One word that pops up in my head when thinking about Richard Fleischer is «square». There is something solid, old-fashioned and unneurotic about his filmmaking, throughout his career. Even such a preposterous, not to say offensive, film as Ashanti (1979) benefits from the clarity and precision of his style. Yet at the same time he made many films with a touch of hysteria, none more so than Mandingo (1975). The man behind the films is a difficult one to figure out. But fortunately we don’t have to figure him out, it’s enough to just enjoy the films and marvel at their powerful narrative drive.
His first film is a film about a divorce called Child of Divorce (1946). It’s told exclusively from the perspective of the child, a girl called Bobby. All that happens is seen through her eyes, she is the main character of the film, and as making a film from the perspective of a little girl, instead of a boy, is unusual it’s rather refreshing. In addition, the film is non-judgmental in its view of infidelity and divorce. The parents are just too human in their pursuits and needs, and they do as best as they can under the circumstances, even though it’s inevitable that Bobby will suffer from the divorce.
Technically and visually the film is impeccable despite being a low budget B-movie. Fleischer's camera work is elegant (Jack MacKenzie was the cinematographer) and his other particular skill, to create acute tension within a scene, is already present. Some scenes crawl under one’s skin, not least a sequence in a playground that starts with the kids swinging, climbing and having fun, but slowly evolves into bullying and fights in such a subtle but relentless way that the scene is reminiscent of something from a film by Roman Polanski. When the RKO producers saw the finished film they thought Fleischer had too much artistic ambition and it says something of Fleischer's skills and work ethic, and dedication to his craft. So already in his first film many of the hallmarks of his oeuvre, such as a downbeat mood, strong camera work and an effort to be fair and non-judgemental, are present.
During his long and extensive career there were two kinds of films Fleischer specialized in. Crime films, often based on true stories, and adventure films, often with an element of fantasy. The crime films came first, at RKO in the late 1940s and early 1950s, beginning with Bodyguard (1948). Follow Me Quietly (1949) was his first movie about a serial killer and an unexpectedly scary thriller, with a nice sense of humour and again very good camera work, by Robert de Grasse. Another good film is Armored Car Robbery (1950), a concise thriller and one of the first heist movies of the 1950s. The highlight though, perhaps of Fleischer’s career as a whole, is The Narrow Margin (1952), a thriller set on a train. It’s quite intense and with deep and sharp characterisations. Charles McGraw is excellent in the lead role and his character, a policeman, is a bundle by anger and bitterness, mixed with self-loathing.
Violent Saturday (1955) is another fine example of a crime drama, a depiction of a bank robbery in a small town and how the whole city is affected by it. It was also Fleischer’s first film at Twentieth Century-Fox, for which he would do the majority of his films for the next 15 years. In 1955 he also made one of his true crime movies, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing. Two other dramas based on true crime stories, Compulsion (1959) and The Boston Strangler (1968), are among his best, combining visual ingenuity, creepy discomfort and fine actors, especially Orson Welles in Compulsion as the defense attorney (who is so mentally fatigued by all the hate, violence and racism surrounding him that he mostly whispers rather than speaks) and Tony Curtis in The Boston Strangler.
Fleischer’s visual style usually is straightforward and restrained but in The Boston Strangler he does a lot of experiments which work really well. The film might even be called a work of modernist cinema, at least the second half. One thing he does is use the then fashionable split screen-technique to create a mosaic of smaller images in the large CinemaScope frame. Not just two or three parallel images but six or seven, in various sizes and combinations. Often in films this is only used for decorative purposes but here it’s integrated into the story and themes of the film. The suspected murderer has a split personality which is one way the style mirrors the story, and another way is how Boston, the city itself, is torn apart, split up, from the fear of the unknown killer. This effect is there from the beginning yet combined with Fleischer’s calm and detached images. But the last 30 minutes or so when we're actually in the head (or mind) of the man with a split personality the form becomes more radical. Some parts of it feel almost like they were outtakes from an audition because the acting and camera work are so rough and unpolished; there’s a dreamlike, surreal feeling, where memories and the present blend and bleed into each other, creating weird juxtapositions and a general sense of unease. It’s rather daring.
The Boston Strangler is one of several films around this time exploring queer parts of the U.S. and in many of these films this was often done in a way that makes for some cringeworthy moments due to a lack of sensitivity and genuine feeling for what it was like to be gay or lesbian. But there’s actually a very good scene in The Boston Strangler when the assistant D.A. (played by Henry Fonda) interrogates a man in a gay bar. The gay man (played by Hurd Hatfield) whom he is talking to is the sympathetic character here and with his poise and dignity he shames the assistant D.A., with his latent homophobia, into a humble apology. That scene and this man is unusual for its time and shows Fleischer's attempt to be open-minded and try to see things from the side of the other. While the film does take liberties with the true story it’s based on, it’s still a remarkable film.
While true crime stories are what Fleischer is mostly remembered for today, his work with adventure/fantasy began in 1954 when Disney hired him to do an adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with Kirk Douglas and James Mason in the leads. For the rest of his career, he alternated between making such films and those investigating specific crimes.
In the 1970s Fleischer made a number of films of significantly poorer quality, and I have to admit I haven’t seen any of his films from the 1980s. But he also made one of his most interesting films, and one of the few films dealing with slavery in the American South before the Civil War, the aforementioned Mandingo. It's a deeply unpleasant movie for sure but it’s far from the disaster it’s often said to be. The power of the film comes from the portrayal of the white slave owners, one of which is played by James Mason, as saturated in racism and fanatism, unable to understand that for every lash of the whip they themselves sink deeper and deeper into a moral abyss out of which there is no rescue. At the same time the black characters are depicted not just as anonymous slaves but with personalities and it is they who voice the hatred in the film against the slave system, and occasionally they try to revolt. «After you've hanged me you can kiss my ass.» a slave screams at one point. It's definitely not for everybody, and sometimes it's like a horror movie, but in its unrelenting force and disgust it too is quite remarkable.
The most famous film he made in the 1970s is probably Soylent Green (1973); one of many science fiction films made then that pictured a dystopian future after climate change. Soylent Green is a combination of a 1970s paranoid thriller and science fiction, with Charlton Heston playing an honest cop whose best friend is an old, dying man, lovingly played by Edward G. Robinson in his last performance. As science fiction goes it is very different from Fleischer’s earlier effort in the genre, Fantastic Voyage (1966). That one looks like a bag of bubble gum whereas Soylent Green is a picture of decay. It shares that feeling with the police procedural The New Centurions (1972), which portrays then-contemporary L.A. (and the U.S. at large) as already a place of general decay. It’s not just that crime is bad but that violence and corruption is everywhere, and so sudden and indiscriminate. With a script by Stirling Silliphant, based on Joseph Wambaugh’s book, it can be seen as a precursor to TV-series such as Hill Street Blues (1981-1987). The best thing about it though is George C. Scott’s performance as the main character. He’s both powerful and tragic, a forceful presence hinting at depths of feelings, especially loneliness, which he’s trying to keep to himself.
Another great performance is to be found in The Spikes Gang (1974). It’s one of Fleischer’s rare westerns, with a fabulous Lee Marvin as an aging gunfighter who takes three young men, practically teenagers, under his wings. It is a tragedy, even though it often is quite playful, and this can be regarded as the essence of Fleischer. He hardly made any cheerful films, despite one of his first films being called The Happy Time (1952), and the message one might take from Fleischer’s oeuvre is that we have to resign ourselves to the fact that life is cruel and unfair yet we shouldn’t forget to have a laugh and don’t take ourselves too seriously.