In 1949, RKO pictures was in financial trouble (but then again, when wasn’t it?). Howard Hughes was in the process of ruining the studio, due in large part to his poor decision-making when it came to which pictures to greenlight and his constant meddling with films as they were being made. In 1948, the year before Follow Me Quietly was released, RKO had seen its profits drop by a staggering 90 percent, from $5.1 million in 1947 to a mere $500,000 in 1948. Moving forward, the company would focus on churning out even more low-budget, one-hour B pictures in an effort to turn a quick profit.
One of RKO’s favorite directors for these one-hour programmers was a man whose name isn’t spoken in noir circles as often, or with as much reverence, as some of the other directors who have spent significant time in Dark City. However, from the late forties to the early fifties, Richard Fleischer had a decent run at the tables, directing no less than seven noirs (all but one for RKO) in a five-year period—Bodyguard (1948), The Clay Pigeon (1948), Follow Me Quietly (1949), Trapped (1949), Armored Car Robbery (1950), His Kind of Woman (1951, uncredited) and The Narrow Margin (1952). He also returned to the genre one more time in 1955 to the direct the color crime noir Violent Saturday (1955).
In terms of quality, Follow Me Quietly marked a turning point for Fleischer. He recognized this when he said, “This is the film that, above all, increased my knowledge of the trade. I learned how to organize a film.” It’s true. Follow Me Quietly is an enjoyable, tightly-organized film that gives the impression that Fleischer would go on to even make even better films, which he did.
The plot of the film is fairly straightforward B fare. A serial killer who calls himself The Judge has been murdering people for months, strangling them only on rainy nights. He leaves notes that are made out of letters cut from magazines that claim he’s punishing sinners and meting out justice. The two cops on the case, Lt. Harry Grant (William Lundigan) and his wisecracking sidekick St. Art Collins (Jeff Corey), are sitting on a lot of individual pieces of evidence that they just can’t seem to piece together, and his own lack of progress is driving Grant crazy. In addition to his stress over not cracking the case, he’s also trying to fend off Ann Gorman (Dorothy Patrick), a reporter for the lower-than-low tabloid rag “Four Star Crime,” who is doggedly pursuing him for his take on the case.
Then, one day when Grant is staring at all of the evidence they’ve compiled, he gets an idea. Instead of just sending out the standard, blasé description of what they think The Judge looks like, why not make a faceless but life-size dummy of him based on what they know? The idea is a hit within the department. They bring in all of the department’s cops and let them see it so that they get a better idea of his shape and size. They stand potential perps next to it in the lineup room to see how they measure up. They take pictures of it from various angles and canvass the neighborhoods where the crimes were committed to see if anyone recognizes him.
If you’re thinking that this idea sounds…wacky, you’re not off base. Why would a dummy be any better than a sketch, especially when in many instances they’re just using pictures of it to try to identify the killer? Fleischer needs to sell this as a serious idea and not a hammy plot device, and for the most part, he succeeds. The scene when the dummy is introduced becomes creepier as it progresses—with the sole light in the lineup room focused on the back of the dummy, Grant provides a voiceover through the speaker system from the point of view of The Judge, based on the psychological profile they’ve established for him. Fleischer sells the seriousness of this scene, which successfully walks the line between disturbing and unintentionally ridiculous, through creative camerawork and stark lighting on the dummy, making its anonymity and facelessness seem menacing. Later in the film, Grant, who has stayed late into the night, talks to the dummy, who he keeps sitting in a chair in his office, projecting his anger and frustration toward The Judge onto it. Again, while this scene could have played out as silly, it instead plays out as tense and suspenseful, because the way Fleischer stages and lights the scene, we’re immediately wondering if it really is just the dummy, or if The Judge has sneaked into the office and taken its place.
In order to sell such a gimmicky plot, Fleischer needs to get at least serviceable performances from Lundigan and Patrick, and despite one clunkily delivered exposition dump from Lundigan early on, they sell their roles well enough. He aids their performances through creative cinematography—the night scenes in the rain are particularly well done and affecting—and some of the aforementioned stylistic flourishes (Dutch angles, anyone?) add a nice touch. The climax of the film—a chase through an empty factory—is well-paced and exciting, and it contains a nice bit of symbolism at the very end.
No one would mistake Follow Me Quietly for an A picture. It’s short, it’s low budget, and the performances are good but not great. (Sidenote: about two-thirds of the way through the film, its B budget gets the better of it, resulting in a great unintentional laugh. Grant is sitting at his desk at night, and it starts to rain outside, signaling to him that The Judge may strike again. However, the seriousness of the moment is undercut by the fact that when the rain starts falling against his windows, it’s clearly coming from must have been several sprinkler heads just above the windows. The water sputters out of them initially as the water pressure builds up, then starts hitting the window in a fan pattern instead of falling straight down.) However, none of this detracts from the fact that this is a briskly paced, nicely photographed and highly enjoyable little noir with enough punch to keep you thoroughly entertained throughout its one hour running time.