b. Samuel Michael Fuller, August 12, 1912, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA
d. October 30, 1997, Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, USA
“It is not necessary for the camera to move or for the characters to move. What matters is that the emotion of the audience should move. I call that the emotion picture.”
– Samuel Fuller(1)
“It’s been said that if you don’t like the Rolling Stones, then you just don’t like rock and roll. By the same token, I think that if you don’t like the films of Sam Fuller, then you just don’t like cinema. Or at least you don’t understand it.”(2) This comment from Martin Scorsese may seem exaggerated, perhaps even touched by a degree of film snobbery. But in a way, he’s on to something. It’s not that all the films of Samuel Fuller are among the greatest in the history of the cinema, nor do they necessarily best display the form’s specific traits or techniques. Yet there is something about his work that could never be as effectively realized in any other medium. To watch one of his movies is to experience what movies can do best: their emotive potential, their visual dynamism, their narrative capacities. That is perhaps what Scorsese is getting at, for it would indeed be difficult for someone who doesn’t like movies to enjoy the cinema of Samuel Fuller. To adequately appreciate his films, it helps to understand film.
It also helps to understand the man himself. Rarely has a director left such an indelible, profoundly personal stamp on so many of their films. As Scorsese puts it, though Fuller’s films are “blunt, pulpy, occasionally crude, lacking any sense of delicacy or subtlety,” those are not shortcomings. “They’re simply reflections of his temperament, his journalistic training, and his sense of urgency.”(3)
When Fuller was 11, his family moved to New York City where he became almost instantly enamoured with the newspaper business. By age 12, young Sammy was assigned the role of copyboy for the New York Journal. By 17, he graduated to full-fledged crime reporter with the New York Evening Graphic, a tabloid specialising in “creative exaggeration.”(4) Here, he got down to the nitty-gritty of street life. He honed his journalistic skills and assembled a wealth of future material. Fuller then set off in search of stories across America, delving into the social and political upheaval of the day. He also entered the world of fiction, knocking out his first novel at age 22. Seeking a fictionalized version of one of his newspaper stories, MGM approached Fuller about writing for them in 1931. He turned down that offer, but in 1937, Fuller began his screenwriting career. A few years later, spurred on by the events at Pearl Harbor, a 29-year-old Fuller enlisted for service in World War II. As a rifleman in the U.S. 1st Infantry Division — the Big Red One — he saw action from Africa to Omaha Beach to Czechoslovakia. Ultimately, he was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart.
Back in Hollywood, low-budget producer Robert Lippert sought out Fuller and the two teamed up for the first three films of Fuller’s directorial career. Lippert wanted a film about an assassin, and Fuller proposed a picture about Cassius killing Caesar, not what Lippert had in mind. Instead, Fuller made the Western, I Shot Jesse James (1949), about the guilt-ridden torment haunting Robert Ford (John Ireland), the man who betrayed his legendary friend for a pardon.
Ford is the first in a long line of Fuller characters who do what they do, rightly or wrongly, as a matter of personal necessity and individual gain. They’re not especially bad people, they’re just people, they’re human, they have their reasons. Ford is scorned by Cynthy (Barbara Britton), his reason for action to begin with, and he is ostracized by the community. While Jesse (Reed Hadley) may be a criminal, there is still a larger code that transcends good and bad. It’s a matter of loyalty. And Ford broke this code. Rare for a Fuller character who acts according to his nature, even if it is socially damnable, Ford shows nearly instant remorse. He, unlike later Fuller protagonists, is not comfortable in the role of outcast.
I Shot Jesse James was a success, and for Fuller’s second feature, Lippert was looking for an adaptation. Fuller proposed a story based on an article he had written about James Addison Reavis, the man who attempted to swindle the United States in order to obtain ownership of the entire Arizona territory. The Baron of Arizona (1950) seems placed between the crime film and the Western, taking its narrative from the former and its primary setting from the latter. A not yet famous Vincent Price stars, but the big score was obtaining renowned cinematographer James Wong Howe for a fraction of his salary. Howe contributes a visual sheen to the film, but relatively infrequent are the powerfully impactful single images Fuller would be known for. There is also a lot to Reavis’ scheme, and subsequently, unusually for Fuller, there is more telling than showing at first, necessary to make sense of the intricacies of the plot.
Frequent Fuller themes, however, are present. Reavis’ is an extremely ambitious endeavour, costly, and extraordinarily time consuming, and for all of his faults, he has astonishing tenacity and fortitude. Pointing the way toward Fuller’s crime features, Reavis is a schemer of the highest order, but one who demands respect. While Griff (Hadley), an investigator with the Department of the Interior, is naturally his nemesis, he nevertheless appreciates Reavis’ skill and perseverance.
Fuller was a natural to take on a war film, so for his third and final feature with Lippert, and now credited as writer-producer-director, he made The Steel Helmet (1951), set during the Korean War, the first film about the war as it was still going on. Newcomer Gene Evans, himself a WW II veteran, is Zack, a prototypical Fuller hero: a seasoned professional, knowledgeable, and with a level of world-weary cynicism that helps him keep the war in perspective. Fuller’s war films are marked by authenticity, in terms of banter, props, set design, and characters. He incorporates many elements of his own tour, contributing to the verisimilitude of the picture with details and occurrences oftentimes overlooked in war films without experience at the helm. Fuller again has his characters display a respect for proficiency, even if it’s the enemy’s, and as would be his norm, his violence is quick and brutal and ugly. The production code would obviously limit graphic depictions of bloodshed, but one nevertheless gets an impressive sense of the disorientation and havoc that goes with a firefight.
For his first film set in contemporary times, Fuller imbues The Steel Helmet with a social resonance covering several aspects of early 1950s America, such as African American treatment at home and in war, and the US internment of Japanese Americans. Some of the film’s commentary (as well as Zack’s killing of a POW) earned Fuller considerable political scorn.
The Steel Helmet had a 10-day shoot and a scant $100,000 budget, but despite these constraints, Fuller crafts a realistic, comprehensive picture, with action, a good story, and relevance, all features that appealed to Twentieth Century-Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck. In Zanuck, Fuller found a kindred spirit, someone who appreciated a good yarn as much as he did. Based on the success of The Steel Helmet, Zanuck suggested a similar subject for Fuller’s first film at Fox, for which he now had a six-picture deal (with the option to do his own projects). With Fixed Bayonets (1951), Fuller is back in Korea, back with the infantry, and back with Evans, this time as the gruff Sgt. Rock. Though Evans manages to chew up every scene he’s in, the primary character is Cpl. Denno (Richard Basehart), a good soldier — brave, smart, obedient — but less than qualified to be a leader. He is afraid of responsibility and is loathe to kill. A key concern for Fixed Bayonets, and in turn one of Fuller’s strongest themes when it comes to war, is the difference between killing a man and killing the enemy.
The weary band of soldiers is not thrilled with their assignment, but, as always, they do what they have to do. They and Fuller recognize that duty isn’t always glamorous, but it is necessary. Fuller also brings forth the notion that rank isn’t always desired, and can be unsystematically designated, changing at a given moment, sometimes with a single bullet. Why one volunteers for service, and keeps coming back, is also a persistent question.
Fuller took advantage of his independent option and with $200,000 of his own money, he next directed Park Row (1952), a big, brash, bold love letter to journalism. Fuller treats the material with a prevailing reverence. The film is about more than a just a profession; it’s about an institution, an ideal, a history. Evans is Phineas Mitchell, editor of The Globe, one of several dueling newspapers in New York City. Mitchell has a profound admiration for those who came before him (Horace Greeley, Benjamin Franklin) as well as his contemporaries (Joseph Pulitzer). And in the end, even competitor Charity Hackett (Mary Welch), whom he wars with throughout the film, bears a mutual respect and comes to his aid, out of adherence to the “publisher’s code.” Hackett is the first strong female character in Fuller’s work, and she’s as “ruthless” and “ambitious,” in Mitchell’s words, as any of Fuller’s male leads.
Fuller devotes a considerable portion of Park Row to emphasizing the arduous process of putting out a newspaper circa 1886. It’s didactic in its attention to historical and technical detail (perhaps more than it should be), but it’s done with the best of intentions. A passion for the content is not enough though. Fuller’s enthusiasm comes forth in style. The camera darts and rapidly dollies and the pacing matches that of the fast-talking, deadline-driven newspapermen, with a remarkable degree of violence emerging in the competition for circulation. A majority of the budget went to constructing a four-story replica of Park Row, and though the film may have meant a good deal to Fuller, it did not gain traction with audiences. Fuller lost every cent he put into it.
Back with Fox, Fuller returned to modern times with Pickup on South Street (1953). Originally titled ‘Pick-Pocket’ (deemed “too ‘European'”), then ‘Cannon’ (sounded too much like a war movie), (5) Pickup on South Street featured Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, and Thelma Ritter as three social misfits (an impertinent pickpocket, a naive prostitute, and a world-weary stoolie, respectively) who inadvertently get mixed up in Communist espionage. Not unlike Park Row, Pickup on South Street expresses a (less reputable and more flexible) professional code. In Fuller’s streets, those of a feather watch out for their own, and just as so many of his films are adamantly pro-American, many of his characters are decidedly apolitical. Individual need is their motivation, not political ideology.
Fuller’s treatment of violence is one of creative brutality, with action and death rough, direct, and ingeniously staged: the tragic shooting of Moe, the restrained shot of Joey beating Candy, the wicked image of Skip dragging Joey down the stairs, his jaw slamming against the steps. Fuller was surprised that Zanuck “okayed a movie where the people have no taste,”(6) but he understood Fuller’s objective and would also come to Fuller’s defense when the FBI objected to some of the film’s perceived anti-Americanism.
Fuller’s abrasive dialogue, occasionally lurid and intensely realistic, sizzles with metaphors, slang, wise cracks, and profession-dictated repartee. The characters are full of life and genuine vigour, and his camera work gives his best films an overriding energy, a forcefulness shifting on a dime between calm and violence. His crime films, especially, are like hard-hitting reporting made cinematically manifest.
Less distinctly a Sam Fuller film was Hell and High Water (1954), his least favourite picture. Widmark stars as Capt. Adam Jones, a former Navy officer brought on to lead a deceptively banal scientific expedition, but the main attraction, at least as far as Zanuck was concerned, was his protégé and mistress Bella Darvi, as Denise Montel, the scientist daughter of Prof. Montel (Victor Francen), an atomic scientist and one of the masterminds of the mission.
Expertise drives an undercurrent of mutual respect in all of Fuller’s war films, and here, this team of men specifically chosen by Jones is bonded by their previous work together and his subsequent respect for their abilities. And while some initially decry the presence of a female on board, Denise too gains their respect, with competency outweighing superstition.
With its cramped interiors and generally drab and limited colour scheme, Hell and High Water is an unlikely feature for Fuller to explore the possibilities of CinemaScope and Technicolor, but as evidenced in this film and in those to come, the formats proved to be particularly well suited to his visual sensibilities. He manages to move the camera as much as possible, mainly via pans and tracks, and within any given frame, he forms a sense of heavily populated claustrophobia that integrates well into the narrative, particularly when the crew is submerged with no cooling; the stifling restriction and discomfort is palpable.
House of Bamboo (1955) brought Fuller on location to Tokyo, with Robert Ryan as gang leader Sandy Dawson and Robert Stack as Eddie Kenner, an undercover military investigator who infiltrates Sandy’s gang to discover which one of them killed an American sergeant. Along the way, Eddie falls for the sergeant’s widow, Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi), and while their initial association may be based on a lie, and there is a fair amount of blanket cultural stereotypes at play, the relationship that develops is Fuller’s first real romance. There are also complex relationships based on masculine allegiances inflected by homoeroticism and jealousy. Though Sandy may harbour latent feelings for Eddie, he acts out this desire with concern over the relationship between his new friend and Mariko, worrying, for instance, about Mariko cheating on Eddie. Sandy’s criminal code is of the utmost importance, and it’s his own break from these rules (not automatically killing Eddie when he’s wounded, possibly influenced by his suppressed emotions) that leads to his downfall.
Fuller masterfully exploits the Japanese location, providing a rare glimpse of post-war Tokyo, where the American crew wasn’t always welcome. Shooting in actual sites, he artfully constructs fore- and background spaces, utilizing cultural features to give weight and depth to his long takes, and interiors highlight extraordinarily complex staging, with partitioning screens and framed entrances. The stylistic restrictions of Hell and High Water give way to an assortment of canted and unusual angles, disorienting cuts, and crane shots that lunge ceaselessly, all culminating in the extraordinarily inventive final action sequence.
Fuller had written Run of the Arrow (1957) as a potential project at Fox, but Zanuck declined to produce it, so now, through RKO, the film would become Fuller’s first under his own company, Globe Enterprises Inc., and his first of four consecutive features with Joseph Biroc as director of photography.
Rebel soldier O’Meara (Rod Steiger) fires the final shot of the Civil War, taking down Yankee Lt. Driscoll (Ralph Meeker). Hardened men populate much of Fuller’s work, and the introduction of O’Meara has the drained soldier removing food from the wounded Driscoll’s pocket and proceeding to eat it off the man’s body.
O’Meara is an ultimate Fuller outsider. Disenchanted with the South’s defeat, O’Meara heads West and joins the Sioux tribe. He is proud of his Southern heritage and is deeply grieved by the war’s outcome, but his passion is a stubborn one, and he acts out against those who accept the result. His pride is so strong that rather than submit his cause, he would rather take leave with the natives who, “savage or no,” at least have pride. Along the way, Fuller has the Native Americans “depicted as a community of people with their own rules and rituals, not — as in most studio movies — like a pack of marauding killers.” (7) The treatment of their lifestyle is reasonably positive, idealistic, yet simplistic, presenting the culture with great care. O’Meara’s duality is put to the test, however, and he ultimately chooses America, whatever states that is to include. O’Meara embodies the country itself, as well as a common theme of so many Westerns. As much as Run of the Arrow is about one man’s struggle to mend his broken spirit and reintegrate himself into a new country, it is also about the formation of a new united nation. Run of the Arrow depicts the contentions between a country on the verge of expansion and established civilizations and cultures that already exist.
Under the heading of Regal Films, Inc., Fuller’s Globe Enterprises began a collaboration with both his former employers (Lippert and Fox), and with China Gate (1957), Fuller intended to include “enough hot topics … to push everyone’s buttons. Communism and colonialism. Racism and tolerance. Black markets and capitalism. Abandonment and fidelity.”(8) Set in Indochina before it became Vietnam, the film follows a group of French soldiers and mercenaries who seek to thwart communist revolutionaries under the guidance of Ho Chi Minh, his name heard for the first time in an American movie.(9) The heroes of China Gate face an assortment of episodic obstacles, the risk of explosives, enemies, and combustible emotions. Focusing chiefly on a group of French Legionnaires, China Gate deals with the universality of war and soldier life, the primary military unit of concern of foreign origin. Fuller does manage to bring the war home with some talk of the precarious American involvement in the fight at this point.
The Eurasian Lucky Legs (Angie Dickinson) is one of Fuller’s strongest female characters, but as her name implies, she is still a physically objectified figure (she’s even introduced legs first). In any case though, she is tough, driven, and proves to be the bravest and most selfless of all involved. The others are reliant on her knowledge of the terrain and her ability to manipulate the enemy, by whatever means necessary. But first and foremost, she is a mother. Like so many Fuller heroes, she is not interested in politics. To start, money isn’t even enough to convince her to embark on the mission. What it takes is the promise of getting her five-year-old son back to America. Familial responsibility runs deep in China Gate. Her son’s father, Sgt. Brock (Gene Barry), one of the soldiers on the mission, is a less than admirable character for any number of reasons, but he is looked down upon primarily because he abandoned his child (the boy looked too Asian).
Fuller commonly shatters complacency with shockingly abrupt violence, and China Gate has a quintessential example as one of the Legionnaires shares his contentment for life just before he is rapidly shot down. Fuller also begins to include more narrative randomness, as when Goldie (Nat “King” Cole), provides a musical interlude near the beginning of the film, singing the picture’s titular theme song. The number comes out of nowhere in terms of the plot — he’s just an un-introduced character who breaks into song — yet it settles to be perfectly natural in the Fuller world of heightened, not necessarily always rational, storytelling.
Forty Guns (1957, formerly “Woman with a Whip,” another project Zanuck had passed on) is “a different kind of Western,” in the director’s words,(10) starring Barbara Stanwyck as a generically atypical strong female lead. The powerhouse opening with the onrush of Jessica Drummond (Stanwyck) and her forty guns all on horseback, stampeding past the camera and the Bonnell family in a dizzyingly assault of speed, noise, and dust, wordlessly and firmly sets the frenzied pace and tone the film will maintain. Forty Guns dazzles in open spaces, with tracks running the entire course of the main street and numerous intricately designed camera manoeuvres. At the same time, Fuller incorporates striking single images, such as a circular point of view through a gun barrel, or Griff Bonnell’s steely gaze seen in tight close up, his eyes filling the frame.
After Jessica’s brother Brockie (John Ericson) holds her hostage, Griff (Barry Sullivan) shoots her first, dropping her to the ground and leaving her brother open to be killed. Afterwards, Griff coolly walks past the bodies: “Get a doctor. She’ll live.” (Fuller’s original ending had Griff killing them both, but that conclusion was nixed by the studio — “My gunman had to think about box-office receipts before he decided to pull the trigger!” (11) This is the final act of violence in a film full of jarring deaths: the nearly blind marshal’s murder; the suicidal hanging of Ned Logan (Dean Jagger), only discovered when his boots knock against the door; the shooting of Wes Bonnell (Gene Barry) just minutes after his wedding.
Stanwyck’s matriarch wields an influence not yet encountered in a Fuller female character, or most male characters for that matter. The enormous long table where Jessica rules from the head comically stresses her placement as the leader of this group and, more than that, of the region. Where others acquiesce at the mere mention of the Bonnell name, Jessica goes toe-to-toe with the Wyatt Earp-ish legend. She tells Griff she needs a strong man to carry out her orders, but he knows that also means she needs a weak man to take them. Perhaps because of Jessica’s independence and the sexually charged tinge that infuses her relationship with Griff, Fuller gives Forty Guns a stunning amount of provocative dialogue, replete with audacious innuendo.
In 1959, with a small budget and another 10-day shoot, Fuller was back in World War II with Verboten! The film picks up at the end of the war and shifts its focus to the German struggle for normalcy. With militias assisting war criminals and carrying on the fight against Allied forces on one side, and regular citizens defending themselves as Germans, not Nazis, on the other, Verboten! is a fascinating look at what is still an underexplored aspect of the war. We see the human side of the German people, a people swept up in a false promise of prosperity, realizing too late the true cost of their compliance, and they will forever be burdened with that stigma. It’s the story of consequences, of desperation and destruction, the broken lives of those left behind. The process of denazification is not an easy one. The people are scared, they are reluctant to collaborate with the Allies, to testify, to inform, to betray their country, and even after the war, fraternizing with what was just recently the stringent enemy is frowned upon. Predictably, the relationship that develops in the film is addled by this tragically fresh memory.
Love doesn’t come easy in a Fuller film, and there is frequently no happy resolution without initial combativeness (if that happy resolution ever even comes), and more often than not, any romance that develops does so only after numerous hardships. In Pickup on South Street, for instance, aside from when he picks her purse, the first real meeting between Skip and Candy is initiated by him socking her in the jaw and bringing her to by pouring beer over her head. Likewise, the romance in Verboten! has much against it. While Sgt. David Brent (James Best) remains optimistic, Helga Shiller (Susan Cummings) is more practical and knows the obstacles they will inevitably face.
Verboten! includes an abundance of stock footage, and while the integration of these documents here and elsewhere in Fuller’s work don’t always mesh well, it forms part of a larger Fuller strategy toward realism. He knows enough to know he’s faking it with the fictional narrative; these clips of documentary footage keep it real in whatever way possible, setting scenes and placing plots in context.
Fuller’s contemporary follow-up, The Crimson Kimono (1959), is the story of two policemen — the clean-cut all-American Det. Sgt. Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett) and the sensitive Japanese Det. Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta) — as they solve the murder of a stripper and vie for the affections of Christine Downs (Victoria Shaw). Race as a topical concern was never far from many of Fuller’s films, and save for White Dog years later, nowhere was the examination of race more explicit than here.
What starts as a straight-ahead police procedural takes a turn to focus almost exclusively on the race-infused love triangle while the investigation temporarily subsides. Yet the race issue is shown to be primarily based on assumptions. Christine assumes Joe is shutting her out because she’s Caucasian (Joe corrects her: no, it’s because of his friendship with Charlie); and when Charlie is confronted with the romance between Joe and Christine, his reaction is interpreted by Joe to be one of distain over losing a girl to a Japanese guy (Charlie corrects him: no, he’s just jealous).
Fuller’s 1961 film, Underworld U.S.A., with a script that underwent revisions for more than a year, is chock-full of the filmmaker’s forceful trademarks. There are strong parallels to Pickup on South Street in this film that features Cliff Robertson, Dolores Dorn, and Beatrice Kay, as the perpetually criminal Tolly Devlin, the shady lady Cuddles, and the childless, weary old woman, Sandy. The picture builds on a scenario of vengeance to tell its probing story of modern crime. Gone are street thugs and localized hoods. Today’s gangsters are well dressed and sophisticated; they have political connections, they’re organized, and they’re ruthless. Fuller would contend that a camera angle or movement should be like bold-faced type in a front-page headline (120 point!), and his presentation here is not unlike one of his journalistic exposés. Underworld U.S.A. is full of big, dramatic close-ups, jarring camera moves and positions, and shocking scenes of violence, particularly the police chief’s suicide and a young girl being run over.
Street life starts early, with children rolling drunks on their way to being hard-boiled criminals. But there is still that same street code, and part of that code is not squealing, even on the men who kill your father. (This, however, is as much about not risking one’s life as it is anything else.) Vic Farrar’s final disgrace is not his plea for forgiveness, it’s that he finks just before his dying breath, and when Tolly wants to instigate the infighting among the gangsters, it’s through falsified betrayal and the affront of double crossing
By 1961, Globe Enterprises had collapsed and Fuller was working on a freelance basis, whether in television (an episode of The Virginian and a program for The Dick Powell Show, both in 1962, and several episodes of Iron Horse in 1966) or when independent producer Milton Sperling hired him to direct Merrill’s Marauders, the true story of World War II Brig. Gen. Frank D. Merrill (Jeff Chandler).
Though Fuller shared writing credit with Sperling, received no producer credit, and saw his ending cut by the studio, the production did afford him locations in the Philippines, facilities at Clark Air Base, and a substantial budget. As if it wasn’t evident already, Fuller is clearly at home with the horizontal frame, shooting here in the widescreen WarnerScope process that allowed for a notable lateral positioning of the marching stream of men as they are enveloped in the dense environment.
With seasoned jungle fighters and a classic men-on-a-mission setup, the focus is more on the gruelling campaign itself, rather than specific characters and their personal back-stories, as in The Steel Helmet or Fixed Bayonets. The men are pushed to the limit (they’re not sure what time of day it is, or even what day of the week it is), and Fuller conveys the horrible condition of the fighting with his characteristic eye toward journalistic truth. Authoritative references to military campaigns and terminology define his war films, and Merrill’s Marauders is no exception. He also makes it a point to express the thorny nature of duty in war, be it the anguish of 2nd Lt. Lee Stockton (Ty Hardin) as his position forces him to write letters to deceased soldiers’ families, or Merrill, who receives the men’s admiration for his drive, not his difficult decisions.
In 1963, Fuller struck a deal with Fromkess & Firks Productions, Inc. to write, direct, and produce two films. While the deal gave him considerable creative freedom, with final cut, it was not totally legitimate and he would never see what he should have earned from two of his most audacious movies, Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964).
“Many of Fuller’s films illustrate a willingness — if not an eagerness — to ignore polite conventions of good taste in order to shock the viewer,” writes Lisa Dombrowski,(12) and with its subject mater including taboo topics like incest, nymphomania, and impotency, Shock Corridor certainly fits the bill. It’s an incendiary story of a journalist who gets committed to a mental hospital to solve a murder. In the process, the asylum becomes a microcosm for America’s social state, its prejudices, and its paranoia.
Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck), the ambitious reporter who started as a copy boy at the age of 14 and has his sights on the Pulitzer Prize, hoping to be in the company of newspaper greats (Fuller’s background never concealed), convinces his dancer girlfriend, Cathy (Constance Towers), to pretend to be his molested sister, establishing his mental illness. Fuller’s depiction of Cathy “singing in her skin” is one of the more subtle expressions in an otherwise over the top film. The camera (manned by acclaimed black and white cinematographer Stanley Cortez) is kept at a distance as she dances alone on stage. The result is pathetically sad and not at all titillating. This sort of delicacy doesn’t last though, and for the vast majority of Shock Corridor, Fuller composes one hysterically fantastic sequence after another, from the campy (superimpositions of Cathy teasing the dreaming Johnny) to the brilliantly and incongruously effective (insertions of Fuller’s 16 mm color location scouting footage). Fuller acknowledged that the film has the “subtlety of a sledgehammer … ranging from the absurd to the unbearable to the tragic.” (13)
Fuller continued on an unconventional path with The Naked Kiss, and arguably, no picture of his begins quite this unconventionally. The prostitute Kelly (Constance Towers) is introduced in a shockingly aggressive opening, where she is face to face with the audience as she pummels her pimp/the camera. Through the course of the altercation, she ends up in her bra and her wig falls off (that is, Fuller himself quickly pulls it off), revealing a completely bald head. All this with wildly chaotic jazz as the musical accompaniment.
Kelly seeks to rid herself of her sordid past once and for all. In Grantville, she catches the eye of the local law enforcement, Capt. Griff (Anthony Eisley), who for an evening purchases her wares then promptly demeans her for her occupation. She gets a new job at a hospital and earns the respect and admiration of her colleagues and the children she cares for. Her personal life also takes a turn for the better when she falls in love with J.L. Grant (Michael Dante), the pillar of the community and its namesake. Grant doesn’t judge Kelly, and we soon see why. He is a pedophile who equates his criminal perversion with her past prostitution. She murders him when she catches him with a young girl and she is forced to fight through the hypocritical town’s barriers to prove her innocence.
The Naked Kiss brings together Fuller’s by this point indispensable taste for eccentricity. “Explosions of weirdness,” as Dombrowski puts it,(14) occur frequently in Fuller’s work, self-consciously so as he would oftentimes indicate such moments with “W” in his scripts. These moments include odd items of relative innocuousness (a mannequin named Charlie, dressed as a deceased WWII soldier, listed as “himself” in the opening credits) to instances of an “aggressive disregard for classical conventions governing the presentation of space, time, and movement”(15), like with the opening sequence. Subjects brought up in The Naked Kiss equally run the gamut, from those seemingly unsuited to the film’s story (Beethoven, Goethe, Baudelaire, Lord Byron) to the challengingly contemporary (abortion, child molestation, prostitution).
Following The Naked Kiss, which was outrageous but did not on that basis garner much popularity or profit, Fuller entered the final, curiously contradictory phase of his career. Now receiving critical plaudits that had eluded him, Fuller became a celebrated filmmaking figure, a maverick director whose genre-bending features went against the Hollywood grain. Fellow directors sang his praises and gave him roles in their films (famously, in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965), Fuller declared, “Film is a battleground. Love, hate, violence, action, death…In a word, emotion.”). At the same time, financing for his unorthodox work become harder and harder to come by. Fuller worked on adaptations, novels, and further film projects that never materialized. He “seemed to be everywhere — everywhere except behind the camera.”(16)
Five years passed before Fuller’s next feature, and the experience was among his worst. An unstable collaboration with the “wheeler-dealers”(17) who made up Heritage Productions and Cinematográfica Calderón led to Caine (1969), a film marred by misfortune. A shark killed a stuntman during filmmaking, and with the disaster as something of a selling point, Caine was retitled Shark! (years later, to capitalize on the fame of Jaws (1975), it was rereleased as Maneater). The film was taken away from Fuller for its final edit, and he subsequently disowned the picture. In the remnants of what remains, one is able to parse through to find a few key Fuller features. The gunrunner Caine (Burt Reynolds) is a classic down on his luck loner, and though he isn’t especially skilled at any one craft, among the conmen and schemers who surround him, he can con and scheme with the best of them. There’s also Carlos Barry as Runt, yet another abandoned child who comes under the protective wing of a male protagonist.
Location photography (Mexico doubling for the Sudan) gives Caine visual interest, and Fuller’s next project, Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (1973), a light-hearted episode for the German television police drama, Tatort, similarly boasts an invigorating use of setting. The movie also harkened back visually to some of Fuller’s more dynamic features, with a liveliness fostered by a handheld camera, vigorous use of close ups, and quickly cut action (having Jerzy Lipman as cinematographer also helped). Private investigator Sandy (Glenn Corbett) and blackmailer Christa (Christa Lang, Fuller’s wife) are also archetype Fuller characters, the former a slick American caught in the midst of foreign intrigue (shades of House of Bamboo), and the latter his equally competent female companion. Of course, they fall in love, but between the two, and with all those surrounding them, everyone here has an angle.
Television rounded out the decade for Fuller, with The Meanest Men in the West, a TV movie from 1978. But in 1980, Fuller finally saw the glorious realization of The Big Red One — “the only war film I really wanted to make”(18) — a highly personal account of his own World War II service. The episodic chronicle of the titular military assembly, all incarnations of Fuller himself, most obviously the cigar-chomping narrator and crime novelist, Zab (Robert Carradine), follows the rifle squad on campaigns to North Africa, Sicily, Omaha Beach, Belgium, and France. Scenarios play out against terrific set pieces with intermittent tests of the men’s morale, ethics, and humanity. There’s crude humour, shrewd dialogue, and economically inventive camera work. Fuller’s first-hand knowledge yields the inclusion of small yet significant details and intensely reflective themes. Details like putting condoms on rifle barrels to keep them dry, swapping cigarettes for ears, and flashing close-ups of a wristwatch on the arm of a dead man, showing the slow, relentless passing of time. And themes like struggling with the morality of killing someone in wartime, of war-weary disillusionment, and of what to do when coming face to face with a defenseless enemy who you know would kill you if he could.
Fuller had made his most personal picture, but even this experience was bittersweet. What was a four and a half hour epic was cut to a truncated 113 minutes; a reconstructed 162-minute version is now available.
When Fuller was approached about adapting and directing “White Dog,” a story by Romain Gary, he jumped at the chance. White Dog (1982) was a project he had excitement for, and he was working with people who respected him. It would be a perfect opportunity to critique the sensitive social issue of racism by way of an audacious scenario. The idea of a dog trained to kill African Americans is surely a provocative one, and Fuller admirably examines the notion that hate and prejudice are learned behaviors, and with rehabilitation, even an animalistic mentality can possibly be “cured.” Fuller’s unflinching presentation is severe, and particularly powerful is the conclusion when we see the human face behind the racism.
But White Dog met with concern before the film even opened, with rumours starting sight unseen. There were calls for boycotts and inexplicable condemnations of the film, and by extension Fuller himself, as racist. Paramount subsequently denied all requests to show the film theatrically and shelved the picture until 1991. For Fuller, his Hollywood filmmaking days were over.
The first film of Fuller’s self-imposed 13-year exile in France was Thieves After Dark (Le voleurs de la nuit, 1984), a romantic tale of young unemployed lovers that received mixed reviews from French filmgoers. This wasn’t the type of movie they expected from the surly Samuel Fuller they had for so long admired, and his broaching of certain domestic issues didn’t resonate with the locals. By contrast, based on a story by David Goodis, Street of No Return (1989) was set in a familiar noirish landscape, accented now by synthesized late-80s garishness. Shot in nine weeks in Portugal, this unusual crime film has style to burn and features several Fuller hallmarks, starting with the hostile race riot that opens the picture. The first image of the film: a hammer slamming into someone’s face.
Though Street of No Return would be Fuller’s final feature, he continued writing, acting, appearing in documentaries, and doing more television work. He even modeled on the runway for fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto. A stroke in 1994 began to limit his abilities and with the doctor’s approval, Fuller returned to California in 1995. He passed away two years later.
Firing a Colt .45 into the air to get cameras rolling, and speaking and acting just like his films — blunt, honest, and bursting with unbridled energy — Samuel Fuller was a force unto himself. His idiosyncratic work can be heavy-handed but is never clichéd. It is riddled with recurrent themes, stimulating calls to action, and familiar icons (one is constantly listening for a Griff and watching for a big red one), and his approach toward filmmaking aesthetics pulsated with a limitless virtuosity of filmic technique. Yet certain moments have an almost poetic quality. They are the calm before the storm of audiovisual clashes, with a barrage of sound, abrupt cuts, and elaborate movement (and the innovative integration of it all). His long takes, often from a distance and typically shot no more than twice, were sometimes so extended that optical close-ups and zooms were implemented to break up a prolonged scene. His opening sequences grab the audience and never let go — “If a story doesn’t give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes, throw it in the goddamned garbage.”(19)
Ultimately, while Fuller at times had to struggle for financing, distribution, and creative control, with variations in his work shaped by “multiple causal determinants… economic, industrial, and institutional forces,”(20) he remained independent in spirit and uniquely, unrelentingly, and inspirationally imaginative.
1. Garnham, Nicholas, Samuel Fuller. New York: The Viking Press, 1971. p. 34
2. Fuller, Samuel, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002, p. ix
4. Dombrowski, Lisa, The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You! Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008, p. 11
5. Fuller, p. 298
6. Fuller quoted in interview by Richard Schickel, Criterion Collection DVD, Pickup on South Street, No. 224, DVD release date 17th February, 2004
7. Fuller, p. 333
8. Fuller, p. 345
9. Fuller, p. 347
10. Fuller, p. 358
12. Dombrowski, p. 157
13. Fuller, p. 403
14. Dombrowski, p. 22
16. Dombrowski, p. 173
17. Fuller, p. 440
18. Fuller, p. 219
19. Fuller, p. 10
20. Dombrowski, p. 2
I Shot Jesse James (1949) also writer
The Baron of Arizona (1950) also writer
The Steel Helmet (1951) also writer and producer
Fixed Bayonets! (1951) also writer
Park Row (1952) also writer and producer
Pickup on South Street (1953) also writer
Hell and High Water (1954) also writer
House of Bamboo (1955) also additional dialogue
China Gate (1957) also writer and producer
Run of the Arrow (1957) also writer and producer
Forty Guns (1957) also writer and producer
Verboten! (1959) also writer and producer
The Crimson Kimono (1959) also writer and producer
Underworld U.S.A. (1961) also writer and producer
Merrill’s Marauders (1962) also writer
Shock Corridor (1963) also writer and producer
The Naked Kiss (1964) also writer and producer
Caine (1969), aka Shark!, aka Maneater – also writer
The Big Red One (1980) also writer
White Dog (1982) also writer
Thieves After Dark (1984) also writer
Samuel Fuller’s Street of No Return (1989) also writer
The Dick Powell Theatre (1962) TV Series, 1 episode – 330 Independence S.W.
The Virginian (1962) TV Series, 1 episode – It Tolls for Thee – also writer
Iron Horse (1966-1967) TV Series, 6 episodes – High Devil, The Man from New Chicago, Hellcat, Volcano Wagon, Banner with a Strange Device, The Red Tornado
Tatort (1973) TV Series, 1 episode – Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, also known as Tote Taube in der Beethovenstraße – also writer
The Meanest Men in the West (1978), telefilm – also writer
Mistress of Suspense (1990) TV Series, 1 episode – The Day of Reckoning – also writer
The Madonna and the Dragon (1990), telefilm, also known as Tinikling ou ‘La madonne et le dragon’ – also scenario, adaptation and dialogue
Dombrowski, Lisa, The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You! Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008.
Fuller, Samuel, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.
Garnham, Nicholas, Samuel Fuller. New York: The Viking Press, 1971.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan, “Samuel Fuller: The Words of an Innocent Warrior,” Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan, “His Master’s Voice: Fuller’s White Dog,” Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Server, Lee, Sam Fuller: Film Is a Battleground. Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1994.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
“Blood and Ink”: Fuller and the Fourth Estate in Park Row by Rose Capp
A Fuller View: The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You! by Lisa Dombrowski (book review) by Adrian Danks
Some Notes on The Big Red One to Honour the 10th Anniversary of Sam Fuller’s Death by Christa Lang Fuller
Why Samuel Fuller? by Tag Gallagher
Beyond Fuller by Barrett Hodsdon