|by Alex Paquin
He directed one picture inspired by the Leopold and Loeb murder case, one film set in French Canada and a famous thriller taking place on a train; he dabbled in the study of the criminal mind and his best films are suffused with a disquieting starkness. He is this month's inductee into the eFilmCritic/Hollywood Bitchslap Hall of Fame, and his name isn't Hitchcock.
This month's inductee: Richard Fleischer.
Unlike Hitchcock, Fleischer never made it into the Auteurs' Guild and has been called the archetypal Hollywood hack. When he died earlier this year, his New York Times obituary -- headlined "Richard Fleischer, Director of Popular Films, is Dead at 89" undoubtedly in the same spirit as "Danielle Steel, Writer of Popular Books" or "Britney Spears, Singer of Popular Tunes" -- was quick to point out that he "never became a household name" and that his films, especially those he directed in the last two decades of his career, rarely found favour with the critics. The Film Encyclopedia, however, was more equivocal in discussing his contributions to film and the apparent decline of his career over the years by writing in his entry that "eventually, he settled on no genre at all, indiscriminately accepting assignments of any type and any level of intelligence" while adding that he "demonstrated a sure-handed technical flair even in his failures."
Indeed, what is remarkable about Fleischer's filmography is its diversity; although crime thrillers were clearly his specialty, he was equally at ease helming adventure films such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and The Vikings (1958). He proved capable of tackling historical material such as the Pearl Harbor Attack film Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) with some panache, and even tried his hand at the musical genre with Doctor Dolittle (1967), the failure of which can hardly be attributed to him.
On a technical level, Fleischer was eager to embrace new film technologies and became quite adroit in their usage. He shot in 3-D both during the any-gimmick-to-fight-television period of the early fifties (Arena, 1953) and during the process' brief resurgence thirty years later (Amityville 3-D, 1983). He made a memorable film in CinemaScope (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) within the first two years of the process' availability, when few films shot using it became notable for reasons other than their use of widescreen photography. And when, while visiting the 1967 Montreal World's Fair, he witnessed the demonstration of a new filmmaking technique that allowed the inclusion of several images of different shapes on a single frame of film, he immediately decided to incorporate the approach into his upcoming film The Boston Strangler (1968), to great effect. He was also willing, as in Compulsion (1959), to keep music down to a minimum, and sometimes, as in The Narrow Margin (1952) and The Boston Strangler, to include no musical score at all with the exception of background sounds.
The result is that Fleischer's best films retain a surprising freshness while Hitchcock's best output now seems hopelessly dated in spite of all its alleged subtext. And yet none of Fleischer's films, with the possible exception of The Narrow Margin, have entered the canon as bona fide classics. This essay is meant as a tribute to Fleischer as filmmaker and a celebration of the movie-going experience. In some cases, I have elected to discuss the films as a cohesive whole instead of trying to detach Fleischer's own contributions from the rest of the picture.
Fleischer's Internet Movie Database page includes very little biographical information, with the exception of three quotations attributed to him. Of these, one -- "every silver lining has a black, ugly cloud hanging over it" -- says much about the director's outlook and, in retrospect, nicely summarizes his career. Although Fleischer proved most versatile and tried his hand at most genres, his best films share a dark, gloomy undertone. It is particularly revealing that he first studied psychology at Brown University with the hope of becoming a psychiatrist before changing career tracks after his graduation and studying drama at Yale instead of moving on to medical school. Then he entered the film business. His father was animation legend Max Fleischer, but the son found himself attracted to live action and admitted later on that he rarely used storyboards -- a staple of the animation business but which he deemed useful only for beginners or for visually complex scenes in live action -- in the shooting of his pictures.
Richard Fleischer cut his teeth making short subjects mining silent films for comedy and won an Academy Award in 1948 for producing Design for Death, a documentary on Japanese cultural history written by Theodor Geisel, the future Dr. Seuss. Under contract to RKO, he soon graduated to low-budget films noirs. By 1949, he was already demonstrating an interest in serial killers with Follow Me Quietly, but the most famous film he made during his B period was The Narrow Margin, starring Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor.
Made at RKO in 1950 but not released until 1952, when Howard Hughes was busily mismanaging the studio, The Narrow Margin was predictably a low-budget affair, much in keeping with its studio's tradition, but is now sometimes praised as the best B movie ever made. Despite a relatively formulaic and occasionally logic-defying plot -- a hard-boiled policeman by the name of Walter Brown must protect an important lady witness from the mob on a train journey from Chicago to Los Angeles -- and the low production values, Fleischer's inventiveness asserts itself on several occasions throughout the 70-minute film.
Even though the greater part of the picture is set on a train, Fleischer manages to include fluid camera shots, including a memorable stroll down a corridor, filmed several reflections through the train's windows, and even used a hand-held camera during a fight between the detective and one of the mob's hitmen. In another instance, he cleverly makes a transition between a woman frantically filing her nails and the speeding train's wheels. At the same time, the director took every advantage of the Pullman cars' cramped setting to conjure a claustrophobic atmosphere, and the production convincingly used lighting effects to create an illusion of movement.
The screenplay, written by regular Fleischer collaborator Earl Felton, follows familiar lines but also includes delightful touches of ambiguity, a quality often absent from similar films except as unintended plot holes. When Brown's partner is killed while escorting the witness to the train station at the beginning of the film, we see him as a conscientious officer killed in the line of duty. Then, as the picture progresses, we learn that there is a widespread internal bribery investigation going on at police headquarters, and we realize that the murdered policeman, because of the questions he asked the lady witness prior to his death, might have been open to bribery had he lived and might even have already been on the mob's payroll. Once on the train, Brown himself is approached by a middleman for the syndicate with a bribe offer to look the other way while the witness is silenced, but he turns the offer down and includes the man's name in a telegram he is about to send to the attorney general's office. Just before Brown sends his message, the middleman approaches him again with a newspaper in which there is a picture of his fallen partner's grieving family, and Brown subsequently decides to scratch the man's name off the telegram -- all that is left for the viewer is figuring out why Brown acted the way he did, but no explanation is ever offered, and this reasoning remains but a tantalizing theory.
Most noteworthy of all, however, is the complete absence of a musical score in the film; beginning with the RKO logo (for which the usual telegraphic communication sound has been replaced with a train whistle), natural sounds are favoured over music of any kind, with the exception of records played on a phonograph that has a minor role to play in the story.
In the DVD commentary of The Narrow Margin, Fleischer said that "the sound in The Narrow Margin is a very special thing, because when the picture was put together, I couldn't see any place to put music. Music seemed entirely inappropriate to use in that film, and I realized that I could do that if I used the sounds of the train as a musical score.... Looking back at it I am surprised that RKO let me do it.... I've made a few other films without any music in them at all. I love music and I love music in films, but when it doesn't belong in the film I don't want it there."
Fleischer expanded on the question of music in films in the DVD commentary for Tora! Tora! Tora!
"I'm very sensitive to the use of music in films, and you've got to be very, very careful. Sometimes you overstate the picture by using music improperly. You use music where you need it and where it helps the picture. You don't use it haphazardly. In fact, I've made several pictures without any music at all in them, and nobody's ever noticed that there was no music in them.... Some of them you just can't find a place to put music.... On the other hand, music can heighten emotion, heighten suspense, and do all sorts of things. It can also give away things like suspense. It can ruin suspense by anticipating it. So there are a lot of problems with music, you have to know about the proper use of it and the proper non-use of it."
Anybody who has had to sit through films with wretched, overwrought scores by vastly overrated composers like Miklos Rozsa and James Horner -- who not only immediately put an unwanted time stamp on every film they worked on, but also did much, sometimes even more than the director or screenwriter, to categorize them as unchallenging, morally-conscious middlebrow fare -- can fathom the great damage music can do to a film if improperly handled. Fleischer was not only aware of such pitfalls, but was also willing to follow up on his vision.
This in no way implies that Fleischer was uncomfortable working with music. On the contrary; two of his greatest films, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Vikings, feature sweeping musical scores which still resonate decades after the films were released. 20,000 Leagues, a Disney film, was scored by studio regular Paul Smith, and the music's only weakness is, indeed, that its application is unbearably Disneyfied -- in other words, tailored to amplify the picture's lighter touches, including that insufferable seal that pops in and out of the narrative for comic relief. In other instances, however, Smith understands that the film is gloomy at its core and the composer's motif for Captain Nemo perfectly captures the sombre aspects of the film, the submarine's captain, and the depth of the ocean.
The Vikings' musical score by Italian composer Mario Nascimbene is a classic of the genre, and the film's producer-star Kirk Douglas was reportedly so pleased with it that, according to a website dedicated to Nascimbene's music, he tried to enlist his services for Spartacus, Douglas' next epic production (Nascimbene declined because of prior commitments.) Film critic (and Hall of Fame creator) Matt Bartley said that "the final funeral pyre scene is a masterpiece of image combined with music." Nascimbene's score, with its vibrant leitmotifs, its moments of subtlety followed by outbursts of majestic grandeur, still captivates the audience today and makes The Vikings a thoroughly exhilarating experience with a rarely matched level of lyricism.
The films in which Fleischer included almost no music belonged for the most part to the crime genre as opposed to adventure epics, but Fleischer proved most discerning in the use of music in the films which included an original score. In Fantastic Voyage (1966), for example, he saw no use for music in the first part of the film and reserved its inclusion strictly for the part of the picture taking place during the actual voyage inside the human body.
After The Narrow Margin opened in theatres, Fleischer diversified his filmography, and by the end of the 1950's he had directed -- apart from 20,000 Leagues and The Vikings -- two westerns (Bandido, 1956, and These Thousand Hills, 1959 -- of the latter, the All-Movie Guide said that it "may look and sound like a western, but it has "film noir" written all over it"), two more crime pictures, one fact-based (Compulsion) and the other fictional (Violent Saturday, 1955), a war film (Between Heaven and Hell, 1956), and a period drama revolving around a notorious Manhattan society murder (The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, 1955). In the sixties he added a musical (Doctor Dolittle), a sword-and-sandal epic (Barabbas, 1962) and a science fiction film (Fantastic Voyage) to the list.
Fleischer's first film after his RKO contract expired in 1952 was The Happy Time, a coming-of-age comedy set in Quebec with a screenplay by Felton. On the Internet Movie Database, Fleischer is quoted as saying: "The Happy Time was exactly the kind of film I was looking for - a human comedy about a young boy's coming of age. No melodrama, no murders, no evil wooden puppets!" Walt Disney saw the film and, on its strength, asked Fleischer to direct his studio's upcoming live-action film adaptation of Jules Verne's book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The offer surprised Fleischer, whose father had been a long-standing Disney rival, and the director, in an oft-repeated anecdote, told Disney he would prefer to ask his father for his permission before accepting the assignment. Max Fleischer gave his son his blessing, and the rest is film history.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was conceived as a CinemaScope production from the beginning, and it would be Disney's first film using the new (or, more accurately, newly rediscovered) widescreen process. There is contradictory evidence over the number of anamorphic lenses available to the production, some sources saying that three units were simultaneously shooting the film. Fleischer himself, in the film's DVD commentary, recalled that he had only one lens for principal photography and could only ask for more on special occasions.
Disney's first American foray into full-length live-action filmmaking was an expensive gamble, and it is surprising he did not hire a director who had proved his mettle with large-budget productions instead of Fleischer. Whereas The Narrow Margin cost $100,000 and was shot in 13 days, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea had an original budget of $2.7 million (it ended up with a $5 million price tag and photography alone took six months). The Narrow Margin was quickly shot using RKO's existing facilities, whereas the Verne adaptation required the building of a new sound stage equipped with a water tank on the Disney lot as well as extensive on-location filming for underwater shots.
Of filming in CinemaScope, Fleischer told film historian Rudy Behlmer in the 20,000 Leagues DVD commentary track: "We were very early on. Made it very difficult for me particularly because I had nothing to fall back on. There's no background for me, nothing to study. I had to make it up as I went along as far as working in very wide screen because nobody had really done it. Nobody had been trained to do it, and you had nothing to copy."
By the end of 1953, when the filming of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was about to begin, only a handful of widescreen films had been released -- The Robe, the first CinemaScope film in release, opened in theatres in September 1953, and was followed by How to Marry a Millionaire (a Marilyn Monroe comedy), King of the Khyber Rifles (a 19th-century war picture set in India), Knights of the Round Table (speaks for itself), and Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (a drama partly set at sea). Of these titles -- which all came out when pre-production for 20,000 Leagues was much under way -- only the last, with its underwater sequences, bears any resemblance to the type of film Fleischer was about to direct.
Widescreen forced a number of adaptations to what was known about filmmaking, from image composition to technical considerations. In addition, early CinemaScope productions such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea were shot in both widescreen and Academy ratios due to the number of theatres who did not own the special projection lenses required to properly play widescreen films, which meant the film had to be visually appealing in both formats.
The Widescreen Museum, an online resource, says the greatest drawback of CinemaScope was the "static photography from which a number of the early productions suffered". But 20,000 Leagues is technically splendid, and the Museum calls it "one of the earliest, and best, examples of CinemaScope". Matt Bartley said the picture is "lurid, but chocked full of colourful, imaginative touches. Fleischer is someone I feel really helped to 'sell' the idea of colour films"
Certainly the film has its weaknesses. The overly sweet comic relief, for instance, was Disney trademark but it seems out of place in a picture which is not only dramatic but also, indeed, rather lurid in appearance. In addition, the picture's scientific cautionary tale, de rigueur in the Cold War with its oblique references to nuclear power, now appears slightly old-hat. Two years later, the film adaptation of another Verne novel, Around the World in Eighty Days, directed by Michael Anderson and others, included a prologue starring newsman Edward R. Murrow that followed the same lines. Murrow's narration stated that "there is, in this power of destruction, also the promise of hope. A world of unlimited power and limitless hope. Man has devised a method of destroying most of humanity or of lifting it up to high plateaus of prosperity and progress never dreamed of by the boldest dreamers." The 1956 film then proceeded to leave such gravitas aside and aim for sheer charm. It worked quite well, even though the picture is somewhat of a bore.
This being said, 20,000 Leagues might not have as much sophistication as Around the World in Eighty Days and its lighter touches might appear forced, but the production more than made up for these shortcomings with its cohesive storytelling, detailed characterizations, evocative set decoration, studied cinematography, and dynamic action sequences. Nearly every scene, whether it is Kirk Douglas throwing a harpoon at a giant squid, Nemo's submarine speeding up to ram a ship, or the underwater burial, is carefully studied set piece that remains memorable even after the film has concluded. Such images are made even more noteworthy by the use of widescreen photography, and Fleischer might have hastened the general adoption of the new process in the industry. As for his command of the technology, Fleischer used CinemaScope as though he had spent a decade or more experimenting with the process.
Film critic Marc Kandel describes one of these unforgettable scenes: "The image of Nemo, shot through with excruciating agony, pulling himself hand over hand into his quarters and opening his viewing window so he can die with the blue over him and a symphony washing through his ears, and then simply letting go as the sea fills his vision, it's a beautiful, sad, haunting moment."
The picture allowed Fleischer to become an A-list director and gave him an excellent reputation for superbly handling logistically complex pictures -- as he would prove with Tora! Tora! Tora! and The Vikings. As late as 1980, he was hired to take over the remake of The Jazz Singer from Sidney Furie (now mostly known for the excellent The Ipcress File), who was fired after shooting a reported 48 hours of mostly unusable footage. Fleischer even re-shot scenes with Laurence Olivier, who was deemed to have overacted -- a mild understatement. By that time, however, Fleischer's career had been in decline for over half a decade.
Fleischer was at the top of his form in the late fifties, when he agreed to direct The Vikings. When Kirk Douglas' production company bought the film adaptation rights to Edison Marshall's 1951 novel The Viking, the star thought of Fleischer as the ideal director for the picture, most of which was to be shot on location. Starring Douglas and shot in Technirama (a widescreen process created by Technicolor), The Vikings was a major box office success at the time of its release in the summer of 1958 and has remained a cult favourite ever since. (As of writing, the film is in limited theatrical re-release in France).
Film critic Scott Weinberg summarized the lasting appeal of The Vikings: "As the massive battle scenes and convoluted political machinations paraded across the screen, I thought, “This was the Braveheart of the 1950s!”, and my suspicions were confirmed after talking to my mother. “Oh yeah… that one was a big hit back then. My brothers saw it three times each,” she told me. And after watching the movie for myself, it’s clear to see why The Vikings struck a chord with moviegoers: it’s a well-cast and enjoyably campy adventure tale with lots of action, a few hateful villains, and one sexy damsel in distress." Matt Bartley had a similar opinion: "The Vikings is grand sweeping entertainment that's clearly influenced Ridley Scott and Mel Gibson amongst others."
The Vikings has developed a reputation for its violence, a claim Fleischer rather backhandedly tried to refute: "This film has a reputation of being a very bloody film, lots of blood, lots of fighting, and it's just not true," he said in the featurette on the film's DVD. "There is, in fact, no blood showing in this picture except in this one shot where Kirk [Douglas] has his hand up [covering his face after a hawk punctures his eye] and you see a small stream of blood trickling down between his fingers, and that's all there is to it, and there's no more blood in the picture. But everybody talks about how bloody it was, because of the impression you get that it was violent and bloody."
Although there is indeed very little blood appearing on screen, the picture develops its violence thematically, to a level that still awes by today's standards. The Vikings, after all, begins with Viking chieftain Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine) killing the king of Northumbria in a raid and raping the queen off-screen. The queen later realizes she is with child -- which she knows, somehow, to be Ragnar's -- and that the baby's life is in danger after the late king's cousin, Aella, ascends the throne. Thus she decides to send her child out of the kingdom by ship after placing a pendant with the pommel stone of the royal sword around his neck as a reminder of his lineage.
In one of those amazing coincidences that are to be found only in movies, who should capture the ship but the infant's biological father, completely unaware of the child's kinship? The baby, Eric, is taken prisoner and grows up to be a slave bearing a striking resemblance to Tony Curtis.
Of course it's hackneyed, but then so are many Norse sagas now mined by historians because they are among the oldest surviving records written about the Viking age. In his review of the film, Scott Weinberg mentions Joseph Campbell's "hero's journey", and the film indeed matches the mould to a certain extend. The Campbellian blueprint, unfortunately, has become an excuse of late for screenwriting laziness. In recent films, the most routine method to get the journey starting is to bump off the future hero's wife (Braveheart, Gladiator), or a relative (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves); the hero himself (as he usually is male) is by nature hedonistic and would never have cared about the cause he eventually embraces had the personal incident not taken place. Revenge comes first for the hero; the cause -- which is always just, by the way -- he embraces as an afterthought.
This approach is now commonplace, and films where the hero embraces the cause first and foremost -- as Errol Flynn's Robin Hood did, for example -- have almost disappeared from the screen. But The Vikings is quite unique in that there is not even a hint of a noble cause to uphold, no lofty purpose to fuel the protagonists' actions, and it is uncommonly rare to find such crucial elements missing from movies made before the sixties, when the Motion Picture Production Code was still holding sway over Hollywood.
In The Vikings, the characters' sole driving forces are lust, ambition, and desire for revenge. King Aella of Northumbria is a tyrant, there is little doubt of that, but the chief conspirator against him is his cousin, Lord Egbert, who might well have been next in line to the throne as long as Aella did not sire an offspring. Egbert is eventually exposed and escapes from Northumbria with the help of his Viking ally, Ragnar (of course). Lest we mistake Egbert for an idealistic reformer, we get a glimpse of his own views on class and power shortly afterwards. When he sees Eric -- whose parentage is unknown to both of them -- reply to Ragnar's sole legitimate son Einar (Douglas) without due deference, Egbert asks, "is this the way slaves talk to Vikings?" When Eric later orders his hawk to "kill" Einar, Egbert is the first to command other Vikings to put the slave to death. Eric survived the day only because Einar, desirous for revenge in his own sadistic fashion, objected to the execution. Egbert later notices the pommel stone hanging from Eric's neck and it is only then that he takes interest in the slave, but his course of action remains strictly utilitarian.
So it would appear Eric the slave fits perfectly into the Campbellian mold, but more plot exposition is in order before discussing the matter further. Ragnar condemns Eric to death by drowning for the attack on Einar, but Egbert saves him on a technicality. Einar is later sent on a raid to capture King Aella's betrothed, Princess Morgana (Janet Leigh), and hold her for ransom, but after his return with the prisoner he decides to keep her for himself, at which point Eric comes to her rescue and sets sail for England. Eric also takes Ragnar prisoner after the latter's ship sinks, and brings him and Morgana (with whom our hero has fallen in love by this time) to Aella's castle. Aella then orders Ragnar bound and thrown into a pit full of dogs and gives Eric the honour of executing the sentence. Before dropping all those references to Oedipus, however, let us move on. Eric cuts Ragnar loose and hands him his sword, and the Viking chieftain jumps into the pit of his own volition. For his treachery, Eric gets his hand -- conveniently, his left hand -- cut off by Aella and is cast adrift while Morgana remains at the castle. He sails back to Norway to make a temporary alliance with Einar to lay siege to Aella's castle in an attempt to take Morgana back.
Now we know what Eric did, but to be honest, we don't care about him -- and this is where the picture significantly departs from Joseph Campbell. Indeed, Eric turns out to be the blandest of all the major characters -- with the exception of Princess Morgana, who is little more than a plot device -- not only because the part was miscast (Charlton Heston was reportedly offered the role but turned it down), but also because he has the least fleshed-out personality; he has no particular flaw and no particular virtue, save perhaps his compassion. Not so with Einar -- the film's meatiest role, which Douglas understandably reserved for himself -- who is boisterous and impulsive, not to mention adulterous, but who at the same time becomes endearing to the audience because of his sheer determination to live life to the fullest.
And yet we know that Eric will live and that Einar is destined to die at his hand, not because this is how films of this type usually conclude, but because the inevitability of fate constantly looms on the horizon. The picture takes every opportunity and uses every device -- from the religious glorification of death in battle to the rugged landscape of Norway, where a significant part of the film was shot -- to remind viewers that life among the Vikings was precarious and, usually, of unnatural brevity. That The Vikings, released during one of the twentieth century's most conservative periods, had no qualms about Einar losing an eye and Eric getting his hand cut off is a testament to its makers' audacity.
When writing about his career in the film business in Which Lie Did I Tell? , screenwriter William Goldman recalled how, when adapting Stephen King's Misery to the screen, he wanted to retain a scene in which Annie Wilkes (played by Kathy Bates in the film) cuts novelist Paul Sheldon's (James Caan) feet to prevent his escape, but also how influential filmmakers kept telling him to change the scene to Wilkes breaking Sheldon's ankles with a sledgehammer because, well, cutting his feet off would have been irreversible and would have made him a loser for life. And that was for a film released in 1990. Perhaps a left hand does not equal two feet, but then, writers do not routinely need to grab a shield to fend off a volley of arrows.
At the same time, The Vikings remains more enthralling than repulsive. The scene in which Einar and Eric set sail for England with the rest of the Viking warriors under heavy rainfall, is especially masterful, not only from a technical level (it features one of Fleischer's famous tracking shots), but also in its depiction of the previous generation of Viking men -- conspicuously few in number -- watching their sons head off to war. The last thirty minutes of the film, filled with long tracking shots, fluid camera movements, unusual but inspired camera angles and perfect image-music co-ordination, is perhaps Fleischer's finest work, thanks in part to Jack Cardiff's crisp cinematography.
New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther derisively called The Vikings a "Norse Opera", but the film was very successful upon release and developed a cult following. Nevertheless, according to the All-Movie Guide, Douglas and Fleischer "never quite found a common ground, and for years thereafter would hold each other responsible for the film's falling short of its potential". The two men would not speak to each other for decades, but The Vikings has endured.
Douglas moved on to film his next epic, Spartacus, with Stanley Kubrick, while Fleischer returned to the crime genre with Compulsion, a thinly disguised account of the Leopold and Loeb murder case. The director was particularly proud of this film; he included it in his top-five list, along with Tora! Tora! Tora! , Doctor Dolittle and Soylent Green (1973) (he also included 20,000 Leagues and The Vikings when discussing those films; he is also quoted elsewhere as adding The Boston Strangler and 10 Rillington Place (1971) to the list, so your guess is as good as mine). However, it is difficult to see why Compulsion received praise from critics. Certainly the performances by the lead characters are good, but its stagey mise en scène, which includes few of Fleischer's fluid shots, detracts from its overall quality, and its scenario structure -- complete with a lengthy closing argument for the defense -- is all too conventional. Compulsion is in keeping with the director's usual style in that it is a dry film with very little music, but it fails to make anything of the most gruesome elements of the crime. Unlike The Boston Strangler, we never see the victim, either before or after the crime.
Nevertheless, though Compulsion might now hold very little interest to the modern film enthusiast, it was a professional turning point for Fleischer. The picture endeared him to Richard Zanuck (son of Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck), whose first production it was, and when Zanuck fils took over production at Fox in 1962, Fleischer started making high-profile films at the studio, among them Fantastic Voyage, The Boston Strangler, and Tora! Tora! Tora! , as well as notorious flops such as Che! (1969) and, as mentioned before, Doctor Dolittle.
Writer John Gregory Dunne was at 20th Century-Fox in 1967 and early 1968 to chronicle, much in the tradition of Lillian Ross's Picture, the goings-on at the company in his book The Studio. Whereas Ross primarily focused on the making of a single film during her stay at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer -- John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage -- Dunne walked around numerous sets, attended production meetings, saw scenes being filmed, and was present at business appointments, test screenings, and other daily activities one would expect to encounter at a Hollywood studio.
The period Dunne covered would turn out to be pivotal for Fox. The book opened with the beginning of the promotional campaign for Doctor Dolittle and concluded with the film's premiere, everybody repeating themselves that it was going to be "a wonderful picture" (it wasn't, according to critics). In addition to Dolittle, the studio was heavily invested in Robert Wise's Star! , the production of which was wrapping up, and Gene Kelly's Hello, Dolly! , then early in the production. All three films were lavish, expensive, outdated musicals, given the green light by Fox in the hope of repeating the box-office success of The Sound of Music, but they ended up almost bankrupting the studio -- the second time in less than a decade.
In the course of writing his book, Dunne met with Fleischer on a handful of occasions, including Dolittle's test screenings, but the director had already turned his attention to two other pictures he was scheduled to film for Fox. The first was Tora! Tora! Tora! , then in the early pre-production stages and, as it turned out, only to be released in September 1970. Storyboards for the first draft script had been completed and Fleischer was about to leave for Hawaii with producer Elmo Williams (who had edited 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Vikings) to scout locations and meet with his Japanese co-director, the legendary Akira Kurosawa.
The other picture, with a less remote release date, was The Boston Strangler, for which the screenplay had been completed by the end of 1967 and for which the casting of the title character had been settled by the time Dunne left the Fox premises. The author of The Studio attended early production meetings held before Edward Anhalt's screenplay was delivered, then sat through another meeting where the main subject was shooting locations. Finally, he saw Fleischer filming a screen test with Tony Curtis, who was slated to play the Strangler.
Fleischer was the first to become convinced that Curtis -- whose career appeared in irreversible decline -- was, despite Fox's objections, the ideal actor to play serial killer Albert DeSalvo. To quote Dunne, "Curtis as the Strangler intrigued Fleischer. In a Studio projection room, Fleischer went over three of Curtis' earlier pictures -- The Sweet Smell of Success, The Defiant Ones and The Outsider -- frame by frame. In each, Curtis had played a man driven and on the run. Fleischer was convinced that Curtis the man to play the Strangler and, together with producer Robert Fryer, broke down the Studio's resistance." Fox nevertheless retained the right to keep Curtis' name out of the credits if he turned in a wretched performance, even though the character only made an appearance in the second half of the 116-minute film.
The studio need not have worried. Although Curtis might have seemed an odd choice to play the Boston Strangler, his performance for that film is perhaps among the best of his career. In the end, the studio gave him top billing, above the ever-reliable Henry Fonda despite having less screen time, and critics were generally positive when discussing his impersonation of the Strangler.
The film, however, has its share of detractors. Leslie Halliwell, writing in the movie guide that still bears his name, said the picture was "rendered less effective by pretentious writing and flashy treatment, including multi-image sequences; the investigation is more interesting than the psychoanalysis". Indeed, the first part of the film is infinitely more interesting than the second, for reasons that have nothing to do with Curtis and everything to do with the screenwriter's approach to the Strangler file. Although DeSalvo did confess to the crimes, false confessions have been known to happen and there are still lingering doubts about whether he was the Boston Strangler, but the film makes it an open and shut case. Furthermore, the picture, departing considerably from the facts of the case, depicts DeSalvo as suffering from multiple personality disorder whereas his true-life equivalent did not; at the same time, the real DeSalvo had a voracious sexual appetite and had first been arrested not for some bungled break-in attempt, but on unconnected rape charges of which he was eventually found guilty and sentenced to jail.
The result of these changes is that despite the gruesome nature of the crimes, DeSalvo, as portrayed by Curtis, ends up looking just as much of a victim -- hence sympathetic -- as the people he murdered. While in no way doubting that he was the elusive Strangler, the picture makes the dubious case -- as seen in many insanity pleas -- that it was not his fault and that he was, in his ordinary mood, just a hard-working family man. In the picture's last 45 minutes, assistant Attorney General John Bottomley (Fonda), through a series of interviews, succeeds in making DeSalvo acknowledge the crimes he committed, but that the real-life Bottomley served as the picture's technical advisor raises several ethical concerns, including whether he glorified his own contributions to the case and glossed over its shortcomings.
The first half of the picture, however, is splendid. Fleischer deftly makes use of the multi-image technique to heighten the atrocity of the crimes and to instill a sense the paranoia sweeping through Boston. In the most striking cases, one frame shows one side of a door, with people concerned about not getting an answer from the woman on the other side, and the other frame pointing at the door from the inside of the room or apartment, with the Strangler's victim, spread legs protruding, in the foreground. When the door opens, we can see their reaction from two different perspectives: a close-up shot and a view from the body. The split-image technique is most effective, however, when showing side by side the Strangler preparing his crime and his victims' last actions before letting him in. The disjointed images fittingly match the fictional DeSalvo's disjointed mind. In addition, the picture's message is that appearances can be deceiving, not only as far as the Boston Strangler is concerned, but also about Boston itself -- under the veneer of Beacon Hill respectability, the epitome of New England propriety, lies a hotbed of sexual depravity previously deliberately overlooked by authorities because it was both harmless and inconvenient.
Even though the first victims were strangled in June and some others in the summer period, every location shot was filmed in the colder months of the year. Dunne's The Studio quotes Fleischer as saying he wanted to film a change of seasons, but as the screenplay was only delivered in November 1967 it was impossible to get footage of Boston in warmer weather until six months later, which would have considerably increased costs. Nevertheless, the winter scenery conveniently reinforces the bleak visual texture of the film. Skies are rarely blue, but of a depressing grayish white. For costumes and set design, earthen tones abound, as do dark blues; brighter tinctures are used sparingly, but always to great effect and, it would seem, always with the specific purpose of attracting the viewer's attention. The Boston Strangler is a perfect example of the use of colours to evoke various moods -- most apparent is the use of red in the homosexual bar sequence to indicate deviancy by 1963 (and most probably 1968) standards. During the investigation part of the picture, the prominent colour for not only costumes but sets as well is navy blue, traditionally associated with police, but it is replaced with white -- associated with the medical establishment -- after DeSalvo's arrest.
The end result was stunning in its emotional detachment. Matt Bartley said of The Boston Strangler: "That is a cold, nasty, brutal film - a million miles away from Dr. Dolittle. Fleischer constructs a horrible, paranoid atmosphere that predates Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Manhunter". The film was well received by critics and became a box office success.
While Fleischer was completing The Boston Strangler, pre-production was advancing on Tora! Tora! Tora! , but as the joint screenplay was still not completed, Fleischer moved on to Che! , which failed critically and commercially. It was only after that film was finished that Fleischer began the bulk of the work on the Pearl Harbor film, and by that time Kurosawa had been fired by Fox and replaced with Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda.
In his book The Emperor and the Wolf, author Stuart Galbraith explained how Fleischer's signing on as director might have affected the events that eventually led to Kurosawa's dismissal from the picture: "For Kurosawa, this development must have been a huge disappointment. He had been led to believe that David Lean would supervise the American half. Fleischer was a journeyman, not an auteur.... He was good when working in film noir and crime pictures like The Narrow Margin (1952) and the underrated 10 Rillington Place (1971), but it was his ability with complex, technically challenging films like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), The Vikings (on which Elmo Williams had been second unit director, 1958) and Fox's Fantastic Voyage (1966), that won him the flip side of Tora! Tora! Tora! .. [W]hile Kurosawa spent months writing his half of Tora! Tora! Tora! , Fleischer was putting the finishing touches on Che! (1969), one of the biggest flops -- and most notoriously awful films -- of its era. Though talented, Fleischer was surely no David Lean."
Fleischer said he could hardly have imagined Kurosawa directing Tora! Tora! Tora! "He was miscast for this film. This was not his type of film to make, he'd never made anything like it and it just wasn't his style, so I felt that he was not only uncomfortable directing this kind of movie, but also he wasn't used to having somebody tell him how he should make this film," he said in the DVD commentary of the film. For that matter, it is equally difficult to picture David Lean -- the director of sprawling against-the-backdrop-of character studies such as Doctor Zhivago, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia -- directing a film in which there is no strong central, compelling persona. Because it set historical accuracy as its first priority, Tora! Tora! Tora! was destined to look like the film adaptation of the Who's Who, and no director could have turned the film into an emotionally compelling picture. Furthermore, Tora! Tora! Tora! 's makers decided to hire only character actors without star status to play what amounted to glorified bit parts, to give the picture a stronger documentary-style appearance -- the best decision to make if we take into account the film's priorities. Thus it might not have been a Kurosawa film, but it was surely no David Lean material.
When the film was finally released, critics liked the display of craftsmanship, especially Fleischer's rendition of the Pearl Harbor attack, but were left cold by the lack of a clear-cut hero and villain. The historical accuracy for which the producers strove and, for the most part, succeeded in achieving, backfired as it was widely perceived to have made the story dull. To make matters worse, the screenplay clumsily includes necessary details aimed at the audience in dialogues between officials or high-ranking officers who would already be aware of the information and therefore have no need to mention such matters to one another. But as far as Fleischer's direction is concerned, the high level of his technical expertise can be assessed in the scenes of the attack. While Fleischer himself was quick to point out that some of the film's most memorable images, including a B-17 landing on one wheel, were not planned beforehand, the attention to detail -- the director's forte -- is thorough. And with the exception of some painfully obvious front projection effects in close-up scenes of pilots and the dialogue scenes prior to the attack, which are as static as a Daguerreotype as a result of the rigid screenplay, Fleischer's filming of America's "Day of Infamy" is as realistic as it was possible using the special effects of the time.
But such matters, sadly, have generally been overlooked, despite the picture's recent positive reappraisal. Film critic Dave Kehr, for instance, wrote in the New York Times last May that "where Michael Bay's 2001 Pearl Harbor looked instantly dated, with its ridiculous romantic subplot, the Fleischer film now seems strikingly modern and mature." Such detachment, however, was impossible in 1970. The attempt to make a politically neutral film, tailored after Fox's The Longest Day, was ambitious, but getting the Japanese involved generated a fair amount of controversy. Less than three decades had passed between the attack and the making of the film, which meant that every American above the age of 40 at the time of the film's release -- the picture's likeliest demographic target -- would recall the original attack and the perfidy attached to it. For an adequate comparison, let us imagine a film company, twenty-five years from now, attempting to approach Al-Qaeda for a co-production on the events leading up to the September 11 attacks. Not surprisingly, Tora! Tora! Tora! did better box office abroad, especially in Japan, than in the United States, where it was considered a failure.
According to the Tora! Tora! Tora! DVD liner notes, Fox marketed the $25 million film as the second most expensive movie of all time. Those publicists, however, would have been well advised to remember that their employer had not only released the only film allegedly topping its budget, the $44-million disaster Cleopatra, but that it had put Fox on the verge of bankruptcy and led to a regime change at the studio. As it turned out, history repeated itself. In December 1970, less than three months after Tora! Tora! Tora! was released, Darryl Zanuck fired his son as studio president due to disappointing financial returns, and the Pearl Harbor film was the last picture Fleischer made for Fox.
For a while he continued to direct pictures on a regular basis. He at first returned to his specialty, crime thrillers, with 10 Rillington Place on a British series of murders that saw the wrong man executed for the crimes (of the film, Matt Bartley said, "what a seedy, creepy gem that film is"), The Last Run, Blind Terror, and The New Centurions, then made what was arguably his last great film, Soylent Green, a major contribution to the sci-fi crime genre, released in 1973.
The film has lost most of its impact because of widespread knowledge of its ending yet has achieved cult status. Our own David Cornelius wrote that it is "a great movie disguised as a campy one. Terrific pre-Star Wars 70s sci-fi - pessimistic as hell, and gloriously so" and Matt Bartley said "the Soylent Green ending may have became a cliche in itself - much like, Planet of the Apes say, - but it's so bitterly dark. One of the all time great endings - and the rest of the film isn't just a time filler, Fleischer builds it up marvellously to that climatic punch".
After Soylent Green, Fleischer would direct films for everyone from Dino de Laurentiis to Reader's Digest, and although a few of his later offerings such as Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja would also develop a cult following, his career would never return to its former glory. His last feature film was the infamous Million Dollar Mystery (1987), which also seems to have its share of supporters. To quote critic Dave Cornelius, "I have nothing but love for this abysmal Mad Mad World rip-off-slash-Glad Bags commercial. And no, I have no idea why." Fleischer directed a short film in 1989, then retired.
He spent the last 17 years of his life managing the Fleischer Studios' intellectual property and took the opportunity to pen a book of recollections on his own dealings with Hollywood heavyweights, Just Tell Me When to Cry, published in 1993, and a biography of his father, Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer And The Animation Revolution, which came out last year. And when the DVD format grew in popularity, he embraced the opportunity to discuss his films, recording for posterity his insights on the craft of filmmaking.
It has been said of Fleischer that he was only as good as the screenplay he was working from. There is some truth to this, but we should not overlook his technical flair and his ability to give credit where credit was due. He had the opportunity to work with some of the industry's best craftsmen, including screenwriter Earl Felton, editor Elmo Williams, cinematographer Jack Cardiff, without whose contribution The Vikings would have lost some of its visual composition, and production designer Harper Goff, who did much to give 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea its proto-steampunk credentials. Fleischer was instrumental in bringing logistically challenging films to completion. And despite having been shunned by auteurists, Fleischer knew exactly what he was doing and why he was doing it. There is perhaps no better way to conclude this essay than by quoting Fleischer's discussion of The Boston Strangler's multi-image sequences in John Gregory Dunne's The Studio:
"You've got to have precise counts or the action on one panel will overlap onto the action of another. You've got to lead the audience without letting them know they're being led. You do it by color, by movement, by action, by size changes in the panels, making them follow the story you want them to follow."
Welcome to the Hall of Fame.
List of Hall of fame Inductees:
Month 1: Gene Hackman, by Matt Bartley
Month 2: Kathy Bates, by Matt Bartley
Month 3: Richard Fleischer
Month 4: Ray Harryhausen, by Matt Bartley
Month 5: Kevin Bacon, by Matt Bartley
Month 6: Sigourney Weaver, by Matt Bartley.
Month 7: John Carpenter, by Matt Bartley.
Month 8: The Hammer Studio, by Matt Bartley.
Month 9: James Stewart, by Matt Bartley.
Month 10: Madeline Kahn, by Matt Bartley.
Month 11: Joe Dante, by Matt Bartley.
Month 12: Emmanuel Lubezki, by Matt Bartley.
Month 13: Christopher Walken, by Matt Bartley.
Month 14: Mickey Rourke, by Rob Gonsalves.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1911
originally posted: 08/14/06 03:00:59
last updated: 12/22/12 18:42:49