Richard Fleischer | Subjects | Structure and Story Telling | Visual Style
Films: Bodyguard | Follow Me Quietly | Trapped | Armored Car Robbery | The Narrow Margin | Arena | Fantastic Voyage | Tora! Tora! Tora! | Soylent Green
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Bodyguard (1948) is a little B-movie mystery tale. It combines features of film noir and the traditional whodunit mystery film.
Whodunit features. The plot is complex, and includes some nice surprises, especially the choice of murder victim. The plot is closer to traditional, whodunit mystery fiction.
Semi-documentary features include:
Bodyguard is partly shot on location. Some of its exteriors apparently take place in the somewhat depressed downtown region of Los Angles, the site of William Keighley's The Street With No Name (1948), and other tough semi-docs.
It also has exteriors of an interesting looking mansion, which in the movie is supposed to be in the fancy LA suburb of Pasadena. Fleischer's camera thoroughly explores any exterior or interior in the movie. We get to see a lot more of the mansion front, from different angles and different times of day or night, than we might expect. There is also a pan, linking it to a view of the city street on which it stands.
Supporting player Philip Reed is also in good suits. Unlike many films, in which the hero gets the darkest, dressiest suit, in most of the film Reed is in dark pinstripes, and Tierney is in lighter color suits. This is to convey that Tierney is a working class tough guy, while Reed is playing an upper crust suspect. Philip Reed was playing the lead in the Big Town movies during this period, a few years before the development of the Big Town comic book.
Earlier in the film, while still employed as a cop, Tierney also is in a pinstriped double-breasted suit that is extremely sharp.
Bodyguard is full of Fleischer's trademark panning shots. Perhaps half of the shots in the movie involve pans. As is typical of Fleischer, the camera often moves then rests; then can move again, sometimes further extending the pan, sometimes panning in the reverse direction from the original pan. Fleischer loves to have a pan reveal a new set of characters, not present in the early portion of a shot. These characters are usually standing in a dramatic tableau. They tend to be fixed, while the moving camera reveals them, and brings them into the frame. Their positions tend to make a good visual composition. Their positions and postures also tend to reveal their attitude to the events unfolding on screen.
Bodyguard has some terrific sets. These are complex, and rich in set decoration. The mansion's library contains an upper hall, then a large room at a lower level, where much of the action takes place. A large mirror on one wall plays a role in the mystery plot, and Fleischer also takes advantage of it to make a rich visual style. Many of the shots combine pans, with figures staged so that their reflection is seen in the mirror. This makes for a delightful complexity.
My favorite shot in the film is of this nature. It starts out with Tierney entering the library room from an outside door. The camera tracks with him to the mirror, which reveals reflections of the aunt and the secretary. Tierney studies bullet holes in the frame of the mirror. He adjusts his body into various dramatic poses, while examining bullet trajectories leading to the shots. The pan adjusts with him, partly realigning its look at the mirror, and showing us the aunt only now. He then reverses his path, back to the door, while the shot reverse pans with him. At the door, he undergoes a further series of gyrations in posture, while continuing to plot out the bullet's trajectory. The camera further pans along with him here, too. It is a fascinating look at a detective at work. Tierney's changes of posture are also striking, and very interesting to watch.
Another complex set is the arcade where the recording booth is found. This too is rich, and helps make the elaborate screen style beloved by noir.
Two shots in the film show intense light being added to Tierney's face. During the railroad scene, the ever closer approaching train is indicated by the brighter and brighter light being shined on Tierney's face from the train's headlights. Later, at the optometrist's office, the light from the optometrist's instruments is shined on Tierney's eyes. This light on Tierney's face visually echoes the earlier train sequence.
The optometrist sequence involves extreme close-ups of Tierney's eyes. This too echoes an earlier scene in the film. When Tierney and his police superior are having a confrontation near the start of the film, both move forward, closer and closer to the camera, until the screen is filed with intense close-ups of their faces.
Follow Me Quietly (1949) has a script partly by Anthony Mann, and the film is in the tradition of Mann's He Walked by Night (1948). Both films are semi-documentaries, focusing on the hunt for a lone serial killer. Both films have the regular police as their protagonists. Both films have somewhat similar police work. In both, the police finally get a clue to the killer's identity. This clue is followed up by much legwork. This allows the police to get closer and closer to the killer, progressing through inquiries at various institutions, and finally track him to where he lives. At the finale, the killer escapes the police net at his home, and winds up in a police chase through a Los Angeles industrial location.
Follow Me Quietly is a pure mystery story. We do not know who the killer is, and we see the police trying to discover his identity and track him down. This pure mystery quality is a bit unusual in film noir, which are more often constructed as thrillers. The emphasis here is on police procedure. Unlike another semi-documentary film noir structured as a whodunit, The Naked City, this film does not have a circle of suspects, whom the police interrogate. Instead, the police spend a huge amount of effort trying to get any sort of clue to the killer at all.
Follow Me Quietly has some of the same locations as other Anthony Mann films. The shots of suspects being taken to the police station use the same covered, arched outdoor area as He Walked by Night.
And the same huge circular structure, covered with a checkerboard of crossed pipes, appears in the finale here as in the opening murder in T-Men. It seems to be immediately behind the outdoor water works that forms the great final location of Follow Me Quietly. This circular structure also occurs in Robert Parrish's Cry Danger (1951). I would love to know what these places are; but not being from Los Angeles, they seem merely like places in film noir land. It is perhaps a great outdoor water reservoir tank. This is just a guess. This structure is remarkably photogenic. Its geometric quality makes it unique.
The water works itself is in the semi-documentary tradition of staging a finale around a large industrial structure, preferably one filled with elaborate staircases. One sees such areas in Jules Dassin's The Naked City (1948) and William Keighley's The Street With No Name (1948). There is always a chase of the bad guy by the police through this building, in which the villain leads the police higher and higher through the structure via the staircases. The complex machinery and industrial construction lends a unique visual fascination to such scenes. This sort of industrial finale was duplicated many times on TV crime shows of the 1970's and 1980's, but usually not so effectively as in film noir. TV shows did have the advantage of color, showing industrial areas being full of red and blue paint, for example. However, the geometric, pure black and white photography of noir also had its advantages.
Many of the shots in the film are static. There is less panning here than in some other Fleischer works. Fleischer instead features striking compositions.
Throughout much of the film, hero William Lundigan is at the center of the compositions. He tends to be shot nearly full figure, showing all parts of him except maybe his feet. The camera tends to photograph him face on, so that his body is parallel to the frame of the camera. If he is facing away from the camera, his back tends to be equally parallel to the frame of the film.
The hero of the film is frequently associated with the rectilinear backgrounds of the shots, such as his office windows. Another striking shot shows him against the horizontal striped lines of the police line-up stand. This shot is an exercise in pure abstraction, with the horizontal lines being the entire background image. These lines are echoed by the dramatic pin stripes of the hero's suit. The hero is deeply geometrized in this shot. He seems part of the mathematical, geometric forces of the universe. Throughout the film the hero is dressed in the sharp clothes of the 1940's film noir protagonist: double breasted suits, trench coat, hat. He also wears a fancy dressing gown at home, recalling Robert Ryan's flamboyant outfit in John Cromwell's The Racket (1951).
Some of the shots use Fleischer's patented pans. These tend to be slow and deliberate.
As usual in Fleischer, there are "rest stops" along the way of the pans, key compositions where the camera lingers.
One pan shows the front of the killer's apartment house. The camera first pans right to left, from the door to the manager's window. Then it pans straight upward, to the killer's apartment window on the second floor. This sort of vertical panning is not common in film history.
Panning is still the main structural feature of this film. Other kinds of camera movement are rare. The camera does track with the heroes as they walk down the street, on occasion. But most shots are either complex pans, or static.
The scenes at the detectives' office tend to show "bell shaped" pans. The center of each panning shot is a dead on, full frontal look at the windows of the long, horizontal office rooms. The frame of this center shot is parallel to the window. The windows appear on screen as true rectangles, without any distortions or angular perspective. So does the hero's desk, which is also parallel to the windows and the camera lens. The camera often lingers on these center shots. They have a vivid geometric quality. The emphasize the windows, and what can be seen through them: during the day, the equally rectilinear skyscraper buildings outside; during the night, the rain that plays such an important role in the plot of the film.
The bell shaped pans frequently turn to the left and right of these center shots. They do so to show entrances and exits of the characters through the doors at the far left and right of the office rooms. Also, to follow the characters in motion. These side shots are turned to an angle of the room. The arc swept by the pans forms a "bell": maybe 60 degrees to the left, then swinging toward the center facing the windows, and lingering there for an important part of the scene. Then swinging to the right to around 60 degrees, for an exit.
In the bell shaped pans, the center, face-on look at the windows is the main "rest stop" of the pans, its central, most important composition, and one where the camera often pauses.
The big finale in the waterworks uses frequent pans. The pans move in all directions: not only horizontally, but all vertically and diagonally up staircases.
These pans tend to be associated with a location. For example, one pan follows the killer from right to left, as he makes his way through some machinery. Soon, in a second shot, the hero takes the same complex route, following on the bad guy's trail. The camera makes virtually the same pan through the machinery.
This is typical of Fleischer's finale. There is mainly one camera set-up, whether stationary or panning, for each shot. Whether it is the killer, the cop or the cop's associate, all shots at this location get the same treatment. This has the advantage of not confusing the audience: a clear visual message is being sent, that the hero is trailing the killer, and following along in his exact footsteps. It also allows Fleischer to echo and reuse camera set-ups, many of which have beautiful compositions.
Fleischer will "cross cut" between the villain running, then the hero or his associate. Such cross cutting is also a Fleischer tradition.
There are a series of echoes in the film. Two pair of these involve rain. The title credits show rain splashing on the ground. It is ominous and dramatic looking. At the finale of the film, this shot is echoed in the machinery, with the splashing pipes. The audience realizes that this is "significant".
Similarly, the first murder in the film takes place in an upper story office. We see rain and night through the windows of the office, and then the city in the distance. This is echoed in a later scene, showing the hero's office at the police station. We realize that we are in exactly the same conditions as the murder: an upper story office, night, rain, cityscape. We are at the "conditions of the murder". The effect is immediately suspenseful. There is a previous scene in the hero's office. It too evokes memories of the earlier scene, especially when the associate opens the shades. Such echoes have a powerful effect on the mise-en-scène.
Echoes are built structurally into the plot. This is a story about a serial killer. As the story immediately establishes, he kills whenever conditions are the same, and has a special trigger by night and rain. So the plot of the film asks the audience to look for repeating conditions. Hence repetitions are both a stylistic feature, and structurally part of the thriller plot. These two aspects ingeniously reinforce each other throughout the film.
Critics such as Alain Silver have pointed out the frequent use of "night and rain" as a recurrent motif in film noir. Here, this pair is built right into the plot! There is perhaps a bit of humor here, as the plot makes explicit what has been implicit in so many other noir films.
There are even small echoes in the comic finale of the film. The sergeant and the tavern owner have a conversation. Each element punningly refers to the romance blossoming between the hero and heroine, seated at a table. These puns echo back and forth between the conversation and the couple.
Jeff Corey's police sergeant is an unusual character. Most of his dialogue is designed to reveal not his own character, but those of other people. During the early part of the film he often talks about the hero, and his personality; later on, he often talks about the still unseen killer. The idea seems to be to get a talented actor in a supporting role, and use him to beef up the performance of the handsome but a bit inexpressive actor in the hero's role. I've seen the same structure frequently used in TV series and movies. The issue is perhaps as much a matter of temperament as of talent. The hero is supposed to be obsessed with catching the killer, in true noir fashion. William Lundigan looks admirably well balanced, however. He was often cast in light comedy leading man roles. Basically, he seems like a happy person. He is much better at flirting with the heroine of the movie, than with emotional obsession.
The film thoroughly condemns the true crime magazine for which the heroine works. The film even suggests that it might have helped trigger the killer's crimes. Such mags were also panned in Felix E. Feist's Tomorrow is Another Day (1951). Later, in the 1953 - 1956 era, Fritz Lang will cast a skeptical eye on America's media and reporting of crime. During the late 1940's and early 1950's, some Americans were deeply concerned about whether crime comics, radio programs and magazines caused crime and juvenile delinquency. Ellery Queen's prose mystery novel Cat of Many Tails (1949) also deals with this issue.
The relationship between the hero and heroine echoes that of Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934), one of the most celebrated films of the 1930's. In both films the hero is a Man of the People, and in both his is a skilled worker in a profession idolized by the movies: a policeman here, a reporter in Capra. In both, the heroine is a haughty person who is schooled by the hero to have a better attitude towards the society around her. The heroine eventually surprises the hero in both films by showing useful skills he didn't know she possessed, a scene that makes her more admirable in the filmmakers' eyes, and which helps even out the emotional balance of the film. The relationship in Fleischer adds a note of comedy to his film, in contrast to all the suspense around it. Both films contain a scene that is both comic and sexy, in which the hero undresses for bed in front of the heroine. In both films, the hero is on his own turf in this scene. The scene in It Happened One Night takes place during a terrible rain storm at night, which is prominently seen through the windows of the room. It strongly reminds one of all the "night and rain" scenes in Follow Me Quietly. One wonders if it even suggested the main mood of the later film.
Other films in which Anthony Mann was involved also echo It Happened One Night: Mann's Desperate (1947) has his hero and heroine fleeing on a bus, just like in Capra, with some funny comments by the bus driver.
The leads in this picture also recall those in Frank Woodruff's thriller Lady Scarface (1941). Both films have a cop as hero, played not by a tough guy, but by a good looking romantic hero-comedy type: William Lundigan here, Dennis O'Keefe in Lady Scarface. In both films, the hero constantly teases the heroine, both flirting with her, and interfering with her work. In both, there is the strong suggestion that he will eventually marry her. In both films, the heroine is a photographer for a magazine, relentlessly trying to horn in on the policeman's case to get a story for her magazine. The characterizations are close in both films; one suspects that first the writers used the earlier film as a model, then the director had his cast view the earlier movie.
Trapped (1949) is a semi-documentary crime thriller. It features counterfeiters versus Secret Service agents: the exact subject of one of the most famous of all semi-docs, T-Men (Anthony Mann, 1947). And the scene where an undercover agent's cover is exposed by meeting an old friend in a public place, is a copy of one in T-Men. This is far from plagiarism however - Trapped moves in new and ultimately startling directions, different from T-Men.
The structure of the two films is also oddly different. It is hard to tell who the protagonist of Trapped is. The crook seems to have the main role, and the actor who plays him gets top billing, Lloyd Bridges. Making a crook the star of a semi-doc is a violation of the paradigm: the lead is supposed to be a government agent, especially one undercover. All of this too gets an odd twist during the exposure scene's aftermath. Trapped is a very strangely constructed film.
Agent Foreman develops an ever more complex relationship with the crook, in the opening scenes of Trapped. He tells the crook they will stick together like twins: one of several gay undercurrents in the agent's actions. The bathroom fight here echoes an earlier bathroom fight in T-Men between a crook and a government agent. In T-Men, the crook (Charles McGraw) beats up the government agent. In Trapped, the same thing seems to happen. But once again, there are later twists in Trapped, not present in T-Men.
Semi-docs usually have a finale in some technological or industrial area. Trapped keeps to the paradigm. Its finale is in a Los Angeles trolley barn, a visually fascinating location.
The barn has two levels, which are open to each other through grid work. Fleischer films frequently have such two-level sets, such as the library in Bodyguard, and the lab in Fantastic Voyage. The characters climb down and up between the two, during the chase.
Several characters are introduced during panning shots. These pans show both the new character, and their typical environment:
All of these pans are delightfully complex.
Quite a few pans involve people getting into cars, or cars moving down streets, or both, all in one pan. Some pans of moving cars are reflected in store windows, recalling a bit the interaction of pans and mirror shots in the library in Bodyguard.
A pan follows the couple (who have just blown the agent's cover) in the restaurant, has a rest stop on them at the table, then moves back to the heroine.
There is also a vertical camera movement, that provides a transition to our first view of the government agents listening to the bug. This is part of a multi-stage camera movement, that has moved in several directions.
Fleischer's films draw on the same tradition of police dramas as Anthony Mann's, especially the LAPD He Walked by Night. There is some undercover work in Fleischer, as in Mann, and some effects of a "realistic" tribute to the underpaid police. However, Fleischer's tone is much more light hearted than Mann's nightmarish noir sensibility. Fleischer is more into macho adventure. His police are as glamorized, but not treated as the militarized superheroes of Mann and the other semi-documentarians.
Later, McGraw will get a new young partner, whom he calls Kid. The Kid is much younger looking than the world weary McGraw. Their growing relationship, with McGraw learning to respect and feel for the Kid, is a major subject of the film. From the Kid's point of view, it represents his acceptance into the world of men, and into his profession.
In addition to McGraw, a villain is played by Steve Brodie, who earlier played a suspect in Fleischer's Bodyguard (1948). These are precisely the performers that appeared in such earlier Anthony Mann police semidocumentary films as T-Men and Desperate (1947). Presumably, Mann and Fleischer used the same stock company of RKO contract actors.
The film has a villain, played by William Talman, the eternally losing DA on the Perry Mason TV series, and so menacing in Ida Lupino's The Hitchhiker (1953). There are some attempts to build him up as a supervillain like those of earlier crime movies. He is truly rotten, betraying his men. He also has features of being a scientific mastermind of crime, like Richard Widmark in The Street With No Name (1948). He changes his name and his address regularly, cuts all identifying marks out of his clothes, and is proud that he has no police record. He is also a snappy dresser, just like Widmark. However, he seems small potatoes compared with Widmark in the earlier film. He has much less screen presence, and his gang is tiny compared with Widmark's empire of crime. The filmmakers are clearly much less concerned with this villain than Keighley was in Street. Most significantly, he has no relationship with the heroes, unlike the Widmark-Mark Stevens bond in Street, and he has no emotional centrality in the film.
Occasionally Fleischer shoots his characters from an overhead angle. This is especially true of the airport scenes of the finale. This angle allows Fleischer to create interesting, geometric visual compositions. It also, I suspect, disguises the fact that Fleischer has just a small area to shoot his shot - it might not be a real airport at all, just a piece of asphalt road on the back lot.
Fleischer often has his characters proceed from the back of the shot, to the foreground, or vice versa. While they are in the background, he tends to show their full figure, from head to toe. The shot tends to be close in enough so that one can see all details of their person; these are not "long shots" where the characters become tiny stick figures in a distance. Instead the actors' full bodies are the stars of the shots. Fleischer is intensely interested in the people he is photographing. When the actors get to the foreground of the shots, they tend to have reached full close up. Their heads can suddenly enter the composition from the side, as McGraw does when he starts intensively grilling a police subject; or they can merely walk closely toward the camera till they reach full close-up. Both the background shot, showing the actors in full shot, and the foreground close-ups, are carefully composed.
Fleischer has planned the pan and the shot so that each of these positions are achieved. They function as "rest stops" within the pan, shots that the pan tries to achieve, and settles in to achieve momentary stability, before starting to move on again to the next "rest stop" or destination. Some shots have two rest stops that are equally close up. For example, a close up shot of two policemen talking shows them bending to the left, as the camera pans, then comes to a stop with a close-up of a cop bending over and talking into a police radio. Then the shot moves back into its original position after the radio call.
Other shots have more than two rest stops. One shot shows a crook entering a theater, in one tableau; then panning to the left as the crook moves down the aisle, then finding a third position focusing mediumly on two policemen sitting in chairs in the theater. Even after this point, there are some small adjustments to the camera position to register the policemen's excitement on being able to trap this crook.
In between these rest points, Fleischer's pans are not merely functional, moving from one rest stop to the next. The pans are visually beautiful, complex designs, showing an elaborately turning composition revealing many new perspectives. Camera movement is always fascinating. Here it reveals what things in the background look like at an off angle: we see things first in one position during a rest stop, then the camera pans, and we see things at a slight angle, then at a gradually bigger angle, and finally after a significant pan, as it gets to the next stop. All of this reveals a great deal about the complex geometry of the backgrounds. It is an exciting visual experience.
Fleischer's film is a cheaply, but lovingly made B-movie. Pans, one suspects, are the least expensive of all tracking shots to set up. There are no elaborate tracks to be made, or crane shots to set up. Instead, they simply need a first rate camera man, who will turn the camera precisely on cue. The actors are allowed to move fairly "normally" around the set - they usually do not walk great distances, unlike tracking shots - and the camera man in most cases can simply follow them with his camera. He will have to precisely hit all the "rest stops" along the way; one imagines that they are established first, with the moving connections between them blocked out later. Still, the whole technique is uniquely suited to a low budget movie. It allows one to have all the visual and emotional excitement of camera movement, on a budget that the director and RKO can afford.
Fleischer's camera technique here is once again rich in pans. The rhythm of the panning seems quicker here, and the duration of individual shots shorter. Typically, Fleischer will start a shot in one position. He will gradually pan over to a second position. Then there will be a cut. The new shot after the cut will show the same people and objects as the end of the first shot. But they will be from a new, slightly different angle. Then Fleischer will pan again, this time in a different direction. The whole cycle will repeat itself, with Fleischer ending this pan at a new position, and a cut to another shot of that same position, but from another angle, and so on.
This makes for very unusual staging. There is plenty of camera movement, which adds to the visual excitement of the scene. The camera movement is often strongly "motivated", following characters as they move around, and following the action as it unfolds on screen. Because of this, the camera movement could be "invisible" to a naive viewer; the camera often seems to be just following the action.
By contrast, the cuts often seem to be "unmotivated", at least at first glance. Fleischer will be showing McGraw and another character at the end of one pan, and all of a sudden there is a cut to another view of McGraw and company from a slightly different angle. "Why?" could be the natural question of a viewer. Eventually we see why - it is because Fleischer is setting up a pan that will occur in a few seconds, following some action that will take place then. But at the time of the cut itself, there is no clear or obvious reason for the cut. Fleischer often tries to make these cuts as unobtrusive as possible. They often show the exact same characters as the previous shot. Fleischer also tries to make the new point of view look "natural", as if he were just moving to a slightly more advantageous point of view. Sometimes he is a little more close up on his characters, or shooting from an angle that reveals a little more of the action.
Actually, Fleischer's camera work here is part of an intricate "formal system" of pans and cuts. It takes repeated viewings to notice this; during a first viewing, the pans are so closely tied to the action, and the cuts are so apparently unmotivated, that this viewer at least was swept along, and found it hard to analyze the camera work.
We tend to think of camera movement as allied to long take scenes, scenes stages without cutting. This linkage is broken in The Narrow Margin. There is plenty of camera movement, but the film is cut into a series of fairly small and short shots. This is certainly not because Fleischer's camera movement lacks invention. It is a consequence of the formal system of filmmaking that Fleischer uses.
Fleischer also occasionally uses traditional back and forth cutting, complete with eye-line matching in some scenes. As is typical of many other directors past and present, Fleischer tends to employ this in confrontation scenes, especially one on one confrontations between our policeman hero and the mob.
The animal pens often have the rodeo riders on top, at an upper level, maneuvering down to the animals below. This is a little like the multi-story trolley barn in Trapped.
There is a booth for the announcer, to report on events down in the arena. This recalls the glass walled control booth in Fantastic Voyage, which also looks down on the action.
The first scene in the blood stream is awesome. It is a mixture of avant-garde abstract filming, and representational film. The corpuscles are waving around in the air, like giant 3D abstractions come to life and motion.
The term "inner space" used in the film also has precedents, such as science fiction writer J. G. Ballard's article "Which Way to Inner Space?" (1962), although Ballard was referring to human psychology, not human biology.
Fleischer directed the American segments of Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). This film depicts the events leading up to Pearl Harbor, and is set in 1941.
Elements in the film recall Fleischer's early films of the 1940's.
One big change from the early years of semi-docs: the hero's police superior is now black (Brock Peters). Integration has come to Hollywood films.
Much of Soylent Green has a claustrophobic feel. One often feels trapped in the sets representing the future. This too is clearly deliberate, underscoring the lack of space from which everyone suffers in the future.
The airy rooms with the giant TV screens, by contrast, recall the chief sets of Fantastic Voyage, where everyone is always looking through giant picture windows.