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July 18, 2008

Richard Fleischer swings between Heaven and Hell

Just Tell Me when to Cry
Richard Fleischer - 1993
Carroll and Graf Publishers

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Girl in the Red Velvet Swing
Richard Fleischer - 1955
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

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Between Heaven and Hell
Richard Fleischer - 1956
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

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Compulsion
Richard Fleischer - 1959
20th Century Fox Region 1 DVD

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Red Sonja
Richard Fleischer - 1985
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

"The basic problem, of course, was the infamous studio system and its long-term contract inducement. The tantalizing lure of security was the bait in the trap. It always sounded great. A contract! No more worry about where the next job was coming from. A guaranteed income.
It was at best a mirage, at worst a fraud. The price, if you had a scrap of talent, or self-confidence, was too high. You paid with your artistic freedom and the control of your career. Security was pure illusion."
- Richard Fleischer

Since Richard Fleischer's death two years ago, there has been some discussion by some about re-evaluating his films and his careers. Reading Fleischer's account of his life as a film director may spoil the claims of those who want to discuss Fleischer in auteurist terms. Unlike Frank Capra, Fleischer has no problem giving credit to others. What is written are primarily anecdotes from the set. Also unlike Capra, Fleischer never seemed to have any overriding manifesto such as "One man, one film". For Fleischer, it was to take one the best projects presented to him and make as good a film as possible. The closest Fleischer comes to suggesting that he ever had a personal project is in proposing the film that became Fantastic Voyage.

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If Fleischer has any consistencies, they seem to be in attraction to films about "Crimes of the Century", and people with attempt to place themselves above laws of man or nature. Fleischer solves some of his composition problems with having his players on opposite ends of the screen in Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, a bowdlerized account of Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White's affair in the beginning of the 20th Century. One of the attempts at experimenting with the widescreen process is of point of view shots when Joan Collins is pushed on the swing by Ray Milland. If that didn't cause some audience members to feel nauseous, than the yellow, green and turquoise costumes from a musical number might have done the trick. The subject of celebrity murder easily has its contemporary parallels which makes the subject matter continually interesting.

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Between Heaven and Hell is somewhat better than the almost generic title might suggest. Robert Wagner plays a soldier busted for striking a ranking officer. He's given the choice of going to Leavenworth or joining Broderick Crawford's outpost in some remote part of the Pacific. Crawford is the kind of officer that makes The Caine Mutiny's Captain Queeg look level headed. Preferring the nickname of "Waco", Crawford is one letter short of everyone calling him Wacko. Wagner spends time reflecting on his civilian life, mistreating the share croppers on his cotton plantation. Part of the film is devoted to life lessons from Buddy Ebsen, the kind of person Wagner would have otherwise avoided. Some of Between Heaven and Hell is cornball, but the film succeeds in one key scene in depicting the literal madness of war. Terry Moore appears briefly as Wagner's wife in a few flashback scenes, that seem designed to evoke From Here to Eternity. Most of the time the film is devoted to Wagner's developing friendship with soldiers including Harvey Lembeck, Bradford Dillman and Frank Gorshin. Visually, Fleischer favors lateral tracking shots. The credit sequence is a single traveling shot, about two minutes long, of Wagner marched out of his prison cage to his commanding officer. Fleischer has nothing to say about Between Heaven and Earth in his book. If for no other reason, the film is worth watching simply to enjoy Fleischer developing ease in composing for wide screen with greater contrasts of scale in both close ups and long shots.

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Fleischer returned to a new "crime of the century" with Compulsion, a fictionalized account of Leopold and Loeb. The stars, Orson Welles, Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman shared the Best Actor award at Cannes, while Fleischer got nominated as Best Director. The acclaim the film got was not enough to give Fleischer clout to do better than whatever projects Darryl Zanuck would assign. Fleischer would have some interesting stories to tell about Zanuck and Juliette Greco, even if the films remain largely unseen today. Orson Welles' ten minute courtroom speech is less compelling than it may have been almost fifty years ago. On the other hand, it is interesting to see how the relationship between Stockwell and Dillman is hinted at, at a time when the production code was beginning to crumble.

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What is interesting also about Fleischer's autobiography, as in anyone's, is what he chooses not to write about. There is a certain amount of irony that early in his career, Fleischer was set to direct a film starring Al Jolson, then being "re-discovered" with successful film biographies that had been recently released. Jolson's unexpected death put an end to that project, but almost thirty years later, Fleischer was handed the opportunity to remake the film most associated with Jolson, The Jazz Singer. I also have to wonder if Fleischer ever discussed with Mia Farrow about his experience almost completely reshooting her father's film, His Kind of Woman on behalf of Howard Hughes. Also not noted is that about twenty years after putting his career on hold due to a lawsuit with Dino Di Laurentiis, Fleischer pretty much ended his career with films produced by the legendary producer. Red Sonja has little to recommend but I suspect that it was Fleischer who had a hand in getting George MacDonald Fraser in co-writing the screenplay. Fraser and Fleischer first worked together in a version of Prince and the Pauper titled Crossed Swords. There is one funny scene with the portly Paul Smith falling down a hole and onto a large dinner table, breaking it in two, grabbing a nearby drumstick, and asking, "How's the food here?". The main problem with most sword and sorcery films was that the films never lived up to the promise of the posters. Red Sonja is never as much fun as it should be. Zach Campbell's look at Fleischer's career make the case for how the director's consistency in spite of diminishing rewards. It's too bad that Fleischer did not write about his last film works. Red Sonja suggests that Fleischer could never fully escape from his B movie roots, and was back to making films that looked better than their limited budgets should have allowed.

Posted by peter at July 18, 2008 12:57 AM

Comments

I wouldn't knock the Fleischer/De Laurentiis partnership too much. I think Barrabas, made for De Laurentiis at Cinecitta, is one of Fleischer's best - certainly one of his most visually striking films.

Posted by: c. jerry kutner at July 23, 2008 09:58 PM

I also liked Barrabas. It's what happened afterwards when Fleischer and De Laurentiis sued each other, making Fleischer virtually unemployable for almost four years that makes their reconciliation surprising.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at July 24, 2008 12:48 AM