When the Hollywood Museum of Guilty Pleasures is built, the late Richard Fleischer — who died recently at the age of 89 — deserves a wing all to himself. There’s something for everybody in the Fleischer oeuvre: cheesy mysteries (Compulsion), cheesy science fiction flicks (Fantastic Voyage, Soylent Green), cheesy spectacles (Barabbas), cheesy biographies (Che!) and cheesy adventures (The Vikings). He even tried his hand at cheesy blaxploitation with Mandingo. Fleischer made ‘em all.
What’s more, he churned them out in a brisk, anonymously professional way that didn’t make them good, but it did lift some of them into the “Almost Okay” category. Call it the “Higher Hackery”. Go up to any movie fan of a certain age and say, “Soylent Green is people!” or talk about antibodies wrapping themselves around Raquel Welch’s breasts, and you’ll get a slightly embarrassed grin of recognition. That’s how you know Fleischer was the Prince of Cheese.
Fleischer was the son of Max Fleischer, the inspired animator who created Betty Boop and the early, completely unique Popeye cartoons. In the early years of animation, Max Fleischer gave Walt Disney a good hard run for his money in the arena of short cartoons, but Disney had a shrewder head for business, and his decision to focus on feature-length animation, beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, paid off in spades. Max Fleischer was left to play catch up, and when he tried his own feature length work with Gulliver’s Travels, it came across as a Disney knockoff, with none of the anarchic
wit that made his short cartoons superior to Disney’s.
The sight of an artist brought down by his artistic inferior may well have been the lesson that shaped Richard Fleischer’s career. I haven’t seen all of his movies, but looking at his filmography made me realize just how many I’d seen without connecting them to anyone in particular. With filmmakers like Carol Reed, Sidney Lumet, or George Roy Hill, that anonymity is part of their artistic strength -– they adapt their styles to the material at hand, rather than jamming it through a prefabricated stylistic mold. With Fleischer, it was simply part of his career pattern of never making a movie that was any better than it had to be.
Fleischer rose above his usual level exactly twice: first with his skilled work-for-hire direction on Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954, and in 1959 with Compulsion, an oddly watchable, yet fictionalized version of the Leopold-Loeb murder case with Orson Welles playing a character based on the legendary defense attorney Clarence Darrow. The idea of two young men committing a murder simply to show that they could inspired a number of other films, notably Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, but the real-life case is remembered for Darrow’s closing speech, an impassioned plea that moved the judge to spare the defendants from the death penalty. The film’s speech, supposedly based on Darrow’s words, is so dull and repetitive that a real-life judge would probably have handed down five death sentences, just to emphasize his point. Legend has it that Welles, bored with the role and angry his salary was being garnished by the IRS, skipped the country without recording the final 20 seconds of his speech. Fleischer, ever the pro, had his editor cobble together the words from bits of previously recorded dialogue.
And yet, I have fond memories of Fantastic Voyage, which depicted the interior of the human body as a giant multi-colored lava lamp, if only for the sight of Raquel Welch in a skin-tight white diving suit -– a vision that remained unequalled until Jacqueline Bisset came swimming through The Deep. And the glorious full-blooded badness of The Vikings, with Ernest Borgnine as a Norseman and a scarred Kirk Douglas snarling, “If I can’t have your love, then I’ll take your hate!” And Soylent Green with its unexpectedly poignant scene showing Edward G. Robinson submitting to
state-administered euthanasia. Proving once again that in moviemaking, at any rate, it is possible to make an impact on culture without being great -– or even
So, ladies and gentlemen, a moment of silence for Richard Fleischer. I’d propose a toast, but I’m having trouble finding the right wine — it can’t be too good, but it can’t be plonk, either. That’s the way to salute Richard Fleischer. The cheese stands alone!