Follow Me Quietly is a an RKO b-noir directed by Richard Fleischer from a story by Anthony Mann, who legend has it was also involved in the direction. Fliescher directed a number of b’s for RKO, including Bodyguard (1948), Trapped (1949), The Clay Pigeon (1949), Armored Car Robbery (1950), His Kind of Woman (1951uncredited), and The Narrow Margin (1952).
At 60 minutes Follow Me Quietly packs a powerful punch. In an unusual story, an obsessed cop chases down a serial killer, who in notes left at the murder scene refers to himself as ‘the judge’. Sharp dialog peppered with irony and sardonic humor adds significantly to the entertainment quotient. A solid b-cast does well and the story is deftly propelled by the screenplay to a climactic shoot-out on an industrial site. With the able assistance of DP Robert De Grasse (Crack-Up (1946), Bodyguard (1948), and The Clay Pigeon (1949)), Fliescher fashions wonderfully expressionistic expository scenes that are quintessentially noir. Highlights are scenes where the obsessed cop ‘talks’ to a facsimile dummy of the suspect, and the interrogation of a suspect in a dark police station. The tight editing by Oscar-winning editor Elmo Williams adds to the pace and the effectiveness of the shoot-out sequence.
I have chosen Follow Me Quietly to illustrate the aesthetics of the b-movie, as the essential features of the category are clearly evident and skilfully executed. The essential features of a b-movie are a small budget and a tight production schedule. These constraints necessitated second-string players and real demands on the director to deliver on time and on budget. For these reasons b-movies were used as a training ground for the film-making team. The renowned French director, Jean Renoir, who spent time in Hollywood in the 1940s – his last Hollywood picture was the cerebral noir The Woman On the Beach (1947) – in a 1954 interview said: “Don’t go thinking that I despise “B” pictures; in general I like them better than big, pretentious psychological films, they’re much more fun. When I happen to go to the movies in America, I go see “B” pictures. First of all, they are an expression of the great technical quality of Hollywood. Because, to make a good western in a week, the way they do at Monogram, starting Monday and finishing Saturday, believe me, that requires extraordinary technical ability; and detective stories are done with the same speed. I also think that “B” pictures are often better than important films because they are made so fast that the filmmaker obviously has total freedom; they don’t have time to watch over him”.
What then are the the aesthetics of a b-movie? With the assistance of the Schirmer Encyclopedia Of Film (2007), we can identify these traits as being determined by two essential constraints:
- A low budget, and
- A short shooting schedule
which meant the length of the picture did not usually exceed 60-70 minutes, and this in turn imposed a further constraint.
These constraints dictated the film-making techniques the director of a b-movie routinely used to deliver a picture:
- Overt exposition: through (overwrought) dialog and voice-over; montage; collages of newspaper headlines; radio broadcasts and news
- Production efficiencies: cheap sets; day-for-night shooting; use of stock footage; repeated shots; rear-screen projection
- Shooting techniques: dialog scenes filmed by framing all players; tracking shots kept to a minimum (giving a static quality); avoidance of retakes (with the risk of wooden performances, and in thrillers, poor choreography of fight scenes).
In Follow Me Quietly we can see these constraints and techniques exemplified.
For economy, the opening credits are displayed over the opening scene, which is highly expressionistic. The legs of a young woman in high heels are seen pacing the pavement in the rain at night – she is wearing a transparent raincoat. After the credits have finished the camera moves up to show her in full profile: she is smoking and it is revealed she is pacing in front of a bar. She flicks the cigarette away with a very déclassé gesture and enters the bar. A dubious moral tone has been established. As it turns out, the woman is not a b-girl, but a reporter for a sleazy tabloid ‘true crimes’ magazine – I wonder if she is wearing the same raincoat worn by Joan Bennett in Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1946)?
Soon, the history of the case and the lead cop’s obsession are related through some labored dialog between the cop, his buddy, and their boss at the latest crime scene. This scene is typical of the movie’s dialog scenes: the players are all within the frame and facing or partly facing the stationary camera. Schirmer describes this approach as follows: “rather than shooting dialogue as a series of complex shot/reverse shot combinations (shooting over the shoulder of one actor, then the other), which requires multiple set-ups, relighting, and time in the editing room to assemble the footage, B directors would cut corners. Dialogue scenes were often filmed by framing all of the actors together facing each other, but turned slightly toward the camera. The conversation unfolds in a single, extended shot— effectively eliminating the time necessary for additional set-ups and the editing needed to achieve shot/reverse shot combinations. Moving camera shots were usually kept to a minimum because of the expense and time needed to mount them. As a result of these factors, the majority of B movies have a relatively static quality.”
Follow Me Quietly uses a few basic internal sets, which are mostly darkly lit. Stock footage of suspects being rounded up and police cars in traffic are used throughout. One scene of cop cars speeding towards the camera and delivering suspects to a police station I have seen in at least three other RKO features, and as late as Joseph. Lewis’ 1955 noir The Big Combo.
There is a wonderfully done montage of shots depicting the deployment of cops in the manhunt triggered by a shot of a police photographer taking a photo of the facsimile dummy of ‘the judge’, cutting to scenes of the mass production and distribution of the photo, then cops and squad-cars hitting the streets, and finally suspects being apprehended and hauled into a line-up.
There are other examples in the movie, but I will leave it to readers to explore them when they get a chance to watch this very entertaining and well-made noir.