Discovering the wide world of Richard Fleischer | Bleader

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Discovering the wide world of Richard Fleischer

Posted By on 07.16.13 at 03:14 PM

Fleischers Violent Saturday is a rare film noir in Technicolor and CinemaScope.
  • Fleischer's Violent Saturday is a rare film noir in Technicolor and CinemaScope.
Yesterday I made brief mention of Richard Fleischer's The Vikings (1958), which screens tomorrow night at 7:30 PM at the Patio Theater, in my post about the uses and misuses of wide-screen cinematography. I should have noted that it was Fleischer who got me thinking about the subject, as reviewing The Vikings prompted me (at long last) to start investigating his extensive body of work. In the estimable opinion of Dave Kehr, the director "remains one of the least known and least honored of major American filmmakers, in part because of the sheer volume of his output." You can say that again. Fleischer entered into filmmaking in the mid-40s with short subjects and documentaries and ended his career in the late-80s with a couple of second-tier Schwarzenegger vehicles (Conan the Destroyer, Red Sonja) and a knock-off of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World called Million Dollar Mystery. Lately I've been focusing on his wide-screen movies from the 50s and 60s, which reveal Fleischer to be as inventive in his use of the format as Nicholas Ray or Frank Tashlin.

As opposed to the films of Ray or Tashlin, it's difficult to identify a personal sensibility running through Fleischer's work, which may explain why he isn't more widely lauded. But look at the three rather different films he made between 1954 and 1955—20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Violent Saturday, and The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing—and you'll notice some obvious continuities. All three films were shot in Technicolor and CinemaScope, and it feels like these technical specifications had a greater influence over Fleischer's approach to the material than the genre to which the story belonged. 20,000 Leagues is a family adventure movie, Saturday is a film noir, and Red Velvet Swing is a period melodrama, yet all three are foremost immersive, colorful spectacles, with the drama staged amid wall-to-wall ornamentation.

I find the approach most compelling in Saturday, as it seems like such an odd fit for film noir. (For the record, Fleischer made some very good noirs in black and white and the Academy ratio, like The Narrow Margin and The Clay Pigeon.) But as Kehr notes, "Fleischer is less interested [here] in the aberrations of a single personality than in the unhealthy interactions of an entire society." Profiling an isolated mining town in the days leading up to a botched bank robbery, the movie shows the community to be "a coiled spring of sexual and social tensions . . . When the criminals appear with the intent of knocking over the local bank, they seem like a projection of the town's inner anxieties." The movie represents a counterintuitive approach to art—form determining function—yet it works, recasting the genre's feelings of paranoia and confinement onto an impressively large scale.

The Boston Strangler
  • The Boston Strangler
Fleischer took this approach in a different direction with The Boston Strangler (1968), compartmentalizing the wide-screen frame with ambitious split-screen effects. As J.R. Jones noted a few years ago in his essay on Strangler, these devices are very much of their time, showing that Fleischer could adapt to whatever zeitgeist he was working in. Yet the formal curiosity of his CinemaScope productions remains intact.

Another quality that unites the several Fleischer movies I've seen is their sober consideration of violence. The director tends to present violence bluntly and without sensationalism, suggesting it's an inescapable fact. This tendency might achieve its fullest expression in Mandingo (1975), which Jonathan Rosenbaum has praised as one of the greatest films about American slavery. Yet it's also central to The Vikings, which could have been an escapist adventure in the hands of another director. As I noted in my capsule review, Fleischer devoted a year to researching Norse history in preparation for the film—another example of his willingness to disappear into a project. The results are an unlikely mix of big-budget spectacle and serious historical inquiry, demonstrating Fleischer's intelligence along with his compositional skill.

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