So This Is New York (1948)

So This Is New York (1948)

Toronto Film Society presented So This Is New York (1948) on Monday, July 27, 2015 in a double bill with Tales of Manhattan as part of the Season 68 Monday Summer Series, Programme 4.

Enterprise Productions. Director: Richard Fleischer. Producer: Stanley Kramer. Screenplay: Carl Foreman and Herbert Baker, based on the novel The Big Town by Ring Lardner. Cinematography: John L. Russell. Editing: Walter Thompson. Art Direction: Frank Paul Sylos. Set Decoration: Edward G. Boyle. Costume Design: Elois Jenssen. Musical Director: Dimitri Tiomkin.

Cast: Henry Morgan (Ernie Finch), Rudy Vallee (Herbert Daley), Bill Goodwin (Jimmy Ralston/Captain Shaw in Play), Hugh Herbert (Mr. Lucius Trumball), Leo Gorcey (Sid Mercer – Jockey), Virginia Grey (Ella Goff Finch), Dona Drake (Kate Goff/Maid in Play), Jerome Cowan (Francis Griffin)

Radio humorist Henry Morgan made his film debut in So This Is New York. Based on {The Big Town}, a collection of stories by Ring Lardner, the film traces country bumpkin Morgan’s progress as he uses an inheritance to take a trip with his wife (Virginia Grey) and sister-in-law (Dona Drake) to the New York of the 1910s. He encounters numerous oddball characters, the most colorful of which is a drunken jockey (Leo Gorcey). The boxer and at least four other Broadwayites (Hugh Herbert, Rudy Vallee, Bill Goodwin and Jerome Cowan) complicate Morgan’s life when they court his wife’s sister–most of them hoping for a slice of that inheritance. The movies were not the ideal medium for the satiric barbs of Henry Morgan, though he plays his role well and carries the film with assurance. In addition to being Morgan’s first picture, So This is New York was also the maiden voyage for producer Stanley Kramer.

Hal Erickson, Rovi

So This Is New York (1948)

Born in New York in 1916, son of animation pioneer Max Fleischer and brother of minor actress, Ruth, Richard Fleischer began his mainly distinguished film-making career after training in the drama department at Yale University. In 1942, he joined RKO’s New York This is America series and 1944’s Memo for Joe, a short documentary about the US Community Chest Wartime Charity Program. The success of his work allowed him to move to RKO’s Hollywood feature film studio.

He began his fictional film-making career with some socially conscious dramatic works such as Child of Divorce (1946), in which he offered one of the first serious treatments of the subject, focusing on its impact on the divorcees’ child. The Hays Production Code, very much in evidence during this period, disallowed the notion of any ‘immorality’ to be attached to divorce and demanded Fleischer’s thoughtful, tactful approach. He followed with another drama, Banjo (1947), a family movie about a girl sent to live in Boston after a lifetime growing up on her family’s farm. Her faithful dog, the eponymous Banjo, follows her, and, in true ‘Lassie’ style, the film follows their misadventures. Another misadventure theme was worked into Fleischer’s next film, So This Is New York (1948), the story of a rural man who is dragged to New York City by his upwardly mobile wife and sister—the usual fish-out-of-water tale.

Fleischer’s subsequent feature is notable now for its relationship to the great American independent auteur Robert Altman: 1948’s Bodyguard was based on a story by Altman and filmed as a pretty routine thriller bolstered by a strong performance by Lawrence Tierney. The visual style evokes film noir, something that would become evident in several of Fleischer’s subsequent films. Follow Me Quietly (1949), Trapped (1949), and The Clay Pigeon (1949) all mark a very productive period of noir-style crime thrillers, dealing as they do with variations on counterfeiting and including darker hints of violence, conveyed with a compact and effective directorial touch. During this time, Fleischer put his name to an uncharacteristically lighter move—the oddly titled Make Mine Laughs (1949)—a compilation of RKO comedy material fashioned in the vaudeville vein.

Armored Car Robbery (1950) and His Kind of Woman (1951, on which John Farrow is credited as director) mark a return to darkness and crime. The former is a tautly constructed and executed thriller about a well-planned robbery which goes horribly wrong, resulting in the deaths of both the police and the robbers. Robert Mitchum stars in the latter as a gangster planning to return to the US via a Mexican resort. Notable for his performance and its murky tone, the film is a satisfying and occasionally gripping crime noir.

In The Narrow Margin (1952), Fleischer appeared to have consolidated the subject and style he had been flirting with, to produce a deft thriller with an evocative visual style. The story of a woman testifying against the mob, and under protection as she takes a train journey from Chicago to Los Angeles, the film utilizes the naturally claustrophobic setting of the train and its corridors to convey the dark themes and the sense of threat.

Fleischer made a brief return to comedy with Happy Time (1952), a domestic misadventure story about a family in French Canada during the 1920s. He followed this with the 3D flop Arena (1953), a rodeo-set story with Gig Young and Polly Bergen, about a rodeo-rider whose marriage is in danger because of his love of the sport. Although the rodeo scenes are captured with a degree of excitement and authenticity, the film itself is on the melodramatic side, like a watered down, less sexually political version of Nicolas Ray’s The Lusty Men (1952), with which it shares certain thematic similarities.

With 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Fleischer got his first big commercial break. This family movie, a perennial holiday season favourite, has an all-star cast including Kirk Douglas, James Mason and Peter Lorre. This adventure/science-fiction movie about a ship sent to investigate mysterious sinkings and encountering an advanced submarine commanded by the infamous Captain Nemo, proved to be spectacular—both in style and box-office returns. A gloriously old-fashioned family yarn, its models and special effects still hold up today.

So This Is New York (1948)

Fleischer returned to crime with Violent Saturday (1955) in which a gang of hooligans, including Lee Marvin, make plans to rob a small-town local bank. Their story is interwoven with stories from other inhabitants of the small town, including a gentle female librarian, fallen on hard times, and (in a brilliantly ironic stroke which proves that American liberalism goes only so far) an Amish farmer (played by Fleischer regular Ernest Borgnine) who lays down his pacifism and picks up a rifle as protection. Episodic in structure, the film offers a ‘slice-of-life’ heist movie, reminiscent of the socially conscious drama arising from parts of American film and television, and concurrently being produced in the British film industry.

Fleischer’s next few films provided a mix of subjects and styles: the turn-of-the-century crime drama The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955), is based on the real murder of famous architect Stanford White; Between Heaven and Hell (1956) is a vaguely anti-war action thriller about a spoiled wealthy southerner whose experiences in a mixed-race platoon in the Pacific during World War Two force him to question his values. Bandido (1956), an enjoyable western-action adventure movie about an arms dealer and a mercenary who cross swords, once again stars Robert Mitchum and a Mexican setting.

Veering more towards the action and adventure with which he was becoming familiar, Fleischer’s following film, The Vikings (1958), starred Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas as Eric the former slave and Elnar the great warrior. Unaware that they are half-brothers, the two compete for the throne of Northumbria in tenth-century Britain. One of the highest grossing films of the 1950s, the film combines extraordinary set-pieces featuring battles on the high seas and the coasts of Britain in a fast-moving adventure yarn, crisply and beautifully photographed by Jack Cardiff.

These Thousand Hills (1959), a western about a Montana cattle-man’s journey of self-discovery, is notable mainly for developing Fleischer’s skills in shooting action sequences. It was followed by his take on the Leopold-Loeb crime, Compulsion (1959). Filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as Rope (1948) and more recently by Tom Kalin as Swoon (1992), the story of these bored, privileged kids whose psychosis goes too far when they murder a teenager for kicks, has proved an enduring one. Orson Welles plays it straight as the lawyer whose performance is based on Clarence Darrow’s real address to the court, lending the film a documentary air which is, on occasion, somewhat stifling. The rather slow Crack in the Mirror (1960) stars Welles again in another courtroom drama, this time setting a young lawyer and his ageing mentor against one another in a murder case. The comedy-action-adventure The Big Gamble was released in the following year; following a small group of men who re-locate to a remote African town to set up a new business, it unsuccessfully attempted to combine too many disparate moods.

So This Is New York (1948)

Fleischer’s religious epic Barabbas—about the man chosen to live at the expense of Jesus Christ—was released in 1962, part of a trend of Hollywood movies that were clearly feeling the competition from television. The equally epic Fantastic Voyage (1966) is one of his best fantasy-adventure movies, the story of a submarine and its crew, shrunk to microscopic size and injected into the bloodstream of an endangered diplomat. The plot, though thrilling and action-oriented, is full of holes; disbelief can be willingly suspended, however, thanks to Fleischer’s visual and narrative imagination, some gripping set pieces and wonderfully old-fashioned sets. Another family picture, Dr. Dolittle (1967) followed, featuring Rex Harrison as the eponymous vet who can talk to the animals.

The Boston Strangler (1968) reunited Fleischer with Tony Curtis in a career-best role as the infamous serial killer, who was considered at that time to be Albert de Salvo. It is a chilling and murky account of the serial killer and his crimes, which effectively uses split-screen cinematography to afford the audience a simultaneous view of the murders, the dead bodies and the futile attempts of the police and passers-by to prevent or discover the crimes. This heralded Fleischer’s move into darker, more stylized crime movies, the kind of less-mainstream Hollywood fare that could be made within the studio system at the time.

Next, Fleischer made two conflict-themed movies. Che! (1969) offers a typical American ideological approach to Guevara and Castro in this fictionalized biography starring Omar Sharif in the title role and the distinctly non-Cuban looking Jack Palance as Castro. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), named for a Japanese battle cry, details the events leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbour. Surprisingly ambiguous and complex in its approach, Fleischer directed the American section, and Kinji Fukasaku and Tashio Masuda were responsible for the Japanese sections; Akira Kurosawa dropped out due to pressure from the American producers to impose restrictions on his vision.

Fleischer moved to Britain to make his next film, 10 Rillington Place (1971), which, like The Boston Stranger, deals with a real-life murderer. Demonstrating his ability to render such material with an appropriately dark tone, Fleischer perfectly evokes the seedy milieu in which actors Richard Attenborough and John Hurt are able to flourish, committing to the screen a commendable portrait of Britain at the time of the crimes. He remained in Britain for See No Evil (1971), a creepy, atmospheric thriller, reminiscent of Terence Young’s 1967 chiller Wait Until Dark, starring Mia Farrow as the blind woman who is unaware that her murdered family and their killers are in the same house.

A return to the US saw Fleischer revisiting old ground with a well-made if unexceptional crime drama, The Last Run (1971), about a former getaway driver retired to a Portuguese fishing village and asked to do one more job. The double crosses and plot twists, particularly the well-executed chases, are reminiscent of Fleischer’s earlier films. 1972’s The New Centurions stars George C. Scott and Stacy Keach as the retiring cop and the rookie respectively in what could easily have been a staid, clichéd account of the infamous ‘cop’s last day on the job’ scenario. The Hollywood ‘downer ending’ of the 1970s is also evident in his follow-up the 1973 Soylent Green, a science fiction thriller set in 2022. Here a haunting score is synthesized perfectly with the sepia-toned images to provide a chilling visualization of the film’s themes. The cast, which includes Edward G. Robinson and Joseph Cotton, and Charlton Heston in the hero role, is excellent. Famed for its narrative pay-off (doesn’t everyone know what Soylent Green is?), the movie is an assured piece of paranoia film-making.

Fleischer’s take on the gangster movie and the western, with The Don is Dead (1973) and The Spikes Gang (1974), saw him reunited with stars Anthony Quinn and Lee Marvin. The former is an over-violent and under-developed attempt to reap the box-office benefits of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), whilst the latter pitches Marvin as an outlaw who takes a trio of teens (amongst them Ron Howard) and teaches them how to rob banks. Both films mark Fleischer’s move with the times to deal with more overtly violent work, in keeping with much studio output of the period, and interspersing such ventures with a lighter comic touch.

So This Is New York (1948)

Elmore Leonard wrote Fleischer’s next film, Mr. Majestyk (1974), about the Vietnam war. Charles Bronson stars as the titular melon farmer and Vietnam veteran fighting for his livelihood against the corrupt men whose aim is to run his business down and buy up his land cheaply. An odd combination of action and melodrama, like a significant degree of Fleischer’s work, the film offers little in the way of Vietnam exploration, instead of giving Bronson the chance to hone his Death Wish persona.

On the one hand controversial and ill-received, through reclaimed as a subversive masterpiece, Mandingo (1975) is concerned with a slave owner who, during the mid-nineteenth century, trains his slaves as bare-knuckle fighters, and discovers his prize fighter has been intimately involved with the female members of the family. Over-ripe performances from Susan George and James Mason, and a camera that leers over the naked, sweating flesh of Richard Ward’s Agamemnon, the film is melodramatic—slave-porn for mainstream America.

At this point in his career, Fleischer descended into an undistinguished and at times bewildering array of directorial choices. The Incredible Sarah (1976) sees him revisiting the biopic with a bland portrait of actress Sarah Bernhardt’s early career; Cross Swords (197*0 (better known in the UK as The Prince and the Pauper) is a family swashbuckler starring Oliver Reed and Mark Lester, about the young Edward VI changing places with a beggar in order to reveal some courtly betrayal, notable mainly for Jack Cardiff’s photography; Ashanti (1979) is a faintly ludicrous but brutal tale of a diplomat’s wife kidnapped by slave traders.

Next, followed a series of utterly pointless remakes and sequels. The Jazz Singer (1980) was designed—preposterously-as a Neil Diamond vehicle, and co-starred a hammy Laurence Olivier. Amityville 3-D (1983) exploits 3D effects built around dubious plot devices. Tough Enough (1983), the story of a country singer finding new success as a boxer, includes some sparky fight scenes.

Conan the Destroyer (1984) and Red Sonja (1985) demonstrate sword-and-sorcery theatrics in overblown set pieces. The former is more of the material that John Milius offered in his 1981 Conan the Barbarian; the latter attempts to out-do them all in its ill-advised setting and storyline. Hulking brutes, evil queens and laughable dialogue make both a waste of Fleischer’s and the viewers’ time. Although Fleischer directed a short action-adventure-sci-fi film, co-written by British comic writer and actor Chris Langham, Call From Space, in 1989, his most recent feature, 1987’s The Million Dollar Mystery, is a lame comedy about a dying man who tells four strangers that he has hidden $4 million in separate hiding places. Lacking in the style and pace that made a group of his films stand out throughout his career, it seems that antipathy, lack of material, and Hollywood’s insistence on ignoring the talents of its loyal directors, has affected Fleischer in much the same way it has countless classic film-makers before him.

Contemporary North American Film Directors: A Wallflower Critical Guide by Yoram Allon, Del Cullen, Hannah Patterson (2002), by Jaqueline Downs

 Notes compiled by Caren Feldman
www.carensclassiccinema.wordpress.com

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