Movies were in Richard Fleischer’s blood — one can even argue they were his first language. His father was the great animator Max Fleischer, whose wildly imaginative Betty Boop cartoons had even Walt Disney in awe. That same exuberance and fluidity governed the son’s career as well. How else do you explain the highly effective urban crime dramas The Narrow Margin (1952) and Violent Saturday (1955) serving as bookends to that superb Disney live-action fantasy, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)? Fleischer’s knack for bringing out the best in actors is evident in all his work, coupled with an operatic grandeur in the characterizations that may be the most explicit gift handed down from his father. James Mason’s Captain Nemo has the cartoonish romantic charm of a figure in a 19th-century Punch engraving, and so do Kirk Douglas as his first mate and Peter Lorre as his servant on their plushly decorated submarine. By contrast, the Tony Curtis of The Boston Strangler (1968) has been purged of his trademark charm as forcefully as if he were caricatured by Ralph Steadman, yet his human dimension is never lost. Even amid the fantasy of Soylent Green (1973) — where the denizens of what may yet become our corporate super-future unwittingly feed on human flesh — the world-weary researcher played by Edward G. Robinson (in his final performance) gathers tremendous dignity as he ponders this global madhouse and begins to consider death preferable. No matter how extreme the circumstances, Fleischer never lost sight of individual souls and their agonies. (American Cinematheque at the Aero Theater; Wed.-Sun., March 15-19. See Film and Video Events for more info.

—F.X. Feeney

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