Follow Him Quietly: Richard Fleischer and the Consideration of Metteurs-en-scène
Zach Campbell received his BFA in cinema studies and art history from New York University. He has written for Framework, Slant Magazine, and The Film Journal and was co-editor of the defunct 24fps.
If it is not too perverse a statement to make regarding the spirit of this collection of articles, I would like to propose something that would be only too obvious in many circles: that Richard Fleischer is not an auteur in any commonly held sense, but instead a metteur-en-scène.
This is not such an easy assertion as it may first appear, with most people saying that of course he is not an auteur, and a few contrarians insisting that the man behind the cinematic success of films like The Narrow Margin (1952) and Follow Me Quietly (1949) is clearly a talent, large body of work in tow, worth saving from obscurity. I am searching for the common ground in these evaluations, in effect to solve a more general problem from a particular case: namely, how does one deal with the direction of a film (as a craft, as an art) when the director is not a master, not even the driving force behind a film’s conception and exhibition?
Richard Fleischer is a director every cinephile knows and very few write about. (For being the helmer of films like Follow Me Quietly, The Narrow Margin, Violent Saturday (1955), and even The Boston Strangler (1968), he’s mentioned much less frequently in writing on crime and noir movies than one might think.) Upon first glance, Fleischer fits the bill as a studio craftsman. He was a competent dramatic filmmaker who made B-films early in his career and slowly came into more and more work with large budgets and long running times. His prestigious films are often marked by bloat (Andrew Sarris places him in Strained Seriousness) and his forms are undoubtedly subject to the styles and demands of the year, the decade, the industry, the genre, the stars, and so forth. The problem with auteurist cinephilia and criticism is that this often seems to be an automatic description for none other than a hack, an anonym, a traffic cop. What does one do when faced with evidence to the contrary—extraordinary or simply impressive directorial work? What I mean is, what does one do when a metteur-en-scène directs a film that is interesting and impressive and yet does not fit into the molds of cinematic art/entertainment provided us by “a good script,” or broader still, “the genius of the system?” Fleischer is a far cry from John Ford, it’s true. But we do an injustice to Fleischer if we say that Follow Me Quietly is purely the product of a system, or that Mandingo’s (1975) perverse merits are wholly unintentional consequences. We should be vigilant for the poetry in a scene such as that early in The Narrow Margin, when the detective pursues a gunman through clotheslines in a residential lot, and hoists himself up a fence to shoot at a getaway car—a fascinating snakelike motion synthesizing DP and actor both, and announcing a formal overture to the cramped spaces of the cross-country train in which the film’s remainder is mostly set.
Let us be weary of exhaustion (or madness) here. Writing not long ago for Cinema Scope, critic Quintín pitted a conflict today between two types of cinephilia, which he labelled ‘bulimic’ and ‘anorexic.’ A self-styled anorexic, Quintín anxiously questioned the worth of bulimic cinephilia, a movie love which cannot bear to willfully leave any fields untilled—and which strives to find masterpieces in the least obvious national cinemas, directors’ oeuvres, or orphaned film forms. (1) Bulimic cinephilia is a Sisyphean vocation, and yet a limited bulimia is almost necessary for the well being of any moviegoer—how boring and useless is the prospect of a cinema love whose masters, masterpieces, and uncategorizable objects of interest are numbered? To devote a symposium to Richard Fleischer is clearly a bulimic gesture.
The much more practical anorexic processes demand that we overlook the larger ranks of commercial directors, the metteurs-en-scène, assuming that our selected auteurs will give us all we could need or want from the commercial cinema. Everything turns dangerously close to black-and-white, and I fear this is a way for auteurists—or any cinephiles—to avoid the thorny realities of Hollywood production and its occasional artistic flowerings. Just because a filmmaker wasn’t able to valiantly wrestle the system (Ray) or sneak through it (Tourneur) or overwhelm it (Hitchcock) doesn’t mean the filmmaker’s art is a possibility voided throughout what might be a decades-long body of work.
Fleischer himself says that he was given the rare opportunity to collaborate on his scripts from the start, and furthermore locates a certain invigorated aesthetic sense in his work around 1950, roughly the transition time between mainly RKO employment to that at Twentieth Century Fox. (2) While a certain skepticism about an artist’s retrospective views of his own work is healthy, there is no reason to directly disbelieve these modest claims. So, yes, while Fleischer’s films lack the cohesion—formal or thematic—of someone like Ford, many of the films and the director’s voice itself attest to the devotion of craft, thought, and energy throughout this diverse body of work.
One of Fleischer’s best achievements is Violent Saturday, an example of fine studio synergy accumulating under the eyes of a competent, assured sensibility. Sydney Boehm’s multi-layered and complex script (taken from a novel by one William L. Heath) is good enough that merely competent direction would practically ensure a film that “works” on a basic dramatic level. The sophisticated weaving of crime drama and shrewd social portraiture—in four or five narrative arcs—makes for a triumph of 1950s American screenwriting. But this isn’t a film that simply rests upon its screenplay. Fleischer’s direction is the element that turns Violent Saturday from an effective yarn into a minor gem. Here we can see the three aesthetic elements that tend to mark his work (especially at its best)—first, palpable silence, second, kinaesthesia, and third, a ‘hanging’ camera.
1. Fleischer is remarkable for the passages of silence and near-silence in his films; they often serve as a counterweight to the dialogue-heavy passages which push forward the plots. The superb bank robbery in Violent Saturday, for instance, or the heavy opening shots of Texas ranch land in The Spikes Gang, which are unadorned by music and open to three bumbling tenderfoots finding a wounded Lee Marvin. Follow Me Quietly is mostly unscored, and probably would have been an even better film had this lack of music continued into its riveting waterworks climax, too.
2. Whether it’s Victor Mature peeling off his blindfold and crawling down a ladder while bound (Violent Saturday) or Arnold Schwarzenegger performing feats of strength (Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja), Fleischer’s films boast numerous passages in which the characters must twist, curl, wrestle, balance, and hold their breath during long takes in which the demanding physical actions are inscribed upon the bodies of the viewers. (Note: these kinaesthesic moments are often paired with the heavy silences.) And what else is The Narrow Margin if not a continual essay on the movement of bodies through distinctively oppressive spaces?
3. As in the opening shot of Violent Saturday, Fleischer’s camera (which very occasionally approaches Ophülsian beauty) often hangs as if by a celestial thread which is maneuvered in all directions sweepingly as it surveys the expansive spaces of a given scene. His heart tends toward spacious arenas.
It’s not necessarily easy to observe the silence, the kinesthesia, and the hanging camera in Fleischer and note them as Fleischerian unless one sees many of the films in quick succession with such observation in mind. But this is precisely a function of the critic, to do this work, to uncover these threads, to point out that hazy space where the unrealized director lives and works.
Those are the stylistic proclivities of this metteur-en-scène. If there is one thematic consistency in Fleischer’s body of work, it is that of the figure of evil. This is more than simply a villain to satisfy narrative demands: it is a man whose villainous mystery resonates throughout the entire film. The comprehension of evil as embodied by him is a slow process which overtakes the majority of several Fleischer films: the Judge in Follow Me Quietly; Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; the titular Boston Strangler; the young killers of Compulsion. It’s not the same kind of evil—it’s slightly different in each situation—but we can sketch a few outlines. The villain is presented as an Other whom we come to comprehend in a limited way by film’s end. And to be precise, he is rarely evil so much as misguided or unclear. Psychic trauma often propels him. A variant strain of unsavory or villainous charisma still marks some Fleischer films that do not fit this mold: think of the eponymous and charming old bandit in The Spikes Gang, or the evil wizard in Conan the Destroyer. There appears to be no correlation as to whether Fleischer’s work improves on the basis of his dealing with this material, however: The Narrow Margin is one of his better and more celebrated films, and its villains are generic and functional.
Conversely, Fleischer seems to have very little affinity for strong, clearly-defined protagonists: they simply don’t exist in Compulsion, 20,000 Leagues, and numerous other films, and even when we have an upstanding figurehead (Henry Fonda in Strangler) or an archetypal warrior (Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan) one notices that their victories accrue based on the processes of team efforts. As a result, Fleischer’s films are especially inspired in their organization of conflicting relationships, loyalties, and motives. He is moved by webs of people, not singular head-on collisions, and this is an important aspect of his sensibility that I will soon address.
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The overriding principle of this investigation thus far is that the commercial director can be an author of a film without being ‘the’ author: the either/or proposition is a falsehood that has long outlived whatever polemical usefulness that it once might have had. We would do well to compare two B-films Fleischer directed for RKO in 1949—Follow Me Quietly and Bodyguard. Both of these are essentially police procedurals, but the former conceptualizes the police headquarters as an efficient, friendly unit, whereas the latter casts it as a place of conflict and competition. (Predictably, all ends well in Bodyguard, but this fact tells us more about Hollywood and genre than it does about Fleischer or the film itself.) In both films, one character pushes another into a window, breaking the glass. In Follow Me Quietly, it is a criminal attacking his victim. In Bodyguard, it is a loose cannon cop attacking his officer. We have within a certain larger framework two philosophically different films that take opposite approaches to the question of crime, one finding it as an Other to apprehend, and the other locating it close to home, in the fabric of our neighborhoods and institutions.
What unites them both is a streamlined propulsion in handling both very different scripts—a quick, tough, lean movement from A to B where the protagonists slowly, steadily apprehend their antagonists. Is this distinctively, sufficiently “Fleischerian”? Probably not—there were plenty of quick, tough, lean genre movies in the 1940s. But it is the environment in which Fleischer’s authorial persona germinates, and we can see it branch out for decades after the first several years of Fleischer’s Hollywood tenure. The hanging camera, kinaesthesia, and silence have their roots in a clean, clear, involved cinema fit for low budget formulas. As Fleischer grew into maturity during classical Hollywood’s demise, his assertion of self grew into a minimalist baroque: the equivalent of heavy breathing. Personally, I wince at the stylings of The Boston Strangler and Soylent Green, made during Fleischer’s most unsatisfying period, which he largely outgrew by the mid-1970s. By then he returned to a mostly unassuming, often charming and assured idiom with films like The Spikes Gang (1974) and Conan the Destroyer (1984): certainly not great films, but completely unpretentious ones whose unforced merits seem welcome amidst the dominant landscape from which they sprung. Compare them to the worst tendencies of an encroaching cinema of Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, et al., which forces its “serious fun” down a viewer’s gullet.
I’ve been erring on the side of conservatism here, trying to explain Fleischer by means of an intelligible career narrative, but I’d like to conclude my consideration of him with a UFO from later in his career, the unheralded and oft-scorned Mandingo, which is one of those burps from the Zeitgeist which official culture then tries to excuse and forget. This is not Fleischer’s best or most symptomatic film. But we have something valuable even if it isn’t masterful. What distinguishes this film is its fusion of seemingly disparate elements into a mind-boggling synthesis: we have a pulp narrative, practically devoid of sympathetic characters, marked by the taint of America’s racist past and its continued racial imbalance, which in turn rhymes with the flourish of residual classical Hollywood style. Fleischer and DP Richard H. Kline (who worked on several films with Fleischer) establish clean images composed in depth: strong shots that rarely call attention to themselves, a return to the modest but expressive filming techniques of Fleischer’s earlier days. And there is also the presence of the distinguished James Mason. (This connection to a concept of classical Hollywood was capitalized on in no small part by Mandingo’s famous poster art, modeled after Gone with the Wind (1939)). In Mandingo the decadent past of the American South is telescoped onto the past of the Hollywood film, and the controversial pulp elements, like illicit interracial love and sickening bursts of violence, come as—apparently—violent gestures toward both. There are no messages or lessons or positive images to be gleaned from the work (as there were to be in Roots (1977) or Spielberg’s later films); no nostalgic Dixie pleasantries (as in Gone with the Wind or Jezebel (1938)); no white heroes or reassurring black sages. This is a film where white American culture lets slip an admission of its burdensome racial history. Its pulp components enable a profound violence, while its stylistic construction ensures that this transgression cannot sink into dismissible grindhouse pabulum. Simply put, Mandingo is a monstrous hybrid, and thank god for it. The only other directors who come to mind as possible replacements for Fleischer would have to be fellow directors of his generation like Don Siegel and Phil Karlson. Both men, as it happens, had already offered their own early 1970s visions of the American South: The Beguiled (1971) and Walking Tall (1973), neither of them reassuring pictures. But even so, Siegel and Karlson are directors attuned deeply to individualism: its strengths, its poetry, its pitfalls. Mandingo is a film in which the very few characters who might be considered sympathetic are largely silenced or trampled upon by the others. Its drama rests upon the operation of a social network, an institution of hatred and pain periodically alleviated by (for instance) romance. Fleischer, gravitated to incomprehensible, all-too-human evil, and accustomed to crafting group stories rather than individual stories, is in fact a perfect director—even a necessary one—for a film like this. There are not many films like it for a reason. Mandingo requires a distinctive craftsmanship to coax something collective out of our cultural subconscious. Zeitgeist and authorship rely upon each other in this case.
If Fleischer is not an auteur in the traditional, hallowed sense, it still takes auteurism to recognize the contributions he made to his films. The inconsistent quality of his output should not preclude our acceptance of his individual strengths—and weaknesses. The appreciation of metteurs-en-scène by what they do (and not what they fail to do in comparison to chosen auteurs) is a bulimic move, one of deep affection for the enormous world of cinema, and of constantly reinvigorated memory.
(1) Quintín. “An Anorexic’s Case Against Uchida Tomo.” Cinema Scope. 48-9.
(2) McCarty, John. 98-99. Bullets Over Hollywood (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2004).
On camerawork, Fleischer told McCarty that he looked at his 1949 film The Clay Pigeon and felt dissatisfied with its style, which could have been shot by anyone. So he decided to start aiming for more complex and nuanced camera work.