Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Early Richard Fleischer

I was about to start this posting by writing "Richard Fleischer is today probably best known for..." but then I came to my senses, realizing both that it's such a clichéd beginning, and that I don't think there actually is an ending to that sentence, other than possibly in this way "Richard Fleischer is today probably best known for what?" So I begin again.

I don't know how my interest in Richard Fleischer began, but I do remember distinctly one of my teachers in film history (this was in the mid-1990s) talking about The Narrow Margin (1952) as an example of a brilliant noir. But I never saw it. It wasn't available. I did however see the new version of it, directed by Peter Hyams in 1990. I really liked it. So maybe that's how it all started. I did then get a VHS-recording of Compulsion (1959), but I never saw that one either. For some reason I was nursing a Fleischer-fascination without having seen any films and without even seeing the few that were available.

The next thing that happened was that late one night a couple of years ago, when I was just about to go to bed, I zapped my way through the many TV-channels I had. A film had just begun on one of them, and since Henry Fonda was in it, I decided to watch it for a few minutes, not knowing what film it was. But tired as I was I couldn't stop watching. As it turned out, it was The Boston Strangler (1968), and it was very good. So now I had finally seen something directed by Fleischer, and especially the second part of the film, which more or less takes place inside the head of the killer, was striking. Even though I'd seen only one of his films, I thought I could see a pattern. Crime thrillers, with a psychological perspective.

And so I finally saw The Narrow Margin. My teacher hadn't been lying, it was a brilliant film. It was good on many levels. Tight, suspenseful, well characterized and at the same time unpretentious. Charles McGraw, as the cop with a dash of vengeance and a pinch of (self)loathing, was very good, and fresh. I hadn't seen him before. Now I wanted to see all that Fleischer had done, at least the early films, which wasn't easy. They're not on available either in Sweden, Britain or the US. But some can be found in France. The last months I've seen The Narrow Margin again (it was even better the second time), as well as Armored Car Robbery (1950), Follow My Quietly (1949) and Child of Divorce (1946), all bought in France. I must say I'm thoroughly impressed by the high quality of them.

When it comes to heist movies, there's much talk about John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and that is a great film, but Fleischer's Armored Car Robbery was actually done earlier, and it's also very good, and has all the usual criteria of a proper heist film. And Charles McGraw as well. Follow Me Quietly is a film about a serial killer, and it's surprisingly scary and unsettling, with a nice sense of humour and very good camerawork (by Robert de Grasse). Child of Divorce though is different; it's a sad story about a girl who's devastated when her parents decide to break up.

Later in the 1950s Fleischer began to do adventure films and fantasy, and I've seen a few which were fun ("directed with muscle and verve" as Nigel Floyd said about The Vikings (1958)), but I much prefer the tight thrillers. And I have more to explore. Next on the list is The Clay Pigeon (1949), also available in France.

Here's a scene from Narrow Margin.

This post was amended 2014-01-30, with a new clip and a few changed sentences.

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