Sunday, 26 March 2006

Hail Richard Fleischer! Richard Fleischer's Beard (well, ever if he wore one, anyway)!

Yesterday one of my favourite directors passed on. Richard Fleischer died yesterday of natural causes at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills, California. He was 89 years old.

Fleischer was born in Brooklyn on December 8, 1916, the son of legendary animator Max Fleischer. Together his father and his uncle, Dave Fleischer, were responsible for bringing such characters as Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman to the silver screen. Among other things, they invented the technique known as rotoscoping. Despite having two of the greatest animators of all time as his father and his uncle, Richard Fleischer's career would be in live action movies. After studying drama at Yale, Fleischer got a job at with RKO-Pathé's New York newsreel division. There he directed shorts, documentaries, and compilations of silent films known as Flicker Flashbacks. He won his only Oscar in 1948 for Best Documentary Feature, Design for Death, alongside fellow producers Sid Rogell and Theron Warth.

Fleischer broke into feature films in 1946 with the B drama Child of Divorce. For the next several years he directed various programmers, many of them crime dramas that stuck close to the film noir genre: Bodyguard, The Clay Pigeon, Armoured Car Robber, and so on. The Narrow Margin from 1952, in which a witness must be protected from the mob while travelling on a train, is now considered by many to be a classic.

Ironically, it would be his father's archrival who would give Fleischer his first big break. In 1954 he directed Disney's adaptation of the classic 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea. Regarded by many as among the best adventure films Disney produced in the Fifties, it is arguably Fleischer's masterpiece. Not only was he provided with a stellar cast (Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre, and, as Nemo, James Mason), but he also had a superb script. Fleischer's direction was better than it ever had been or would be again. As might be expected, Fleischer was a bit puzzled as to why Disney hired him, given who his family was. Fleischer asked Disney if he knew who he was and Disney simply replied that he did and that he had hired him because he was the best man for the job!

Having directed his first major motion picture, Fleischer's career was at its peak in the Fifties. He directed The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing and Between Heaven and Hell before helming his second most famous movie, The Vikings. While hardly a classic in the sense that 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea is, The Vikings is arguably one of the best popcorn movies of the Fifites. Forget the fact that there are some glaring inaccuracies with regards to Viking and Anglo-Saxon culture. Forget that Tony Curtis is hardly convincing as a Viking. The Vikings is simply a fun movie, and much of that is because of Fleischer's direction. If he hadn't established it with 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea, with The Vikings proved Fleischer had a gift for action movies.

From the Sixties into the Eighties, Fleischer directed a variety of movies. They ranged from science fiction (The Fantastic Voyage and Soylent Green) to real life crime dramas (The Boston Strangler and Compulsion) to Biblical epics (Barrabas) to war movies (the American sequences in Tora! Tora! Tora!). He worked into the Eighties ,far longer than some of his more famous contemporaries. Fleischer did direct his share of clunkers (Dr. Doolittle, Mandigo, and The Jazz Singer among them). At the same time, however, he directed many films that are today considered classics, or at least very good films: 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea, The Vikings, Compulsion, Barrabas, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Mr. Majestyk, and so on.

Fleischer also wrote a biography his father Max's career, Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution. Until his death he was the chairman of Fleischer Studios Inc., which handles the licensing of Betty Boop and KoKo the Clown (both characters created by Max and Dave Fleischer).

Given the variety of films that Fleischer directed, there are many who do not consider him to be an auteur. Indeed, he has often been described as a "journeyman director" and his films as "workman-like." I think this is a bit unfair. Indeed, looking at Fleischer's career, it seems to me that one can make out two dominant themes. First, Fleischer was the consummate action director. And given the number of action movies he directed, he apparently liked the genre. He seemed to have a gift for action sequences that many directors lacked. Indeed, many of the action sequences in 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea, The Vikings, and Mr. Majestyk are among the greatest such sequences in film history. He also seemed to have a talent for directing true life crime dramas, among them The Girl In the Red Velvet Swing (based on the murder of architect Stanford White), Compulsion (based on the Leopold/Loeb case), and The Boston Strangler among others. He was also not afraid to tackle controversial subjects, addressing both homosexuality and the death penalty in Compulsion, addressing interracial relations in Mandingo, and euthanasia (among other things...)in Soylent Green.

While there are those who tend to think of Richard Fleischer's films as workmanlike and don't consider him an auteur, I think he was one of the best directors of his generation. He produced more classics and more movies that are simply, well, good than many of his more respected contemporaries. Indeed, if his style varied from film to film, perhaps he wanted the director (himself) to suit the film and not the film to suit the director. Obviously, one cannot approach a murder melodrama like The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing in the same way one can approach an adventure movie like The Vikings. It is hard to say whether his reputation will improve in the coming years, but I can say that he will always be one of my favourite directors.

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