Noirvember: Follow Me Quietly

Everybody’s got to start somewhere.  Richard Fleischer, who would become a Hollywood fixture without ever reaching star status among directors, had a very curious beginning to his career:  after the usual short subjects, he directed a critically acclaimed WWII documentary, a tight little noir picture written by a young Robert Altman, and So This is New York, a nasty piece of work best described as a sort of comedy-noir.  The zenith of his career was in the ’70s and ’80s, at least in terms of box office, but his output was almost ludicrously inconsistent; for every Fantastic Voyage, Soylent Green or The Boston Strangler, there was a Mandingo, Red Sonja, or Amityville 3-D.  Still, he made a lot of money, and before he became one of those guys you hire to direct a property because you know he’s not going to let an ounce of personality get in the way, he shot a number of worthwhile crime dramas, including Armored Car RobberyViolent Saturday, and The Narrow Margin.

Follow Me Quietly wasn’t his first, but it was early enough in his career that he was brought in as an undercard supporter to Anthony Mann.  Fleischer did the lion’s share of the work and describes it as the first move he thought of as being uniquely his, but that claim comes with a caveat — and a reminder of what B pictures really were at the time.  The reason noir got so much leeway despite its frequent incursions against the Hays Code is that most of the films in the genre were bottom-feeders, last-reel productions from Poverty Row that were meant to be the lead-in to the real draw on a double feature — or, worse yet, the barely-seen warm-up to a triple feature.  The studios looked at most of these flicks on the same level as they would a cartoon or a newsreel, and the mere fact of their assumed lack of quality is what makes the memorable entries into the genre so remarkable:  they were a true example of making a dollar out of fifteen cents, of professional artists who took their jobs seriously bringing style, audacity, and energy to a product that was meant to have none .

Another reason that noir is really more of a period than a style is that during its heyday — the late 1940s to the late 1950s — television was not the overdeveloped monster it would become.  A lot of stories that got made into feature films during noir’s heyday were what would later be thought of as spec scripts, quick and dirty pieces of genre work that would get their protagonist changed to some popular detective-show hero and bent to the demands of the network.  (This was already happening, though to a lesser degree, with radio.)  That’s the origin of Follow Me Quietly; had it been written twenty years after its 1949 release date, it would have been an episode of Cannon.  Even its lightning-quick running time seems made for TV.  But, like all worthy noir, the devil is in the details, and there are enough dark, sordid, and creepy elements to mark it as a definite, if off-kilter, product of the medium.

It certainly starts with style to spare, crammed with all the well-observed little details that are so much of the fun of this kind of movie and are so depressingly overlooked these days:  crime reporter Ann Gorman (a charming Dorothy Patrick) stands outside a dive bar in the pouring rain, wearing a see-through rain slicker and a goofy-looking hat, chain-smoking and waiting for her mark.  She ducks in, lights up another, and puts the touch on Art Collins (Jeff Corey), a smart-talking cop, as the bar owner yaps about the racing form into the telephone.  It instantly sets a cozy police-procedural mood for a noir that’s atypical but never self-consciously quirky.  Patrick and Corey are both on the tail of a serial killer called The Judge, in one of the first developments that make Follow Me Quietly seem like it might be a pretty solid Batman arc; “I used to know a guy who cut the tails off of cats,” Corey drawls.  “He didn’t like cats.  The Judge cuts the air out of people.  I guess he don’t like people.”

Unfortunately for Patrick, the detective in charge of the case is Harry Grant (William Lundigan), a hard-ass who probably shits boulders and cares zero fucks for cooperating with the press.  (“I know your magazine,” he snaps at her.  “They ought to throw it into the river with the bent slot machines.”)  He takes the Judge’s crimes personally, less because of the bizarre nature of the crimes (the Judge is a vigilante type who leaves maniacal notes at the scene of his stranglings, of the “I HAVE BEEN ORDAINED TO DESTROY ALL EVIL” variety) than because he can’t catch the guy; he goes as far as to make a life-sized dummy of what he thinks the killer looks like so he’ll have something to obsess over.

Much is made of Quietly‘s allegedly pseudo-documentary style, but it’s not laid into the framework of the movie as heavily as it would be in pictures like those of Phil Karlson, who took the format more seriously to give the story more visceral realness.  Here, Fleischer tips his hand everywhere to the artificiality of the situation everywhere, which can be effective (as in a scene where the ridiculously high-strung Lundigan puts his face right in the camera to overreact about his inability to catch the Judge), but it’s all par for the course in a movie that plays out as a particularly tainted cop thriller.  There’s lots of nice touches in its brief running time (including what look like real crime scene photos to show the Judge’s brutal killings), but one of its most unusual features is the downright eerie similarity it bears to comic book stories.  The Judge is a sinister psychopath who carries on a vigilante campaign against those he deems unworthy; a lovely overhead shot where the two detectives look down out of a shattered window to the sidewalk below where the latest victim has been deposited looks surprisingly similar to the police investigating the murder of the Comedian in Watchmen; and, most of all, Lundigan’s dummy — with its blue suit, burly frame, and terrifying blank face mask — looks almost identical to the Question.  I’d be not at all surprised if a young Steve Ditko caught a showing of this at the local theater and picked himself up some information.

For such a short and straightforward picture, with no plot twist or tricky camerawork or lighting, Follow Me Quietly has tons of mood, atmosphere, and style, making it worth a close viewing.  It’s also packed with some great hardboiled dialogue, which I’ll use to close out this review:

– When Patrick tries to catch a ride to the scene of the Judge’s latest attack, the stone-cold Lundigan sneers, “Sorry. Stag party.”

– Lundigan:  “Funny how he always strikes in the rain.”  Corey:  “Maybe he likes rain. Must be a fish.”

– A newspaper editor, barely alive after the Judge throws him down five stories:  “I always wanted to throw something out that window.  I didn’t know it would be me.”

– Patrick, on why she’s chasing the story so doggedly:  “I need the money to buy gin for my poor old father.”

– Corey, after finding Lundigan chatting up the Judge dummy, in a deeply creepy scene that reminds one of Nicholson’s Joker yakking with a burned corpse in Batman:  “If you wanna talk to a dummy, why don’t you talk to me?”

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