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Richard Fleischer, 89; his films included 'Boston Strangler'

WASHINGTON --Richard Fleischer, who made a handful of excellent films and dozens more across many genres and who was once called ''the most prolific and least identifiable director in America," died Saturday at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills, Calif. He had a respiratory infection. He was 89.

Mr. Fleischer was the son of Max Fleischer, once a rival to Walt Disney in early movie animation through comedy shorts featuring cartoon flapper Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor.

Richard Fleischer initially made movies of distinct, if understated, tension that were sometimes likened to Hitchcock done on the cheap. ''The Narrow Margin" (1952), a witness-protection caper set on a cross-country train, is considered his early classic.

RKO studio officials had denied Mr. Fleischer money to build a train interior that could be mounted on a platform and rocked to give the effect of train motion. To compensate, Mr. Fleischer used a hand-held camera that jostled enough to convey a moving train.

''I made sure to hang something in every scene," he once said. ''A coat or a jacket. Sleeper curtains. We put little wires on them and moved them back and forth so in the background you had the feeling that the train might be moving. We got away with it."

Once an aspiring psychiatrist, Mr. Fleischer was drawn to tales of the criminal class. They often had a masochistic streak, including ''Violent Saturday" (1955), a bank-robbery tale with a memorable death-by-pitchfork scene, and ''The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" (1955), about the murder of architect Stanford White and his love affair with model Evelyn Nesbit.

Mr. Fleischer also directed ''Compulsion" (1959), with Orson Welles as a Clarence Darrow-like lawyer in a replay of the Leopold-Loeb murder case, and ''10 Rillington Place" (1971), with Richard Attenborough as the necrophiliac English landlord John Reginald Christie.

He extracted an unnerving performance from Tony Curtis as convicted rapist and serial killer Albert DeSalvo in ''The Boston Strangler" (1968).

Mr. Fleischer once said he received a hand-embossed leather wallet from DeSalvo. ''It was a difficult thank you letter to write," he said. ''I keep the wallet in my office, and I doubt I'll ever use it."

There was also ''See No Evil" (1971) with Mia Farrow as a blind woman fleeing a psychopath; ''The New Centurions" (1972), based on Joseph Wambaugh's police novel and starring George C. Scott; and the science fiction thriller ''Soylent Green" (1973).

Despite an exhaustive output -- he made more than 45 films -- Mr. Fleischer was hard to classify. He had no signature style, and he crossed many genres.

He directed the expensive musical flop ''Doctor Dolittle" (1967) with Rex Harrison and then tackled Charles Bronson's odd farm-labor revenge drama ''Majestyk" (1974).

Film historian David Thomson noted Mr. Fleischer's reputation as ''the most prolific and least identifiable director in America," adding that despite some misguided efforts along the way, ''many other Fleischer films are genuine entertainments."

Richard Fleischer was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Dec. 8, 1916. He was a Brown University graduate and attended Yale University's drama school. In 1942, a talent scout recruited him to RKO-Pathe pictures, editing newsreels.

As director, Mr. Fleischer shared the Academy Award for best documentary feature for ''Design for Death" (1947), showing the political and economic influences that led the Japanese to invade Pearl Harbor. The script was credited to Theodore Geisel -- also known as Dr. Seuss -- and his wife, Helen Palmer.

Mr. Fleischer then made several superior ''B" pictures, including ''The Clay Pigeon," ''Follow Me Quietly" and ''Trapped" (all 1949) as well as ''Armored Car Robbery" (1951). He also made the 3-D bullring picture ''Arena" (1953), but he said the bull was terribly friendly and undermined the menace.

''The Happy Time" (1952) with Walt Disney child star Bobby Driscoll led Disney to offer Mr. Fleischer the directing job on ''20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" (1954), a Jules Verne adventure starring Kirk Douglas and James Mason.

This led to several spectacles: ''The Vikings" (1958) with Douglas and Curtis; ''Barabbas" (1962) a Biblical epic with Anthony Quinn; ''Fantastic Voyage" (1966), about a group of doctors miniaturized and sent into a dying body; and ''Tora! Tora! Tora!" (1970), a restaging of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor that he co-directed with Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda.

Mr. Fleischer also made ''Che!" (1969) with Omar Sharif as the Argentine-born guerrilla fighter. His enthusiasm for the picture waned after script changes from the studio.

He stuck through ''Doctor Dolittle," later saying he wanted to give actor Rex Harrison ''a swift kick in the head" for making all manner of diva-like demands.

The film became a symbol of motion-picture excess in John Gregory Dunne's book ''The Studio" (1968).

Mr. Fleischer made ''Mandingo" (1975); ''The Jazz Singer" (1980) with an ill-fated pairing of Neil Diamond and Laurence Olivier; and two Arnold Schwarzenegger pictures, ''Conan the Destroyer" (1984) and ''Red Sonja" (1985).

Schwarzenegger, now governor of California, praised Mr. Fleischer as ''a true Hollywood legend."

''He was a man of great talent and an extraordinary director who leaves behind a legacy of amazing films," Schwarzenegger said in a statement.

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