / slave society. Wood’s observation that he could not see “why anyone would lavish such demonstrable care over mise-en-scene over a “trashy potboiler” (4), can also be used to defend Fleischer’s entire filmography. (5) Perhaps Fleischer was so stung by the film’s reception that after then he chose mostly escapist themed films such as The Prince and The Pauper / Crossed Swords (1977). Though moving away from the formalistic ground he was pursuing, the film is an expertly made and engaging adventure tale that displays Fleischer’s strong command of classical Hollywood filmmaking.

Fleischer’s work in the 1980’s shifted a bit from his usual genres, such as the drama The Jazz Singer (1980) and the comedy Million Dollar Mystery (1987), while his work in familiar terrain like Amityville 3-D (1983) and Conan the Destroyer (1984) seemed to limit Fleischer in his thematic and stylistic touches by their PG rating and the restrictions of working within a franchise series. However, the PG-13 rated Red Sonja (1985) plays like one of Fleischer’s rousing actioners from the Fifties, peppered with plenty of graphic bloodshed and beheadings. Sonja’s vengeance for her sister’s death fuels the narrative and Fleischer gamely indulges himself with the violent set-pieces, which includes a group of thieves attempting to draw and quarter a child. Dismissed as a second rate knock off of the Conan series, Red Sonja beautifully displays Fleischer’s use of ‘scope framing, location photography and action choreography . (True to form, Fleischer holds off any romanticism between the two lead characters, Sonja (Brigitte Nielsen) and Kalidor (Arnold Schwarzenegger), to the very end and the credits roll as soon as it happens.)

Looking at Fleischer’s work as a whole, it is hard to deny the thematic and stylistic consistencies. The blindness may come from the seemingly unrelated genres that Fleischer worked in and the so-called “disreputable” subject matter he directed. Though Carl Forman was making a joke about Howard Hughes’ interests, the comment can easily be applied to career of Richard Fleischer. This is not to be taken as a joke or insult, but as a reversal to the charges levied by critics whose surface glance have missed this auteur’s rich and rewarding filmography. Perhaps Fleischer, with a career that spans 45 years with 47 feature films to his name, knows that’s just business as usual in Hollywood.

Notes:

1. New York, Carroll and Graff Publishers, 1993, pp. 39

2. Due to the lack of access to film prints and therefore relying on video, this overview is limited to titles available on the market and in their proper film ratio. For an extensive overview, I highly recommend Jean – Pierre Coursodon’s entry on Fleischer in “American Directors Volume II” by Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Pierre Sauvage. (New York, McGraw Hill, 1983, pp.132-138)

3. Jean-Pierre Coursoson, “American Directors, Volume II” (New York, McGraw Hill, 1983) p. 135

4. Robin Wood, “Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond” ( New York, Chichester, West Sussex, Columbia University Press, 1998) p. 266

5. Strangely, Wood makes no mention of Fleischer’s name anywhere in the essay, using only the words director and creator to designate Fleischer.

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