The Pan in Richard Fleischer’s Early Crime Thrillers
Michael E. Grost
Mike Grost is a Detroit, Michigan, USA-based abstract painter and mystery story writer. His mystery stories can be read here. Grost is also an auteurist film critic, whose writings on film history are here, and whose history of prose mystery fiction can be found here.
Richard Fleischer created a series of above average B-movies, during the early part of his career. Despite their low budget, they were often rich in visual style. We will concentrate on four crime thrillers: Bodyguard (1948), Follow Me Quietly (1949), Armored Car Robbery (1950) and The Narrow Margin (1952). This article will survey Fleischer’s number one visual technique in these films, the use of pans. It will go on to look at the structural use of echoing imagery in some of these works.
One can see themes from these earlier works in Fleischer’s mature films, such as Fantastic Voyage (1966). The airport opening recalls the finale of Armored Car Robbery, with a plane at rest on the runway, and the government labs the police labs in the earlier film. The shooting of the "government instillation" scenes in an LA sports complex also recalls the location shooting at LA's ballpark in the earlier film. The huge corridors recall the train station at the end of The Narrow Margin. As in The Narrow Margin, Fantastic Voyage is a suspense thriller with the cast trapped aboard a vehicle, a sub here, a train in the earlier film. In both films, the hero is along for the ride because he is a security expert trying to prevent a murder. Like the heroes of Bodyguard, Follow Me Quietly and The Narrow Margin, he has to solve a mystery - here, who is sabotaging the mission? The optometrist sequence in Bodyguard anticipates the eye sequence in Fantastic Voyage, and the shining lights in Bodyguard anticipate the flashing lights in the brain sequence. The two-level sets of the lab and the sub recall the two-level library set in Bodyguard - Fleischer's camera angles throughout emphasize the two-level nature of the scenes, even in the opening shots of the airplane steps. The woman scientist in Fantastic Voyage has to overcome male chauvinism from project leaders to become part of the team. This respect for working women recalls the policewomen in Bodyguard and The Narrow Margin.
Fleischer’s early films are not the only works of world cinema to be constructed around pans. Such films as Marcel L'Herbier's La Nuit fantastique (1942), George Cukor’s A Double Life (1947), Jacques Becker’s Ali-Baba et les quarante voleurs (1954) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il Grido (1957) also are built on elaborate panning shots. All of these works are easily available on video, and make fascinating viewing.
Bodyguard is full of Fleischer's trademark panning shots. Perhaps half of the shots in the movie involve pans. As is typical of Fleischer, the camera often moves then rests; then can move again, sometimes further extending the pan, sometimes panning in the reverse direction from the original pan. Fleischer loves to have a pan reveal a new set of characters, not present in the early portion of a shot. These characters are usually standing in a dramatic tableau. They tend to be fixed, while the moving camera reveals them, and brings them into the frame. Their positions tend to make a good visual composition. Their positions also tend to reveal their attitude to the events unfolding on screen.
Bodyguard is partly shot on location. Some of its exteriors apparently take place in the somewhat depressed downtown region of Los Angles, the site of The Street With No Name (William Keighley, 1948), and other tough semi-docs. It also has exteriors of an interesting looking mansion, which in the movie is supposed to be in the fancy LA suburb of Pasadena. Fleischer's camera thoroughly explores any exterior or interior in the movie. We get to see a lot more of the mansion front, from different angles and different times of day or night, than we might expect. There is also a pan, linking it to a view of the city street on which it stands.
Bodyguard has some terrific sets. These are complex, and rich in set decoration. The mansion's library contains an upper hall, then a large room at a lower level, where much of the action takes place. A large mirror on one wall plays a role in the mystery plot, and Fleischer also takes advantage of it to make a rich visual style. Many of the shots combine pans, with figures staged so that their reflection is seen in the mirror. This makes for a delightful complexity. My favorite shot in the film is of this nature. It starts out with Tierney entering the room from an outside door. The camera tracks with him to the mirror, which reveals reflections of the aunt and the secretary. Tierney studies bullet holes in the frame of the mirror. He adjusts his body into various dramatic poses, while examining bullet trajectories leading to the shots. The pan adjusts with him, partly realigning its look at the mirror, and showing us the aunt only now. He then reverses his path, back to the door, while the shot reverse pans with him. At the door, he undergoes a further series of gyrations in posture, while continuing to plot out the bullet's trajectory. The camera further pans along with him here, too. It is a fascinating look at a detective at work. Tierney's changes of posture are also striking, and very interesting to watch.
Another complex set is the arcade where the recording booth is found. This too is rich, and helps make the elaborate screen style beloved by noir.
Follow Me Quietly
Many of the shots in the film are static. There is much less panning here than in some other Fleischer works. Fleischer instead features striking compositions. Some of the shots use Fleischer's patented pans. These tend to be slow and deliberate. One pan shows the front of the killer's apartment house. The camera first pans right to left, from the door to the manager's window. Then it pans straight upward, to the killer's apartment window on the second floor. This sort of vertical panning is not common in film history. As usual in Fleischer, there are "rest stops" along the way of the pans, key compositions where the camera lingers.
The scenes at the detectives' office tend to show "bell shaped" pans. The center of each panning shot is a dead on, full frontal look at the windows of the long, horizontal office rooms. The frame of this center shot is parallel to the window. The windows appear on screen as true rectangles, without any distortions or angular perspective. So does the hero's desk, which is also parallel to the windows and the camera lens. The camera often lingers on these center shots. They have a vivid geometric quality. The emphasize the windows, and what can be seen through them: during the day, the equally rectilinear skyscraper buildings outside; during the night, the rain that plays such an important role in the plot of the film.
The bell shaped pans frequently turn to the left and right of these center shots. They do so to show entrances and exits of the characters through the doors at the far left and right of the office rooms. Also, to follow the characters in motion. These side shots are turned to an angle of the room. The arc swept by the pans forms a "bell": maybe 60 degrees to the left, then swinging toward the center facing the windows, and lingering there for an important part of the scene. Then swinging to the right to around 60 degrees, for an exit.
In the bell shaped pans, the center, face on look at the windows is the main "rest stop" of the pans, its central, most important composition, and one where the camera often pauses.
Panning is still the main structural feature of this film. Other kinds of camera movement are rare. The camera does track with the heroes as they walk down the street, on occasion. But most shots are either complex pans, or static.
The hero of the film is frequently associated with the rectilinear backgrounds of the shots, such as his office windows. Another striking shot shows him against the horizontal striped lines of the police line-up stand. This shot is an exercise in pure abstraction, with the horizontal lines being the entire background image. These lines are echoed by the dramatic pin stripes of the hero's suit. The hero is deeply geometrized in this shot. He seems part of the mathematical, geometric forces of the universe. Throughout the film the hero is dressed in the sharp clothes of the 1940's film noir protagonist: double breasted suits, trench coat, hat. He also wears a fancy dressing gown at home, anticipating Robert Ryan's flamboyant outfit in The Racket (John Cromwell, 1951).
Throughout much of the film, Lundigan is at the center of the compositions. He tends to be shot nearly full figure, showing all parts of him except maybe his feet. The camera tends to photograph him face on, so that his body is parallel to the frame of the camera. If he is facing away from the camera, his back tends to be equally parallel to the frame of the film.
Armored Car Robbery
Much of Fleischer's filming is head on. He uses the popular convention of framing his actors against different regions of the background. This might be something of a cliché, but Fleischer does it very well, with visual wit and verve. Fleischer tends to use deep focus, with every part of the background in full clear focused detail. This enables him to make the characters part of complex compositions, where their figures are part of geometric patterns formed by the backgrounds. These backgrounds tend to be elaborate, visually "busy" locations and sets: a lumber yard, a police laboratory, a motel, a theater. Occasionally Fleischer shoots his characters from an overhead angle. This is especially true of the airport scenes of the finale. This angle allows Fleischer to create interesting, geometric visual compositions. It also, I suspect, disguises the fact that Fleischer has just a small area to shoot his shot - it might not be a real airport at all, just a piece of asphalt road on the back lot.
Fleischer's camera technique involves an astonishing use of pans. These are beautifully designed, and follow the characters around on the screen from left to right.
Fleischer often has his characters proceed from the back of the shot, to the foreground, or vice versa. While they are in the background, he tends to show their full figure, from head to toe. The shot tends to be close in enough so that one can see all details of their person; these are not "long shots" where the characters become tiny stick figures in a distance. Instead the actors' full bodies are the stars of the shots. Fleischer is intensely interested in the people he is photographing. When the actors get to the foreground of the shots, they tend to have reached full close up. Their heads can suddenly enter the composition from the side, as McGraw does when he starts intensively grilling a police subject; or they can merely walk closely toward the camera till they reach full close-up. Both the background shot, showing the actors in full shot, and the foreground close-ups, are carefully composed.
Fleischer has planned the pan and the shot so that each of these positions are achieved. They function as "rest stops" within the pan, shots that the pan tries to achieve, and settles in to achieve momentary stability, before starting to move on again to the next "rest stop" or destination. Some shots have two rest stops that are equally close up. For example, a close up shot of two policemen talking shows them bending to the left, as the camera pans, then comes to a stop with a close-up of a cop bending over and talking into a police radio. Then the shot moves back into its original position after the radio call. Other shots have more than two rest stops. One shot shows a crook entering a theater, in one tableau; then panning to the left as the crook moves down the aisle, then finding a third position focusing mediumly on two policemen sitting in chairs in the theater. Even after this point, there are some small adjustments to the camera position to register the policemen's excitement on being able to trap this crook.
In between these rest points, Fleischer's pans are not merely functional, moving from one rest stop to the next. The pans are visually beautiful, complex designs, showing an elaborately turning composition revealing many new perspectives. Camera movement is always fascinating. Here it reveals what things in the background look like at an off angle: we see things first in one position during a rest stop, then the camera pans, and we see things at a slight angle, then at a gradually bigger angle, and finally after a significant pan, as it gets to the next stop. All of this reveals a great deal about the complex geometry of the backgrounds. It is an exciting visual experience.
Fleischer's panning technique is different from George Cukor’s in A Double Life. Cukor's pans almost all went through a 90 degree turn. Fleischer shows a great deal more variety. He often goes through smaller angles, or he can go through 90 degrees or beyond. He tends to follow his actors through their motions, and can pan back and forth as they walk back and forth. By contrast, Cukor's pans have a far more relentless formal structure. This has its great merits too - it gives Cukor's film an ostinato, relentless quality, and it imposes a very complex visual structure on Cukor's work - but Fleischer's more varied approach is exciting as well.
Fleischer's film is a cheaply, but lovingly made B-movie. Pans, one suspects, are the least expensive of all tracking shots to set up. There are no elaborate tracks to be made, or crane shots to set up. Instead, they simply need a first rate camera man, who will turn the camera precisely on cue. The actors are allowed to move fairly "normally" around the set - they usually do not walk great distances, unlike tracking shots - and the camera man in most cases can simply follow them with his camera. He will have to precisely hit all the "rest stops" along the way; one imagines that they are established first, with the moving connections between them blocked out later. Still, the whole technique is uniquely suited to a low budget movie. It allows one to have all the visual and emotional excitement of camera movement, on a budget that the director and RKO can afford.
The Narrow Margin
Fleischer's camera technique here is once again rich in pans. The rhythm of the panning seems quicker here, and the duration of individual shots shorter. Typically, Fleischer will start a shot in one position. He will gradually pan over to a second position. Then there will be a cut. The new shot after the cut will show the same people and objects as the end of the first shot. But they will be from a new, slightly different angle. Then Fleischer will pan again, this time in a different direction. The whole cycle will repeat itself, with Fleischer ending this pan at a new position, and a cut to another shot of that same position, but from another angle, and so on.
This makes for very unusual staging. There is plenty of camera movement, which adds to the visual excitement of the scene. The camera movement is often strongly "motivated", following characters as they move around, and following the action as it unfolds on screen. Because of this, the camera movement could be "invisible" to a naive viewer; the camera often seems to be just following the action.
By contrast, the cuts often seem to be "unmotivated", at least at first glance. Fleischer will be showing McGraw and another character at the end of one pan, and all of a sudden there is a cut to another view of McGraw and company from a slightly different angle. "Why?" could be the natural question of a viewer. Eventually we see why - it is because Fleischer is setting up a pan that will occur in a few seconds, following some action that will take place then. But at the time of the cut itself, there is no clear or obvious reason for the cut. Fleischer often tries to make these cuts as unobtrusive as possible. They often show the exact same characters as the previous shot. Fleischer also tries to make the new point of view look "natural", as if he were just moving to a slightly more advantageous point of view. Sometimes he is a little more close up on his characters, or shooting from an angle that reveals a little more of the action.
Actually, Fleischer's camera work here is part of an intricate "formal system" of pans and cuts. It takes repeated viewings to notice this; during a first viewing, the pans are so closely tied to the action, and the cuts are so apparently unmotivated, that this viewer at least was swept along, and found it hard to analyze the camera work.
Fleischer uses many types of cutting in addition to the kind described above. He is very fond of cross cutting. He uses this especially for scenes in which the good guys are being trailed by the bad guys, hit men who are stalking them. He will cut from a shot of the good guys, then to one of the bad guys, then back to the good guys in an alternating pattern. Sometimes these individual shots are quite short; but often times the individual shots are fairly long, and contain the same sort of carefully developed pans as Fleischer's other material. This cross cutting is in the tradition of Griffith and other silent directors. I use the term "cross cutting", because there is often no "eye-line matching" going on in these scenes. It is simply cutting between two different characters. Sometimes Fleischer does have eye-line matching going on, with his hero and villain seeming to look at each other, but this is less common in these sort of shots. He also can incorporate Point of View shots in this material, with one set of the shots presented as the viewpoint of the characters in the alternating shots.
Fleischer also occasionally uses traditional back and forth cutting, complete with eye-line matching in some scenes. As is typical of many other directors past and present, Fleischer tends to employ this in confrontation scenes, especially one on one confrontations between our policeman hero and the mob.
We tend to think of camera movement as allied to long take scenes, scenes staged without cutting. This linkage is broken in The Narrow Margin. There is plenty of camera movement, but the film is cut into a series of fairly small and short shots. This is certainly not because Fleischer's camera movement lacks invention. It is a consequence of the formal system of filmmaking that Fleischer uses.
The pans here show variations that I don't recall in Armored Car Robbery. There are several vertical pans here, especially in the staircase shots at the opening scenes in the Chicago apartment. Fleischer also pans diagonally, changing the level of the camera from higher to lower along a pan. The pans in Armored Car Robbery seem to be more purely horizontal, from left to right. Pans are often also combined with tracking in The Narrow Margin. The camera will often track backwards, especially during the first half of the pan. The sequence is: stable shot, backward track revealing more of the existing scene as the characters move towards the viewer, pan to a new direction, showing a new image of the background. This makes for very complex shots. McGraw's chase through the laundry is an especially complex shot of this type. Several shots along the train corridor, pans along the exterior of the train, and the final shot of the film in the tunnel at Union Station in Los Angeles all seem to be of this type.
Two shots in the film show intense light being added to Tierney's face. During the railroad scene, the ever closer approaching train is indicated by the brighter and brighter light being shined on Tierney's face from the train's headlights. Later, at the optometrist's office, the light from the optometrist's instruments is shined on Tierney's eyes. This light on Tierney's face visually echoes the earlier train sequence.
The optometrist sequence involves extreme close-ups of Tierney's eyes. This too echoes an earlier scene in the film. When Tierney and his police superior are having a confrontation near the start of the film, both move forward, closer and closer to the camera, until the screen is filed with intense close-ups of their faces.
Follow Me Quietly
The big finale in the waterworks uses frequent pans. The pans move in all directions: not only horizontally, but all vertically and diagonally up staircases. These pans tend to be associated with a location. For example, one pan follows the killer from right to left, as he makes his way through some machinery. Soon, in a second shot, the hero takes the same complex route, following on the bad guy's trail. The camera makes virtually the same pan through the machinery. This is typical of Fleischer's finale. There is mainly one camera set-up, whether stationary or panning, for each shot. Whether it is the killer, the cop or the cop's associate, all shots at this location get the same treatment. This has the advantage of not confusing the audience: a clear visual message is being sent, that the hero is trailing the killer, and following along in his exact footsteps. It also allows Fleischer to echo and reuse camera set-ups, many of which have beautiful compositions.
There are a series of echoes in the film. Two pair of these involve rain. The title credits shows rain splashing on the ground. It is ominous and dramatic looking. At the finale of the film, this shot is echoed in the machinery, with the splashing pipes. The audience realizes that this is "significant". Similarly, the first murder in the film takes place in an upper story office. We see rain and night through the windows of the office, and then the city in the distance. This is echoed in a later scene, showing the hero's office at the police station. We realize that we are in exactly the same conditions as the murder: an upper story office, night, rain, cityscape. We are at the "conditions of the murder". The effect is immediately suspenseful. There is a previous scene in the hero's office. It too evokes memories of the earlier scene, especially when the associate opens the shades. Such echoes have a powerful effect on the mise-en-scène.
Echoes are built structurally into the plot. This is a story about a serial killer. As the story immediately establishes, he kills whenever conditions are the same, and has a special trigger by night and rain. So the plot of the film asks the audience to look for repeating conditions. Hence repetitions are both a stylistic feature, and structurally part of the thriller plot. These two aspects ingeniously reinforce each other throughout the film.
Critics such as Alain Silver have pointed out the frequent use of "night and rain" as a recurrent motif in film noir. Here, this pair is built right into the plot! There is perhaps a bit of humor here, as the plot makes explicit what has been implicit in so many other noir films.
There are even small echoes in the comic finale of the film. The sergeant and the tavern owner have a conversation. Each element punningly refers to the romance blossoming between the hero and heroine, seated at a table. These puns echo back and forth between the conversation and the couple.
Tora! Tora! Tora!
Fleischer directed the American segments of Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). This film depicts the events leading up to Pearl Harbor, and is set in 1941. Elements in the film recall Fleischer's early films of the 1940's. It is in semi-documentary style, and focuses on members of government institutions, as in Fleischer's film noir. Just as Follow Me Quietly showed police and press headquarters, so is this film frequently set in offices. The furniture and decor resembles that earlier film, with lots of long tables, old fashioned desks, wooden seats, and other accouterments of 1940's style offices. The offices tend to have long, horizontal windows made up of repeated square panes; these recall the windows in the police and press rooms in that film. We also see the Operation Magic code room and machinery: these recall the police lab in Armored Car Robbery. Just as the finale of Robbery is set at an airport, with other scenes at the docks, and The Narrow Margin is on a train, so are there many settings of airfields and ships in Tora! Tora! Tora!. It is full of the location footage found in Fleischer's film noir era crime films.