Richard Fleischer

Director of '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' who excelled in 'B' thrillers such as 'The Narrow Margin'


Richard O. Fleischer, film director: born New York 8 December 1916; married 1943 Mary Dickson (two sons, one daughter); died Woodland Hills, California 25 March 2006.

While he was not one of Hollywood's best-known directors, Richard Fleischer made major successes such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Vikings, Compulsion and Fantastic Voyage. His finest body of work, though, was done during his earlier years as a contract director at RKO, when he made a string of excellent "B" movie thrillers and films noirs, the best of which was the classic crime story The Narrow Margin.

The son of the renowned animation pioneer Max Fleischer, who created Betty Boop, he was born Richard O. Fleischer (the O didn't stand for anything) in Brooklyn, New York, in 1916. He was educated at Brown University, but he gave up his medical studies to study at the Yale drama school, where he founded a theatrical troupe that performed in New England during the summer. An RKO talent scout saw one of the shows and offered Fleischer a contract, though it was not until 1942 that he joined the studio to work on their Pathé newsreels.

"It was a humble beginning," he recalled, "$35 a week as an assistant title writer, but at the end of three years I was head writer for the newsreel, had written and directed many documentary films, and was producing and editing a series of my own called "Flicker Flashbacks"."

His first feature assignment was Child of Divorce (1946), starring Sharyn Moffett, a "B" picture that won favourable comment for its sensitive, uncompromising approach to its subject. A return to documentary, with a 48-minute film he produced about the psychology of the Japanese, Design for Death (1947), assembled from over eight million feet of film captured by the Allied forces, won him an Oscar for best documentary feature of the year.

So This is New York (1948), a lively comedy, took him back into "B" features. Bodyguard (1948), a gripping thriller starring Lawrence Tierney as a hard-boiled investigator, was the first of his noirs. A string of above-average "B"s followed, including The Clay Pigeon (1949), Follow Me Quietly (1959), Trapped (1949) and the taut Armored Car Robbery (1950) in which Charles McGraw as a police detective tracks down a gang headed by William Talman. Fleischer also directed most of the last third of John Farrow's His Kind of Woman (finally released in 1951), when the studio head Howard Hughes decided the Robert Mitchum/Jane Russell vehicle needed more action and humour - among Fleischer's scenes was the memorable moment when Vincent Price as a ham actor recruits a group of rescuers who crowd into a boat which then slowly sinks with Price at the helm.

Fleischer then made his "B" movie masterpiece, The Narrow Margin, in which McGraw played a detective given the task of protecting a gangleader's widow who is travelling by train to testify to the grand jury. With accomplished performances from McGraw and the superb Marie Windsor, a riveting pace and some neat twists to the story, it has remained a classic example of compulsive story-telling on a minimal budget (it was shot in just 13 days).

The film ended Fleischer's RKO contract, and for the producer Stanley Kramer he made The Happy Time (1952), a family comedy starring Charles Boyer. After Arena (1953), a rodeo tale made in 3-D, he was awarded his first major assignment, Disney's live-action adventure 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), starring Kirk Douglas as a sailor who enlists to serve on the submarine of Captain Nemo (James Mason). The film's special effects, notably the fight with a giant squid, won the film an Academy Award.

Fleischer returned to urban crime with his next film, Violent Saturday (1955), in which a gang of bank robbers stake out a town before attempting their heist. It was the first CinemaScope film made for less than a million dollars, and its success prompted 20th-Century Fox to give the director a contract, which led to one of his most underrated films, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955), the colourful real-life story of the showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (played by Joan Collins), whose millionaire husband killed the architect Stanford White in the roof restaurant of the Winter Garden Theatre in New York in front of hundreds of theatregoers.

A fast-moving Robert Mitchum western, Bandido, and a psychological war drama, Between Heaven and Hell (both 1956), preceded one of Fleischer's biggest hits, the gritty and violent epic The Vikings (1958), produced by the star Kirk Douglas. "Right from the beginning, Kirk and I saw the picture the same way," wrote Fleischer in his memoirs. "We aimed for two goals: quality and authenticity." Later there was a lot of friction between them, but Fleischer was to comment,

In the long run, it was worth putting up with his browbeating and petty tyrannies, since the picture turned out a great critical and commercial success and did both of us a lot of good.

Fleischer's Compulsion (1959) is arguably the finest of his major movies, a consistently gripping adaptation of Meyer Levin's 1956 novel based on the Leopold and Loeb case of the Twenties:

It was the best screenplay I've ever read . . . the true story of society's first thrill killing, a completely motiveless crime done by two young, homosexual men, with genius IQs, from extremely rich, Chicago families.

Orson Welles played the screen equivalent of Clarence Darrow, the lawyer hired by the families to defend the two killers: "Not once, during the entire time I filmed with him, did he ever make a directorial suggestion. He was the actor, I was the director, and that was that."

The lawyer's 18-minute summation is probably the longest onscreen uninterrupted speech in movie history, and was such a tour de force for Welles that it was issued as an EP recording. With only four days to shoot the sequence, Fleischer had to shoot it out of continuity:

"What it entailed was setting up the cameras (three of them) in one direction and then shooting every part of the speech that happened to take place in that direction. When you'd done all that, you pointed the cameras in another direction and picked up all the pieces that took place in that direction, and so on until you'd done a complete 360 degrees."

Fleischer's next films, Crack in the Mirror (1960) and The Big Gamble (1961), were not so prestigious - two efforts by the studio head Darryl F. Zanuck to turn his mistress, the Parisian chanteuse Juliette Greco, into a movie star, and they were followed by the ponderous biblical epic Barabbas (1962), starring Anthony Quinn. After a four-year period of unrealised projects, Fleischer returned to the screen with a big hit, Fantastic Voyage (1966), in which a group of miniaturised scientists (including Raquel Welch) sail through the body of a scientist who has a brain clot.

Fleischer's subsequent career was to be a rocky amalgam of hits and failures, his inspiration seeming to flourish in inverse proportion to his budgets. The lavish musical Doctor Dolittle (1967) was burdened by a bland score and leaden pace, but The Boston Strangler (1968) benefited from its documentary-style approach and the fine performances of Tony Curtis and Henry Fonda. Che! (1963) was a risibly inept biographical drama with Omar Sharif as the Cuban revolutionary, and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) a bloated, but spectacular and star-laden account of the events leading to Pearl Harbor, told from both American and Japanese points of view. The film had two production units, with Fleischer directing the American one and Akira Kurosawa the other, but, after a few weeks' shooting, Kurosawa was fired by the studio and replaced by two lesser talents.

Ten Rillington Place (1971) was a sombre, absorbing account of the mass murderer John Christie, with an excellent performance from Richard Attenborough as the mild-mannered clerk who is secretly a demented killer, The Last Run (1971) was a touching account of a retired getaway driver (George C. Scott) taking on one last job, and Soylent Green (1973) was a patchy science-fiction tale buoyed by the performances of Charlton Heston and, in his last screen role, Edward G. Robinson. In the film's most memorable sequence, Robinson elects for euthanasia to escape a corrupt society.

Many of Fleischer's later films, though, were disappointing for a director who made such an impressive start - they included the raunchy Mandingo (1975), The Incredible Sarah (1976), a crass account of the life of Sarah Bernhardt (Glenda Jackson), and a misguided remake of The Jazz Singer (1980) with Neil Diamond and Laurence Olivier. Fleischer wrote, "Olivier did what he did best: acted. He acted all over the place."

Fleischer's mythical epic Conan the Destroyer (1984) was one of the films that made Arnold Schwarzenegger a superstar, and he followed it with another vehicle for the former bodybuilder, Red Sonja (1985). Schwarzenegger described him as "an extraordinary director".

In 1993 Fleischer published a frank and funny autobiography, Just Tell Me When To Cry. After reading the book, Charlton Heston responded, "You always called the shots wonderfully as a director and this proves you can do it just as well as a writer. You provide a dead-on survivor's insight into the crap-shooting, comic-opera Mafia vendetta the movie business has always been."

Tom Vallance

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