Follow Me Quietly March 17, 2009Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1940s , trackback
A few things really got my attention with the 1949 film noir Follow Me Quietly. Its director Richard Fleischer was the epitome of the solid noir director, always churning out something interesting without fully dazzling the viewer. He made short, cheap crime films for RKO like The Narrow Margin, Armored Car Robbery, and The Clay Pigeon. Very no-nonsense and without the style of a Joseph H. Lewis, Phil Karlson or Anthony Mann. His career later went every direction imaginable, but there are still a few gems amid the rubble of those pictures. For Follow Me Quietly, Fleischer was assigned by RKO to essentially walk in Anthony Mann’s footsteps and churn out a police thriller his fellow director had actually written a few years earlier. The IMDb site even has Mann as an uncredited director on the movie, though I can’t verify this anywhere else and Jeanine Basinger’s book only speculates that Mann might have directed the film’s finale based on a similar scene in T-Men.
The article on TCM’s website about Follow Me Quietly goes into a little detail about the situation. Prior to breaking through with Raw Deal and T-Men, Mann apparently presented his treatment to RKO for the story while toiling away at the studio on fare like The Bamboo Blonde. After Mann’s He Walked by Night proved to be a success in 1948, RKO dusted off his Follow Me Quietly idea and made the picture with Fleischer. Robert de Grasse, who’d been the cinematographer on everything from Kitty Foyle and Vivacious Lady to The Leopard Man and The Body Snatcher, was brought in to shoot it. He Walked by Night and Follow Me Quietly are hardly the same film, with the former carrying much more atmospheric tension and stylistic lighting courtesy of John Alton, but the similarities are easy to spot. In both films, the police profile and stalk a serial killer using then-modern investigation techniques.
The Fleischer movie wastes little time at just an hour’s length, and seems almost annoyed with sketching out a romantic subplot to pad the story. Considering how flat the dalliance between William Lundigan’s Police Lt. Grant and the would-be crime reporter played by Dorothy Patrick falls, you can understand why no one much seems to care. I’d be surprised if Mann had anything to do with that part, which was more likely added by screenwriter Lillie Hayward. Patrick’s character is neither a femme fatale nor a particularly vital piece of the investigation. If her main purpose is to add layering to Lundigan’s lonely, overworked cop, the film’s leanness prevents that development from ever fully taking shape. A few offhand comments about the lieutenant nicely prefigure the idea of criminal profiling and its accompanying stress, but the actual relationship between him and the reporter is too threadbare.
Where the film turns interesting is with its maniacal, self-righteous killer, a man who calls himself the Judge. He strangles his victims to death, taunts the police with letters written like ransom notes, and schedules killings when it rains. Unlike Richard Basehart’s sharp man on the run in He Walked by Night, the Judge isn’t shown clearly until the police finally catch him. Little clues like a hair sample or the report of a victim who survived the Judge’s attack eventually coalesce into a life-size dummy with a blank face. The featureless front of the dummy’s head makes for one of the film’s most striking images. A scene late in the picture when the seemingly lifeless body sits in the shadows of Lt. Grant’s office only to get up once everyone has left the room is downright unnerving, if almost entirely implausible. When we’re face to face with the Judge, he’s far less sinister than the build-up has implied.
The final chase through streets and steps and into an industrial building where artificial rain wilds the eyes of the Judge is perhaps the film’s true highlight. Fleischer (or Mann) masterfully uses space and environment to maximize the tension. I’m not sure why a supposedly experienced police lieutenant would handcuff himself to his suspect while navigating through a high altitude walkway - placing his own life in the hands of the Judge here who could jump and leave Grant with no choice but to follow - but it’s not the only example of logic failing the film. It also makes little sense to use a photograph that simply shows the rear view of the dummy dressed in a regular suit and fedora while trying to make a positive identification on the Judge. The police would’ve been better off sticking a large green apple over the dummy’s face and asking around whether anyone’s seen him.
And yet, I liked Fleischer’s little movie just as I’ve enjoyed his other taut crime pictures. (Maybe a bit less.) There are headscratchers like the ones I’ve mentioned, but the idea of the dummy and the way it’s presented kept my interest. Even if Lundigan is a little bland, he does well with shaking out demons. He’s less guarded and explosive than a character like Robert Ryan’s Wilson in On Dangerous Ground. Lundigan displays his angst much differently, yet still with a frustration that’s ultimately effective.
Follow Me Quietly hasn’t yet made it to R1 DVD. Maybe Warner Bros. will throw it onto a Film Noir set in the future (though Armored Car Robbery is my preference for Fleischer). There is a disc available in France from the Éditions Montparnasse label. DVD Beaver reviewed it and the print used looks just as good as what I saw on TCM.