Ever since somebody figured out that movies were, indeed, an art form, directors have been viewed as lone authors, or at least queen bees imperially orchestrating the efforts of mostly faceless subordinate collaborators. This is a flattering view, and sometimes a fairly accurate one. But they don’t call it the film industry — as opposed to, say, the film canvas — for nothing. Most employable directors are worker drones who just get the job done. Any job. After all, it’s competency that’s needed, not vision, the goal being entertainment rather than art.
When Richard Fleischer died three months ago, a final door closed on one of the most versatile, undiscriminating, and thoroughly Hollywood careers ever. In fact, the 90-year-old director had long been retired — his last feature was 1987’s Million Dollar Mystery, a starless farcical flop that coproducer Glad Bags promoted via a product tie-in: a $1 million treasure hunt. (The movie, alas, earned less than its title.) But his never stopped being ubiquitous as the “directed by” name on many of the most frequently televised films ever made. Some had originally been major hits, some bombed, some just punched the clock. But all were created equal in the eyes of the tube — and most likely, it seems, in the purview of Fleischer himself.
Just try connecting the dots between the features Fleischer directed between 1966 and 1976, when he was at his peak as a critically derided but reliable veteran entrusted with millions in studio money. He bounced from the psychedelic sci-fi adventure of Fantastic Voyage — with body-suited Raquel Welch as its most special effect — to 1967’s elephantine family musical fantasy Doctor Dolittle, then wasted no time and probably less sleep before turning to 1968’s The Boston Strangler.
Next up was 1969’s notoriously stupid Che!, with Dr. Zhivago (a.k.a. Omar Sharif) as the romantic revolutionary and daft Jack Palance as Fidel. Then came straight-up WWII patriotism via 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora!, followed by a western, a Godfather knockoff, Charles Bronson avenging as usual, blind Mia Farrow walking barefoot on broken glass to escape a murderer, 1973’s immortal Soylent Green, 1975’s bad-taste campsterpiece Mandingo, and — perhaps most incredibly in this context — Glenda Jackson as The Incredible Sarah in 1976. (Pauline Kael griped, “To think we were spared Ken Russell’s Sarah Bernhardt only to get Richard Fleischer’s,” dubbing him a “glorified mechanic [who] pleases movie executives because he has no particular interests and no discernable style.”)
Somehow amid all this middlebrow showmanship, Fleischer snuck in a small, low-key, fact-based British movie during 1971. 10 Rillington Place — part of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ “Too Scary for DVD: Neglected Horror on 35mm” series — is closer in spirit to the sharp, documentary-influenced B-grade noirs (1952’s The Narrow Margin, 1949’s Trapped) with which he started out his career, before Disney’s 1954 live-action smash 20,000 Leagues under the Sea promoted him to the A-list. Fleischer made several true crime films over the years, but arguably none truer than this chillingly poker-faced tale.
The Christie murders were infamous in Britain, not least because the execution of a probably innocent man played a significant role in that country’s abolition of the death penalty. Milquetoast landlord John Christie drugged, assaulted, and strangled numerous women, hiding their bodies in the Notting Hill house and backyard he shared with tenants and his oblivious wife. 10 Rillington Place focuses on those events of 1948, when a rather awful young couple (Judy Geeson, John Hurt) and their baby took the dingy upstairs flat. The Evanses were easy prey — the husband an illiterate compulsive liar with an IQ of 70, the pretty wife no exemplar either but understandably concerned that a second pregnancy would make their already marginal existence impossible. Christie (Richard Attenborough, future director of Gandhi) claimed knowledge of then-illegal abortion procedures, to Beryl Evans’s fatal misfortune.
Trading in British working-class miserabilism as if born to it (even Ken Loach would be impressed), the distressing yet nonhyperbolic Rillington delivers one credible version of the much-disputed case. Everything about it is astutely controlled, but two performances — Attenborough’s and Hurt’s — push that description into the realm of brilliance, indelibly etching the respective banalities of evil and of innocence.
One might call this sober replay of sordid reality an anomaly for Fleischer, but what film of his isn’t? Like several other major-league commercial directors of the ’60s (Robert Wise, Stanley Donen), he hung on through the ’70s but developed a serious case of irrelevance in the ’80s. Indeed, the embarrassments lined up like ducks: Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer, Brigitte Nielsen in Red Sonja, Amityville 3-D. No doubt he enjoyed the retirement that by then was so richly deserved. It is reported that he liked playing tiddlywinks with his granddaughter, perhaps while seated near his Mickey Mouse head–shaped swimming pool. (This despite his own father being Betty Boop creator Max Fleischer, Walt Disney’s leading early rival.) The director of Boston Strangler and Mandingo must have been a very nice, normal man to accommodate so many contradictions with so little fuss. He may be in the grave now, but it’s we the living who are spinning. SFBG
10 RILLINGTON PLACE
Thurs/20, 7:30 p.m.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Screening Room
701 Mission, SF