RUNNING THE GAMUT
An Overdue Spotlight on Richard Fleischer
March 7 – 17, 2014
With their series Overdue, film critics Nick Pinkerton and Nicolas Rapold utilize a boilerplate concept. They pitch it as an “Employee Picks”-style enterprise, in order to offer the average New York cinephile a regular dose of 35mm screenings of controversial, neglected, often genre-tinged films. In its earlier days, Overdue featured prominently at the 92Y Tribeca, with series highlights including a three-day Rainer Werner Fassbinder program on the 30th anniversary of the director’s death, a series on Curtis Harrington, and a number of screenings with memorable guest appearances: Robert Kaylor with Derby, Walter Hill with Southern Comfort, the late Ed Lauter with The Last American Hero, and Charles Grodin with Midnight Run, Clifford, and The Lonely Guy. However, with the 92Y Tribeca now sadly defunct, the Overdue series has branched out to other repertory locations, and if the quality of the recent output is any indicator, the transition has gone rather smoothly. At BAMcinématek, Pinkerton and Rapold have adopted a double-bill structure: in November 2013, they programmed Abel Ferrara’s Dangerous Game and John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness side-by-side, and they’re scheduled to return to BAM in March for another intriguing pairing: Michael Curtiz’s The Breaking Point and Claire Denis’s No Fear, No Die. At Anthology Film Archives, meanwhile, Overdue has revived its director-focused approach with a recent survey of the career of Delmer Daves, and beginning March 7, a program dedicated to the undervalued American workhorse Richard Fleischer (1916 – 2006).
“Overdue: Richard Fleischer” begins with two fine examples of Fleischer’s early noir work at Radio-Keith-Orpheum (R.K.O.) Pictures. In the semi-documentary tradition of Anthony Mann’s T-Men, 1949’s Trapped opens with a narrated sequence detailing the minutiae of the U.S. Treasury Department. Introducing a thematic thread that will be toyed with throughout, the reverent narrator equates the treasury workers with “artists.” (Later in the film, money-printing plates will be referred to with terminology like “masterpieces,” “works of art,” and “paintings.”) An artist in his own right, master counterfeiter Tris Stewart (Lloyd Bridges) is released from prison by federal agents when his famed “Stewart note” starts making the rounds again after three years of inactivity. Tasked with aiding the search for the new culprit, Stewart instead does what any right-minded sleazy noir rogue would do: ditch the feds, find his gal (Barbara Payton), and plan a final heist. Trapped is replete with nifty little details—Bridges, cutting a mean figure, is always chewing gum, while Jack Sylvester (James Todd) takes to grooming his moustache at his work desk—and builds to a knockout climax in a trolley-car barn.
1950’s Armored Car Robbery—also Los Angeles-set—runs even shorter than Trapped, clocking in at a tightly engineered 67 minutes. Like Trapped, Armored Car Robbery divides its narrative attention between the authorities (led by Charles McGraw’s Jim Cordell) and the crooks (led by William Talman’s Dave Purvis). Stalking Los Angeles’s Wrigley Field with a sadistic determination, Purvis’s obsessive planning makes for scenes that prefigure Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, while the eventual gas-mask robbery outside the ballpark—all hovering vapor, visual disorientation, and scattering bullets—is straight out of Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross. If Talman’s cold-blooded greed helps turn Purvis into an effective villain—the kind of guy who sorts and counts money while an associate bleeds in the next room—McGraw (who would re-team with Fleischer on The Narrow Margin) is equally perfect for the persona of the by-the-book policeman.
From there, the series makes a huge jump in scale to accommodate 1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a big-budget, Technicolor/CinemaScope production that couldn’t be further away from the tarmacs, phone booths, and ship yards of Armored Car Robbery. Before Fleischer even signed on to the film, however, the prospect of accepting an offer from Walt Disney posed a personal dilemma: by then, Fleischer’s father, the pioneering animator Max Fleischer (inventor of the Rotoscope, creator of the Betty Boop cartoon), had been a longstanding professional rival of Disney, and Fleischer wasn’t sure how his father would react to such a partnership. But Max gave his son full consent—as recounted in Fleischer’s 1993 memoir, Just Tell Me When to Cry, his old man even added the following heartfelt quip: “You tell Walt that I said he’s got great taste in directors.”
The highlight of 20,000 Leagues is undoubtedly the underwater footage—strange, eerie, almost surreal spectacles of men in armor traversing the ocean floor, tanks strapped to their backs, as their captain’s submarine, the Nautilus, haunts the water like Bruce from Jaws. But the film’s dialogue-driven passages, while arguably dated in some aspects—Captain Nemo’s (James Mason) philosophical harangues resemble nothing so much as a slightly smarter version of the vague declarations of today’s Marvel villains—are invaluable in the way they show Fleischer on the cusp of mastering the widescreen frame. This distinctive trait of Fleischer’s directorial style is on even more impressive display in the series’ two other ’Scope pictures: The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing and Violent Saturday.
The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, a resplendent Gilded Age melodrama based on the 1906 Thaw-White murder case, is indicative of certain themes (capital punishment, homicide, insanity) and modes (true-crime material) that would resurface later in Fleischer’s career in films like Compulsion (based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case), The Boston Strangler, and 10 Rillington Place (about the British serial killer John Christie). However, where those later films tend to appropriate coarse, even scrappy images, Red Velvet is rich, opulent melodrama through and through: the best scenes are those in which the actors—Ray Milland, Joan Collins, and Farley Granger—exploit every inch of the film’s decorated interiors, their bodies clashing and reeling across the surface of Fleischer’s measured CinemaScope frames. On the other hand, Violent Saturday, a heist film tucked inside a small-town melodrama, is an immaculate upgrade of Fleischer’s previous R.K.O. work. Fleischer manipulates the widescreen image not just to manufacture classical suspense—as in the thrilling climactic shootout, set on the farm of an Amish family (whose patriarch is played by none other than Ernest Borgnine)—but also to pack in as much good old-fashioned American drama (e.g., a son who laments his father for not having served in World War II) as he possibly can in 90 minutes. The elaborate blocking and fluid camera movement of a centerpiece sequence in a bar—with the camera’s attention changing regularly from the crooks to a besotted banker to a drunk, neglected husband—represents Fleischer at his very best.
The series also showcases a pair of Fleischer’s collaborations with the Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis. Interestingly, the two films—1961’s Barabbas and 1984’s Conan the Destroyer—happen to be polar opposites in tone, ambition, and style. Barabbas, the much graver and more serious picture, relates the story of the eponymous criminal (Anthony Quinn), who was pardoned by the people of Jerusalem in a decision that, in accordance with the custom of the season, led to the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Quinn makes Barabbas a savage, callous brute in his earliest post-imprisonment scenes, testing our sympathy. The movie takes on a nomadic narrative structure that tracks Barabbas’s cursed life in a variety of different environments: sulfur mines, work fields, gladiator camps. Through it all, Quinn maintains a complicated, hardened dignity, his face like cracked rock, registering both the character’s feelings of guilt and his possibly burgeoning faith. Conan the Destroyer exemplifies a completely different kind of big-budget studio production: where Barabbas is sober and concrete, Conan is resiliently goofy, its tone a natural outgrowth of the many priceless cutaways to Tracey Walter. The movie would be easy to dismiss as a so-so Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle (Wilt Chamberlain’s in there, too) if Fleischer didn’t populate the film with so many gorgeous long shots that take full advantage of the landscapes (deserts, mountains) and sharp design work (mirror-stocked rooms, an icy bed chamber). It’s a movie Tarsem Singh might have watched before making Immortals.
Rounding out the program are two back-to-back efforts from the early-’70s: See No Evil and The New Centurions. The former, one of the sleeper gems of the series, stars Mia Farrow as a blind woman whose family is terrorized in the Berkshire countryside. Fleischer has great fun deconstructing the killer’s identity; instead of showing his face, he fetishizes the external objects that define him: cowboy boots, a silver bracelet, cigarettes, nude magazines. Aside from a sincere suitor for Farrow, most of the men in the film are horrid pigs. After the graceful pleasures of Fleischer’s CinemaScope work, the broken, disjointed technique of See No Evil—floor-level tracking shots that recall John Carpenter’s The Ward, intimidating low angles, a roaming, possessed camera that will do anything it can (whipping, gliding, tracking) to make it to the next room of the family mansion—is nothing less than a shock to the system. Farrow’s an absolute trooper in this movie: physically, the performance is even more demanding than her turn in Rosemary’s Baby. But the effort isn’t in vain: taken purely as an exercise in formalism and physicality, See No Evil attains an extreme, radical immediacy that, on its own terms, is incredibly rewarding.
In The New Centurions, a film of staggering psychological violence, Fleischer returns to the Los Angeles crime world. His two principal subjects are Roy Fehler (Stacy Keach), an L.A.P.D. rookie looking to gain a paycheck and some life experience before entering into law school, and Andy Kilvinski (George C. Scott), a nearing-retirement officer who, after over 20 years on the force, has perfected his own professional code (“Kilvinski’s Law”). Much of the movie is set during the night, when the alleys are dark and the streets are lined with bright lights and bright suits. The movie is crammed with instances of domestic violence—a feuding couple, a mother abusing a child, a landlord overcharging a group of illegal immigrants—and, ultimately, it’s about the inability of these two men to reconcile their profession with their home lives. In an especially disturbing moment, Keach, after undergoing another life-threatening episode on the job, smiles and declares, “I’m not scared.” The smile is everything. Fehler gets high off this work—it makes his blood run, it ruins his marriage, and it plunges him into alcoholism. After years of portraying criminal after criminal, killer after killer, Fleischer, in The New Centurions, turns his rigorous microscope on the men assigned to protect the law—and he doesn’t let them off the hook. In Fleischer’s cinema, the two sides of the law often seem interchangeable: whether it’s Richard Attenborough gassing and strangling helpless women in 10 Rillington Place or Stacy Keach racial-profiling Los Angeles citizens in The New Centurions, there’s an unhealthy, deeply ingrained hunger for domination that needs to be acknowledged, reckoned with, and, at the end of the day, destroyed.