Sunday, March 26, 2006

R.I. P. Richard Fleischer, 89

Was there any film genre this director left untouched? He worked indiscriminately, which made him a moving target by the 1970s, his most prolific years. I can't blame Michael and Harry Medved for slapping him around in their 50 WORST FILMS and GOLDEN TURKEY AWARDS books; CHE! (1969), with Omar Sharif as Guevara and an unbelievable Jack Palance as Fidel Castro, is pretty terrible*, and I've had no particular desire to seek out the likes of THE INCREDIBLE SARAH (1976), ASHANTI (1979), or MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY (1987). Whether to praise or condemn him for spotting the star potential in Meg Ryan for his 1983 AMITYVILLE 3-D is up to you.

But, c'mon...for those of us who love movies, who grew up watching movies on TV, who hung on to their storylines through commercials, cuts, and bad pan/scanning, aren't we all a little better for having been treated to 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954) and FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966)? Weren't are childhoods just a tiny bit richer for them? How about THE VIKINGS (1958), which delighted my moviewatching group when I screened it three years ago? Early, pulse-pounding noirs like THE NARROW MARGIN (1952)? COMPULSION (1959), with its marvelous courtroom summation speech by Orson Welles?

More. Other Fleischer films I enjoy, for all kinds of reasons (maybe unreasonably): BARABBAS (a fine Biblical epic), TORA! TORA! TORA! (history ably and impartially communicated**), THE NEW CENTURIONS (George C. Scott's haunting suicide sequence), THE LAST RUN (Scott again, in an atmospheric noir-type picture), THE DON IS DEAD (entertaining GODFATHER-inspired shenanigans on the Universal backlot), MR. MAJESTYK (Charles Bronson, exploding watermelons), SOYLENT GREEN ("twelve movies in eight years," marveled David Thomson of his 70s output, calling the best of his films "genuine entertainments" in his not-unkind NEW BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF FILM entry), VIOLENT SATURDAY (gritty soap-and-bloodstains drama, 1955), THE GIRL IN THE RED VELVET SWING, 10 RILLINGTON PLACE, and THE BOSTON STRANGLER (he was one of its best practicionersof the true crime drama), sure, why not, for pure camp appeal, CONAN THE DESTROYER and RED SONJA, two films from the early 80s that hearken back to his 50's entertainments, when the CinemaScope ratio was brand-new and he was among the first to give it a test drive with 20,000 LEAGUES.

His good-natured 1993 autobiography, JUST TELL ME WHEN TO CRY, is a delight, with its vivid portraits of Darryl F. Zanuck, Edward G. Robinson, and Welles. I wish I had my copy nearby to quote from.

I mean, what's not to love? So many whales of a tale. And a mystery, which his bio discreetly sidesteps: What led him into the still-shocking slavery potboiler MANDINGO (1975), a movie too hot to handle 30 years later? Its sequel, DRUM, shows up on cable from time to time, but Paramount seems to have buried MANDINGO, a hit in its day. I'm glad I have the VHS to scandalize me.

All that and the son of Max Fleischer, too. A fantastic voyage indeed.

Here's his AP obit:

"Richard Fleischer, who directed several memorable films from sci-fi classics such as "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" to war movies as "Tora! Tora! Tora!", has died. He was 89.

Fleischer died Saturday of natural causes at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills, said his son, Mark.

Mark Fleischer said he remembered his father as a gentle man who always put family first.

"My parents made a great effort to insulate their children from the craziness of Hollywood," he said. "They made sure our lives were as normal as possible."

The director's father, Max Fleischer, and his uncles Dave and Louis, pioneered animated shorts in New York, starting in 1920 with the innovative "Out of the Inkwell" series. In the 1930s, they became rivals to Walt Disney with their popular Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor comedy shorts.

A quiet-spoken but firm-minded director, Richard Fleischer never achieved the recognition of his more flamboyant contemporaries, but his name was on a wide variety of well-known films, including "Fantastic Voyage" (1966); "Doctor Dolittle" (1967); "The Boston Strangler" (1968); "Che!" (1969); "The New Centurions" (1972); "Soylent Green" (1973); "Mr. Majestyk" (1974); "Mandingo" (1975); "Conan the Destroyer" (1984) and "Red Sonja" (1985).

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who starred in "Conan the Destroyer," praised Fleischer as "a true Hollywood legend."

"He was a man of great talent and an extraordinary director who leaves behind a legacy of amazing films," Schwarzenegger said in a statement."

And from the IMDb: Richard Fleischer's Internet Movie Database entry

*Worse yet is the useless 1980 remake of THE JAZZ SINGER, with a frail Laurence Olivier, in his last substantial bigscreen role, making a royal fool out of himself ("I hef no son!"). But I cop to once owning Neil Diamond's hot-selling soundtrack album, which my mom threw out in the Great Vinyl Removal (Without Son's Permission) of 1986. And I admit that some of its songs, which burned themselves into my memory, recently found their way to my iPod. Sue me.

**Clint Eastwood is getting a lot of attention for making two separate films about Iwo Jima, one from the American perspective, and one from the Japanese. And the big deal is? Fleischer and co-director Kinji Fukasaku got there first, in 1970, with the more incendiary subject of Pearl Harbor, and got it all into one trim and sober 144-minute movie. It's worth noting that for as circumspect as TORA! TORA! TORA! is, Fleischer co-won a documentary feature Oscar for 1947's DESIGN FOR DEATH, a film that looks anything but regarding Japanese history.


Lenny said...

Your blog is good reading, Bob!

It so happens that in the week or so leading up to Mr Fleischer's passing, I was contemplating showing THE NARROW MARGIN to my cinema club, as well as purchasing a copy of THE VIKINGS. Thanks to your article, not only will I carry through with those plans, but I think I'll pick up BARABBAS for good measure and, perhaps, THE BOSTON STRANGLER

Robert Cashill said...

Thanks for reading.

You can't go wrong showing THE NARROW MARGIN, a gem. THE VIKINGS really went over well when I showed it, and I remembered it fondly while watching the Viking-ish DARK KINGDOM: THE DRAGON KING on the Sci-Fi Channel (which gets better as it goes along). With Easter looming it may be time to rewatch BARABBAS again, one of the stronger religious epics.