Monday, March 27, 2006


When I think of director Richard Fleischer, who passed away Saturday at the age of 89, I don’t necessarily think first of his films that those of my generation might be thought to naturally gravitate toward— the Disney epic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the effects packed adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage, or even the movie that came to epitomize major studio cluelessness and ineptitude at the end of the 1960s, 20th-Century Fox’s Dr. Dolittle.

The name Richard Fleischer instead brings to my mind a trio of pictures he did in the early to mid 70s—Charlton Heston discovering the secret of a popular food substance in an overpopulated future in the science-fiction thriller Soylent Green; the Charles Bronson action drama Mr. Majestyk, based on a screenplay by Elmore Leonard; and perhaps his most notorious film (if you don’t count Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer, that is), the hit adaptation of Kyle Onstott’s brutal sex-and-slavery potboiler, Mandingo.

For months, after writing an essay which included an account of seeing the film as a teenager, I wondered if there was any serious writing on this movie, which has stuck with me for years and which, upon encountering it again as an adult, revealed itself to be a much more serious and intelligent film than I (or many film critics in 1975) ever gave it credit for being.

The answer to my question came this morning in discovering within the online pages of The Film Journal a Director’s Retrospective series of essays concerning the films of Richard Fleischer, published this past January. The first article, written by Zach Campbell, whose Elusive Lucidity blog can be found on the sidebar to your right, is entitled “Follow Him Quietly: Richard Fleischer and the Consideration of Metteurs-en-scène” and contains a quite-welcome look at Mandingo near its conclusion.

But even more detailed a consideration is Robert Keser’s “The Eye We Cannot Shut: Richard Fleischer's Mandingo.” Keser spends a healthy amount of space on the film’s methodology and its critical reception in 1975 before launching into an exhaustive, and convincing, analysis of Mandingo as social critique derived and informed by the mechanics and tropes of melodrama, “sans big speeches or messages embedded in the dialogue,” and gives Fleischer another chance to defend his film:

Not driven by literary respectability, Mandingo confounded critics who could not accept a serious statement about the socio-economic order in the form of a melodrama sans big speeches or messages embedded in dialogue. What’s more, the dramatic extremes of the plot… continually risk making the film look ridiculous, no less than the use of archaic vernacular—such as “wenches” (black women used as bed partners) and “suckers” (their offspring).

In his capacity as both director and co-scenarist, Richard Fleischer reacted with passion, defending his artistry against reviewers who were unable to address racist subject matter that felt too raw (and may still be so):

”The thing that is infuriating to me is that the critics become blinded by their own dislike of the subject. They may loathe the story, but then they say that the photography was bad, the sets were lousy, the costumes stank and that the writing was rotten. I can defend all of that. I can defend the direction, and everybody said the direction was terrible, inept. I really don’t think you can criticize a lot of things in the film as being badly done. You may hate what it is or what it says, but you can’t say it’s all rotten. It’s just not true.”

Indeed, this negative critical reception has shut
Mandingo out of the national conversation about race, yet its indictment of top dog morality seems more relevant than ever. With no villainous power-hungry individual as a repository of the plot’s evils and no true hero with a tragic flaw, the system itself is the flaw that entraps and destroys its participants. Mandingo bears poignant witness to how this impersonal and unforgiving economic apparatus closes its jaws on each player and then bites down.

The script’s genius*—not too strong a word—is to fuse melodrama into social critique, creating a hybrid where sexual relationships are poetic correlatives to economic ones, a credible match as procreation formed the basis of the business.
Mandingo is two entities at once: the economics contains the melodrama, while the potboiler is the repository of all the sexual conflicts and betrayals that reveal how the lucrative enterprise worked on a human level. As such, its pulp proves more useful than all the allegory and postmodern finger-wagging of Lars Von Trier’s Manderlay.

I highly recommend the writing of both Campbell and Keser as tributes both to a director most never considered with much seriousness while he was alive and making films, and to one film in particular whose reputation would surely be well served by a DVD release, if there’s anyone left in Hollywood with the nerve to put it back on the shelf.

(* Mandingo’s script was adapted from the Onstott book by scenarist Norman Wexler, who also wrote the scripts for Joe, Serpico and Saturday Night Fever.)


Anonymous said...

Thanks for going out on a limb to talk about MANDINGO--I remember seeing it (with you, I think) years ago, and I do remember it being at least a stab at capturing the complexity of the relationships in the situation, and I remember it being very gripping, if so audacious as to cause me to laugh out loud. I'd love to get a chance to see it again.

As for Richard Fleischer, I'll always be grateful for the thrills, and the sense of awe and mystery, I experienced upon seeing 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA in a theater as a kid (it was either the Fox or the Orpheum in Portland, I believe). So I guess I'll forgive him for THE JAZZ SINGER, which I was somehow forced to see several times in college...well, come to think of it, it became such a camp item that I actually enjoyed it after awhile, a la THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

You know what? It occurred to me while I was putting this together that I never saw The Jazz Singer. I just remember all those awful Neil Diamond songs ("We're coming to America/Today!/Today!...") and that was enough for me. But I also still think fondly of Conan the Destroyer which, with all its cheesy Saturday-matinee qualities, stands as a far more enjoyable movie than John Milius' Conan the Barbarian, and without a lick of that film's pretentions. Of course I love 20,000 Leagues and Fantastic Voyage too. And I remember the Alger Theater ran one of the strangest double bills I can ever remember encountering, which I took in with not just a little confusion-- Ray Harryhausen's dynamic The Valley of Gwangi, followed by Fleischer's Che! Imagine, if you will, a nine-year-old boy, fresh off a jazzy cowboys vs. dinosaurs feature, scratching his head and emitting an audible "Wha.....?!"

Aaron W. Graham said...

Ah, "Pleasures Worth of Guilt", my very own introduction to your writings (and, subsequently, this blog), Dennis.

I must say that my heart grew heavy when I heard that Fleischer had passed. It seems he was in good health up until his death, as he recently conducted an interview for "Video Watchdog"'s behind-the-scenes look at AMITYVILLE 3-D.

There's a scene in 1995's PALOOKAVILLE, wherein Vincent Gallo and William Forsythe take notes while watching Fleischer's obscure noir ARMORED CAR ROBBERY, ostensibly for hints on how to commit a similar heist. It's of my disposition that American movies (and, indeed, the world over) would benefit if film students did the same in studying his craft.

Anonymous said...

Dennis, thanks for doing this post, as well as for providing the links to additional writing on Fleischer. I was quite a fan of 20,000 Leagues and Fantastic Voyage when I was young (watching them repeatedly on local stations on Saturday and Sunday afternoons), and I've always thought of Soylent Green as a 70s classic. Nice post.

Anonymous said...

even though i dont think as much of mandingo as you, i always enjoy your thoughtful writing...

btw- i dont think it takes much effort to make a better film than lars von trier...
i'd stack fleishers worst against lars best anyday

Anonymous said...

I have to say I'm a fan of Fleischer, and it's heartening to read here how many others appreciate his films. However, since we're bringing Lars Von Trier into the discussion, I have to say that I thought "Dogville" was excellent and thoughtful. Hated "Dancer in the Dark," though.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Thanks, Anonymous. I'm very grateful for your comments. I'm curious about Manderlay, but I must say my experience with von Trier is not prodding me to take much action to go out and see it.

Blaaagh, I'm gonna have to see Dogville on your recommendation. I too hated Dancer in the Dark and thought damned little of the even more praised Breaking the Waves, so maybe we can be said to be of a similar disposition re the Danish director. And I do want to see The Kingdom one day. Did you see The Five Obstructions?

Anonymous said...

No, I haven't seen THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS; in fact, I hadn't heard of it, so I read the imdb entry via your link, and now I'm so confused I think my head is going to explode even without having seen the movie! But it does sound intriguing. I'll be curious to hear your reaction to DOGVILLE.

Getting back to Fleischer, I had forgotten that he directed FANTASTIC VOYAGE, too...another memorable viewing experience of mine from a young age; same goes for SOYLENT GREEN, and for THE BOSTON STRANGLER, though I only got to see it on network TV. He certainly made some stinkers, but his range was impressive.

L. Rob Hubb said...

Thanks for the Fleischer/MANDINGO love, Dennis... shortly after finding your 'guilty pleasures' bit, I found a copy of the film again; it's probably more incendiary now. It'd be an interesting pairing with MANDERLEY.
(off topic - I vote with giving DOGVILLE a chance, and checking out the early VonTrier [THE KINGDOM(s), EPIDEMIC, ZENATROPA[aka EUROPA], ELEMENT OF CRIME] than the VonTrier you've come to know and hate.)

DRUM is a bit more pulpy and self consciously lurid than MANDINGO, but still a good ride, if you can find a copy.