The pugnacious cinema of Samuel Fuller is an uniquely American experience. Wizened by his rough and tumble experiences as a hardboiled reporter for New York’s tabloid newspapers during the 1920’s & ‘30s and a harrowing tour of duty as a foot soldier during the darkest days of WWII, Fuller steered clear from the populist idealism of Frank Capra and Leo McCarey for a morally ambivalent take on mankind. Fuller’s anti-heroes are troubled, complicated souls, able to see both sides of the coin on any issue and capable of performing good and evil acts.
Yet, unlike his streetwise contemporaries from the other side of the pond (De Sica, Fellini, etc.), Fuller rarely dealt a bad hand to his protagonists nor did he sour on humanity. In transcending many twisted scenarios Fuller’s punchy films are chalk-full of beguiling humor, hard-bitten philosophy, hard-won battles, and a fountain of compassion for the little man.
Samuel Fuller lived a helluva life. Born into a second generation American family to a Russian father and Polish mother, the family adopted the Fuller surname in tribute to Dr. Samuel Fuller, Mayflower passenger and a seminal figure in the early Plymouth Colony. Mother Rebecca installed old-fashioned values and a work ethic into her family and especially her energetic son, Sammy.
After the death of her husband in 1923 Rebecca moved the family from Worchester, Massachusetts to the island of Manhattan in New York City. Young Sam quickly integrated himself into the multi-ethnic community, making chums with black classmates and causing Rebecca much worry when he took long field trips downtown to soak up life on the Bowery and rub shoulders with his beloved newspaper reporters on the city’s famed Park Row.
Rebecca’s dreams of Sam getting a college education were dashed when the boy went to work full time for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal where he ultimately became an errand boy for the paper’s legendary editor Arthur Brisbane. Anxious to prove his mettle as a writer Sam left the Journal to take a job as a reporter at the tabloid New York Graphic. At the tender age of seventeen Fuller covered the city’s crime beat and even witnessed several gruesome executions at Sing-Sing before wanderlust took young Sam to the road where he took in the sights and sounds of the USA during the early days of the Great Depression.
Fuller traveled in true hobo style hitching rides and hopping freight trains from the great white north to sleepy southern towns, all the while writing slice of life stories for newspaper editors hungry for the young scribe’s unique take on America. Fuller drifted to San Francisco then ultimately Southern California where he slept on friends’ couches and soaked up hard life on the mean streets. After several years on the road Fuller returned to New York where he made a nice living churning out pulp fiction and even ghostwriting novels for several popular authors who couldn’t be bothered with fulfilling their contracts.
The call of the wild and a longstanding fascination with the art of moviemaking brought Fuller back out to Hollywood where old Park Row chum and legendary boozer Gene Fowler took Sam under his wing and taught him the craft of screenwriting. Fuller quickly cashed in, selling several screenplays during the late 1930s and early ‘40s though none were made into memorable films.
Nonetheless, realizing his future in film lay behind the camera Fuller ingratiated himself into the society of several of the industry’s directing icons including John Ford, Howard Hawks, Frank Capra and Raoul Walsh. The onset of World War II nipped Fuller’s burgeoning career in the bud, but his shattering experiences at the front would forever color his worldview and provide hard-won fodder for his brand of moviemaking.
In the days following Pearl Harbor Fuller enlisted in the army as an infantryman. After being shipped abroad, he turned down cushy desk jobs because the reporter in him wanted to experience the war first-hand as a soldier. As part of The Big Red One infantry Corporal Fuller helped wear down Rommel in North Africa, took part in the capture of Sicily, fought heroically on Omaha Beach in Normandy during Operation Overlord, withstood the grueling conditions in the Battle of the Bulge, and pursued the fleeing Nazis back to the Fatherland until their final capitulation in the spring of 1945.
After helping liberate a concentration camp Fuller counted his blessings and returned to New York where he had difficulty settling back into civilian life. Feeling oppressed by Manhattan Fuller moved back to the west coast and began to write for the movies once again. Unfortunately, his scenarios were too realistic for the likes of Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer, so he turned to smaller studios and independent producers more willing to take a chance darker fare and an unproven talent as a filmmaker. Thus, an unusual path to glory was set for one of the most idiosyncratic writer-directors in American film.
At first glance, it seemed unlikely that a street smart kid from the east coast could offer much to a genre like the western. But Fuller sought out the truth behind the etched in stone legends and what he found wasn’t pretty. His western protagonists were unusual in they were prone to turn their backs on family and community in search of glory…or peace of mind.
The spare, psychological western I Shot Jesse James is the story of Robert Ford (John Ireland), a member of the notorious James gang who becomes a social pariah when he shoots his close friend, Jesse (Reed Hadley) in the back to win the hand of his childhood sweetheart Cynthy (Barbara Britton). When Ford is cheated out of his big reward for a measly $500 he stoops to re-enacting the murder in a carnival act for frontier crowds who already hate him for shooting their beloved hero in the back. Because the self-loathing Ford killed out of love for the unworthy Cynthy and since he is willing to take punishment he remains a stand-up sort of guy. The meager budget necessitated the use of extensive, expressionistic close-ups, giving I Shot Jesse James a sort of intensity and sexual ambiguity not often found in pre-Leone Westerns.
For The Baron of Arizona Fuller delivers his greatest rascal in the person of James Addison Reavis (Vincent Price), a flim-flam man who painstakingly sets out to forge royal documents in Spain so he can lay claim to the western territory for himself. Like many of Fuller’s ambitious Americans, Reavis is a marvelous self-creation who feels just at home running with gypsy tribes as he does lording over homesteaders like a Feudal Lord.
As befit his storyteller’s need for putting a nice bow on this messy tall tale Fuller gave his anti-hero more romantic dash and a moral conscience the real life Reavis clearly lacked. Not a traditional western by any stretch of the imagination, Price’s giddy take on this unscrupulous opportunist helped turn The Baron of Arizona into a delightful entertainment.
Having received a not so sentimental education as an adolescent and young man on the streets, Fuller’s urban films exhibit a special affinity for both cops and criminals alike, often leading to reversal of roles and standing Puritan American morality on its head. Fuller’s valentine to the ink-stained scribes of 1880s Manhattan, Park Row is one of the director’s more spirited and charming films.
Frustrated ace reporter Phineas Mitchell (Gene Evans) is given the chance of a lifetime when a local printer offers him the use of his press to publish his own newspaper, The Globe. Mitchell rises to the challenge and produces a paper for the people, combining responsible journalism with sensationalistic headline fodder cutting deeply into the circulation of his neighbor, the notorious New York Star. When the Star’s beautiful but ruthless editor Charity Hackett (Mary Welch) fails to woo Mitchell into combining the papers, she sets out to destroy the Globe at any cost. Charity’s use of terrorism drives the principled Mitchell to fight back in order to keep his newspaper alive.
The fatalistic, cold war noir Pickup on South Street depicts an ideology gone wrong in a tale of survival on the mean streets of Manhattan. Paroled convict Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) crowds a pretty woman (Jean Peters) on the subway and lifts her wallet under the noses of two federal agents then makes his slippery getaway into the dark canyons of the city. When the woman confronts Skip at his riverfront shack he quickly becomes aware the piece of microfilm he found in the wallet was intended for a band of Communist spies. The Feds haul Skip in for questioning but sensing he may be onto a big payday the small-time hood plays both sides for the best possible deal. Along the way the three-time loser reveals his soft side for the aging street urchin (Thelma Ritter) who fingered him for a few bucks and the tough but vulnerable “Muffin” who got him into all this hot water.
Made during the height of the McCarthy years, the liberal Fuller pulls no punches where his distaste for “commies” is concerned and here the traitors are depicted as a band of cut-throat intellectuals.
Set in crime-ridden, post-war Tokyo, the visually resplendent House of Bamboo is a caper-noir driven by a thinly-veiled, homo-erotic relationship between mobster Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan) and Eddie Kenner (Robert Stack), the undercover Army cop who wants to bring Sandy down.
Assuming the identity of a career criminal Eddie infiltrates Sandy’s gang and impresses his boss with his loyalty even if his performance under pressure leaves something to be desired. Much to the dismay of Sandy’s second in-command, Griff (Cameron Mitchell) Eddie continues to rise in the ranks and ultimately takes Griff’s place in the gang’s biggest score to date. When the heist unravels Sandy confronts and kills the jealous Griff, thinking he is the snitch. But when Sandy finds it is close friend Eddie who has betrayed him the gangster tries to cover-up his fatal mistake, leading to a desperate flight and spectacular demise on an amusement park ride. Fuller took great advantage of his Japanese locales, Technicolor and Fox’s Cinemascope in fashioning his most kinetic film to date.
The politically incorrect The Crimson Kimono explodes out of the gate with a scantily clad stripper running through the streets of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo in a doomed effort to evade an assassin. Longtime friends and Korean War vets Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett) and Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta) are the detectives assigned to deconstruct the difficult case. A bullet hole found in an unusual painting in the stripper’s dressing room leads the cops to Christine Downs (Victoria Shaw), the beautiful young artist responsible for the artwork.
Fearing Christine could become the second victim the detectives keep her under tight surveillance but neither man is ready for events which could fracture their friendship beyond repair. Christine and Joe fall in love but the Japanese-American is afraid his partner won’t be able to accept their union. Resentment and racial paranoia fuels Joe’s anger putting Christine in peril until the surprise killer is unmasked and Charlie gives his unexpected blessing to the budding romance.
Fuller’s use of inexperienced performers in the lead roles provides for some awkward moments but Shigeta and Shaw turn out to be luminous as lovers who transcend their fears and find their own little piece of paradise on the streets of L.A. The deliciously lurid opening sequence also provided the first real fusion of Fuller’s tabloid sensibility to the big screen—a sensational style he would exploit to the hilt in Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss.
Underworld U.S.A. follows the plight of Tolly Devlin, a street smart kid who witnesses the murder of his father and then spends the next eighteen years relentlessly pursuing the men responsible for the crime. While doing a stretch in stir he tracks one of the killers down to the sick ward where the dying man identifies his co-conspirators—all big wigs in the new syndicate. Once freed, the now 30something Tolly (Cliff Robertson) plays both sides of the coin, making friends with the mob and the cops as his dream of vengeance crystallizes into a very brutal reality.
Fuller was a big admirer of Raoul Walsh, so it’s not surprising the slick and treacherous Underworld U.S.A. took style points from the Warner Brothers’ gangster classics of the 1930s. Fence sitting anti-heroes like Skip McCoy and Tolly Devlin flipped the finger to traditional Hollywood, winning Fuller respect from fellow directors, but also planting seeds of doubt in the heads of a new generation of producers disinclined to take chances with maverick filmmakers as the studio system began to break down in the 1960s.
Fuller continued to make westerns for the big screen and television during the 1950s and ‘60s and his progressive take on America usually broke with the genre’s conservative tradition.
The fascinating revisionist western Run of the Arrow finds angry Confederate soldier O’Meara (Rod Steiger) unwilling to accept the South’s capitulation to the Union Army who decimated his family. Unwilling to live under Yankee rule, O’Meara migrates west but he is soon captured by a small band of cutthroat Sioux renegades. Faced with the gruesome prospect of being skinned alive O’Meara takes part in a hunting game and manages to escape from his captors with the help of a compassionate tribeswoman (Sarita Montiel).
Impressed by the Sioux’s sense of honor he appeals to their peaceful henchman Blue Buffalo (Charles Bronson!) to make him a member of the tribe. Blue Buffalo accepts O’Meara but harbors a doubt the Irishman could actually kill a white man. O’Meara‘s mettle is soon tested when he is chosen by the Sioux to escort a unit of cavalry soldiers into hostile territory where they hope to build a fort. The conscientious Captain Clark (Brian Keith) is killed by a renegade Sioux arrow which opens the door for O’Meara’s enemy, the hothead Lieutenant Driscoll (Ralph Meeker) to seize command of the patrol.
Driscoll angers the Sioux by building the fort without their consent then he makes the arrogant mistake of ignoring O’Meara’s advice to pack up and leave. The subsequent massacre of the cavalry and Driscoll’s capture and execution forces O’Meara to confront his irrational anger, the strange culture of the Sioux, and a reluctant allegiance to his new country.
In the delirious Forty Guns, Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) is a U.S. Marshall whose inflated reputation as a gunslinger belies his non-violent approach to apprehending criminals. Griff and his two brothers arrive in a lawless Arizona town stuck under the thumb of the ruthless ranch owner, Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck). Surrounded by a legion of yes men, Jessica is drawn to the independent Griff but she can’t abide the lawman’s humiliation of her sociopath younger brother Brockie (John Ericson).
Sensing the situation is about to get out of hand Griff tries to convince his unsullied younger brother Chico (Robert Dix) to return to the family fold in California. When Griff’s other brother, and second gun, Wes (Gene Barry) is killed in cold blood at his wedding by Brockie, the reluctant Marshall confronts Jessica and her cowardly sibling in a deadly showdown. After disposing of Brockie, Griff is surprised to find Chico has chosen to stay behind and become the local Sheriff. Feeling his presence unwelcome, Griff decides leave town unaware of the depth of Jessica’s feeling for him.
Fuller never shot another feature western after Forty Guns but he continued to bring his unique perspective on the west in television assignments like The Virginian and Iron Horse. By the early 1960s, Fuller was embracing the independence of the French New Wave when career took a strange and unusual turn.
Fuller’s most perversely beautiful films Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss (both starkly photographed by Stanley Cortez) confirmed his reputation as an important American auteur abroad but went a long ways in wrecking his livelihood as a mainstream director in Hollywood. As a screenwriter in the late 1940s Fuller pitched an idea to Fritz Lang about an ambitious reporter going undercover in an insane asylum to investigate the unsolved murder of a patient. Though intrigued by the wild premise, Lang never made the movie. By the early 1960s Fuller had enough box office success under his belt to buck the studio system and take on Shock Corridor, a film which would expose the “sick heart of America”.
Johnny Barratt (Peter Breck), a Pulitzer-hungry newspaper reporter gets the green light from his editor to infiltrate a nearby asylum and get the scoop on a recent murder that occurred on the premises. Their plan relies on the co-operation of his girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) who, masquerading as Johnny’s sister will have to press charges against him as a sex offender. Cathy reluctantly goes along and her false testimony puts Johnny in the mental hospital, under lock and key. The reporter is quick to get a beat on the three disturbed men who witnessed the murder. In their rare lucid moments the men are able to give Johnny tantalizing but incomplete clues about the murderer.
Meanwhile Cathy notices a change in Johnny’s behavior; it is clear the incarceration is turning him into a schizophrenic. Fearing for Johnny’s safety and mental health Cathy begs the editor to give up the scheme but since Johnny is close to cracking the case her pleas fall on deaf ears. Fading in and out of reality Johnny assists in the assault of an inmate and is given shock treatment as punishment. He begins a descent into darkness, fighting demons as he tries valiantly to solve the case. Johnny finally obtains a murder confession out of an unlikely orderly, but at a terrible cost.
For Fuller, the pathetic plight of the three murder witnesses (a guilt-wracked nuclear physicist, a troubled black student from an all-white University, and a turncoat veteran of the Korean War) offered an indictment of the hypocrisy of the American Dream. Directed with manic intensity, and surprising empathy, Shock Corridor is a high wire circus act in which its hero walks a narrow tightrope between sanity and madness before falling off into the abyss.
In the sensational, and strangely poetic, The Naked Kiss the classy prostitute Kelly (Constance Towers) arrives in Grantville looking to hook-up with the well-heeled gents in town. She immediately beds the local sheriff Griff (Anthony Eisley) in the hopes he will look the other way and give her free reign. The morning after their liaison, Griff strongly suggests Kelly move across the river to a neighboring town where “anything goes”. When Griff leaves Kelly takes a long look in the mirror and doesn’t like what she sees.
Looking to turn over a new leaf, Kelly moves in with a spinster and takes a job as a nurse helping disabled children at a local hospital. Her noble act and peerless beauty impresses the worldly Grant (Michael Dante), a patron of the clinic and the richest man in town. Grant woos Kelly with tales of exotic travel and the lush life until she accepts his proposal of marriage. Suspicious of Kelly’s intentions Griff threatens to expose her to Grant but she informs the cop she has already come clean about her sordid past to her new fiancé.
As the wedding approaches Kelly catches Grant molesting a child and clubs him to death with a telephone. When news gets out the murder suspect was a prostitute the cops and reactionary townies refuse to believe Kelly’s allegations about the well-respected Grant’s unspeakable perversions. Against all odds Kelly finds the little victim but whether she will spill on beans on Grant is another story.
One of Fuller’s great anti-heroes, Kelly beats the be-Jesus out of her deadbeat pimp, shoves dirty money down the throat of the ruthless town Madame, and kills the man she loves. Yet, it can be argued she has a keener sense of justice than the ethically-challenged upholder of the law, Griff. But, ultimately Kelly’s idealism and heart finally proves too big for the small minds of Grantville to handle.
Drawn almost exclusively from his grisly experiences at the battlefront Fuller’s war movies are among his most personal work. Fuller’s hardened infantrymen subscribe to a kill or be-killed philosophy in order to survive. Medals for heroism are for popinjays or something to be sorted out IF they ever get back from the front.
The Steel Helmet is the story of an unlikely trio of stray “soldiers”; the gruff survivor Sergeant Zack (Gene Evans), a wizened black medic (James Edwards), and an orphaned South Korean boy (William Chun). The group comes upon a lost U.S. infantry unit who ask the reluctant Zack for help navigating the treacherous local terrain. A loner at heart Zack takes a dislike to several members of the unit which include a conscientious objector, a mute, and Lieutenant Driscoll (Steve Brodie) whose leadership qualities are suspect. But when the men are cornered into a Buddhist temple and the bombardment begins it is Zack who crumbles while the selfless Driscoll rallies the troops for a crucial last stand.
Fixed Bayonets is another uncomfortable and remarkable saga of the Korean War. Corporal Denno (Richard Basehart) is part of a small handpicked unit which has the thankless task of covering the infantry’s retreat. The sensitive Denno lives in terror of being called upon to kill but when his superiors succumb to North Korean snipers, the responsibility of having to lead the men to safety forces his hand.
The cold war adventure Hell and High Water cast Richard Widmark as a former navy commander hired by a band of intellectuals and scientists to navigate a spy submarine to a North Pacific island where the Chinese are suspected of developing nuclear weapons. Hell boasts the familiar, uneasy camaraderie amongst men which gives Fuller’s war epics their spice, but saddled with a big budget and Darryl Zanuck’s awkward protege Bella Darvi miscast as one of the scientists, the focus and energy are lost. Fuller’s famous primitive-ism borders on sloppiness here as both the process shooting and shoddy-looking sets are embarrassingly bad.
Set during the early days of the Vietnam conflict China Gate finds the soulless Sergeant Johnny Brock (Gene Barry) leading a small unit of soldiers through the front and the jungle to blow-up a North Vietnam weapon arsenal. To crack Communist lines Brock relies heavily on the street smarts and sexual savvy of Lucky Legs (Angie Dickinson) his half-caste wife he brutally dumped after determining her son looked too Chinese to be his own. Still, Legs gives the twisted Johnny ample opportunity to redeem his rotten ways but when the shamed man is finally ready to make good he finds his former wife has already made the ultimate sacrifice for her son.
Based loosely on Fuller’s experiences behind enemy lines in 1945 Verboten! is the sobering tale of a wounded American GI David Brent (James Best) who marries the opportunistic German woman Helga (Susan Cummings) who nursed him back to health. Citizen Brent is also played for a sucker by his assistant Bruno (Tom Pittman), a bitter Nazi infantryman who leads a pack of renegades in terrorizing the locals. When Brent abuses his protocol to quell an uprising he is given his walking papers by the army. Helga then surprises Brent by suggesting he return to America to get a job so he can provide for her and their unborn child. Brent’s suspicions about his new wife are confirmed when Bruno confides that Helga only married him for food and security.
Messy, didactic, yet often thrilling, Verboten! scores points for its no-nonsense take on civilian Germans who were quick to deny ever supporting the Nazis and admitted no knowledge of the genocide occurring right under their noses.
Fuller returned to familiar ground with Merrill’s Marauders, a grueling saga of an American infantry unit returning to abandoned Burma during WWII. Based on a true story, Fuller took pains to emphasize the day to day monotony of war. On orders from the top brass, and against the advice of his more conscientious officers, the sickly Brigadier General Merrill (Jeff Chandler) pushes his volunteer army over five hundred miles of poisonous swamps and rugged terrain before commanding the exhausted soldiers to make one last stand against a better-fortified Japanese war machine.
Over twenty years in the making the autobiographical The Big Red One was intended to be Fuller’s ultimate statement about the futility of war. Unlike recent, revisionist takes on the subject, Fuller manages to leave his soldiers’ dignity intact. This episodic and character-driven epic finds WWI veteran Sergeant Possum (Lee Marvin) leading the youthful First Infantry division up against the Nazis in North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, Belgium and Germany. Possum and his “Four Horsemen” (including the cigar-smoking “Zab”, a thinly-veiled portrait of Fuller) somehow survive their battleground ordeals through experience, wits and lots of luck.
Taking a page from the French New Wave directors, Fuller threads scenes and themes from his earlier war films, and even Shock Corridor, into The Big Red One. Fuller’s swan song to the infantry occasionally loses its focus, but it’s hard not be moved when gruff old Lee Marvin takes time out from hell’s fury to kiss a little Sicilian girl or offer tenderness to a dying holocaust victim. As men and nations set out to destroy one another these hard-won tokens of lyricism come as a most welcome relief.
The evolution of naturalistic filmmaking in the 1970s was diametrically opposed to Fuller’s sensational style and the quality his post-Naked Kiss films suffered as a result. The maverick director would also have difficulties with new Hollywood producers unfamiliar with his body of work.
After quarreling with money men Fuller walked off the set of Caine and later disowned the film completely. To Fuller’s dismay, upon completion the film was re-edited to exploit the excellent underwater and graphic shark attack scenes. It was unfortunate direction to take as the project (retitled Shark) offered a very Fuller-like premise.
Gunrunner Caine (Burt Reynolds) crashes his brig full of illegal weaponry and hitches a ride to a Sudanese town. Finding himself without cash or means to leave Africa, Caine finds work with a couple of shady Marine researchers (Silvia Pinal and Barry Sullivan). When he learns they are actually mining a sunken ship for gold he blackmails them so he can be an equal partner in the haul. Shark sunk fast at the box office and it would be three long years before Fuller sat behind the camera again.
Finding more sympathetic audiences in Europe, expatriate Fuller finally got the opportunity to direct Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street for German television. Unfortunately, the assignment came with a miniscule budget but Fuller pulled out all stops in a dynamic caper about a New York P.I. on the trail of the man who killed his partner in West Germany. Under the orders of an American senator who is being blackmailed by the killers, Sandy (Glenn Corbett) enlists Christa (Fuller’s wife Christa Lang), the German woman who posed in incriminating photos with the politician. Together they use similar tactics in shaking down other international diplomats to get information which will lead them to the man holding the negatives.
After the Shark debacle it was a relief to find the maverick director near the top of his form—even if the leads didn’t have the charisma or acting chops to help elevate Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street to first echelon Fuller.
The 1970s remained a mostly bleak period for Fuller and his only writing credits from the period were for two dubious and thankfully forgotten projects (The Deadly Trackers and The Klansman). Fortunately, the realization of his most personal project led to a mini-Renaissance in the autumn of his years.
Buoyed by the critical success of The Big Red One, Fuller landed a plum gig directing White Dog, a controversial story penned by his recently diseased friend, Romain Gary. After aspiring actress Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol) accidentally hits a white German Shepherd she decides to nurse the unclaimed dog back to health rather than have it put to sleep. After the dog attacks a would-be rapist and a fellow actress, Julie takes it to a local animal trainer Carruthers (Burl Ives) who diagnoses her new pet is has been brainwashed to attack black people.
Still holding out hope the dog can be cured Julie turns to the sympathetic black trainer Keys (Paul Winfield) who begins the grueling job of reprogramming the canine in the name of science. After the dog breaks out of the combine and kills an innocent black man, the three conspire to keep the death secret so Keys can complete his mission.
Unlike many of his Hollywood cohorts, Fuller always created strong black and minority characters, without the self-congratulating piety that make noted industry attempts at racial tolerance (Gentleman’s Agreement, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?) such chores to sit through. White Dog would be Fuller’s boldest statement on the topic to date and the film’s success turns on Keys’ cool insistence of not letting his feelings wreak havoc with his professional instincts.
Fuller based much of his personal and professional life in France during the 1980s and he still managed to direct the occasional project but with mixed results. The breezy thriller Les voleurs de la nuit was Fuller’s Valentine to the New Wave and featured appearances by two titans of the movement, director Claude Chabrol and his former wife Stephane Audran.
Sam Fuller’s Street Of No Return is truly a mess, but fans of Fuller will find it fun to watch all the same. Based on a novel by the nihilistic noir author David Goodis, the action is based in a South of France town where the former pop star and now down and out bum Michael (Keith Carradine) is wrongly arrested for murdering a cop. He escapes interrogation and finds shelter with a fellow vagrant who happens to be a fan of the musician. Interwoven into the story are Michael’s starry past and bloody downfall and we later learn the gangster who stole his girlfriend and robbed the singing icon of his voice is the same man at the root of all the region’s vice and gang violence.
Plagued by miscasting, some truly bad acting, and a crappy musical score, Street of No Return nevertheless comes close to capturing the essence of Fuller’s sensational cinema of the 1960s.
Fuller next accepted an offer from French television to direct The Day of Reckoning, a surprisingly effective horror story about a greedy farmer who cruelly manipulates his chickens into laying more eggs for a big profit.
For his swan song Tinikling ou La Madone et le Dragon, Fuller chronicled the often terrifying adventures of two French photojournalists (Jennifer Beals & Luc Merenda) covering the last days of the tyrannical Marcos regime in the Philippines. The return to the Far East and the opportunity to cover a topical hard news story seemed to have inspired the old scribe who turned out his best film since White Dog.
Approaching eighty Fuller’s opportunities to direct finally dried up, but he continued to be a vital presence on the film school circuit and became a mentor to such diverse filmmakers as Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders and Quentin Tarantino. Fuller’s colorful life and uncompromising career proved to be a triumph of character over commerce.
Books on Fuller:
A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking – Samuel Fuller ****1/2 Fuller’s lusty, namedropping autobiography (completed after his death by wife Christa) is an embarrassment of cultural riches and a real page turner to boot. At turns cranky and compassionate, you’ll certainly find out where Sam stood on all the issues, though his efforts to distance himself from right-wingers who championed his work smacks of the sort of fashionable politics he claimed to loathe. Nevertheless, it’s a whopping good read.
Samuel Fuller – Phil Hardy **** Fuller claimed he never met with the author and this book was a work of the imagination. That seems a bit harsh for this is a fine film study of the idiosyncratic auteur. Hardy breaks Fuller’s oeuvre into five categories, eloquently discussing the differences between the American Dream and its Reality, his infatuation with Asia, violence and the media.
Samuel Fuller – Nicholas Garnham **** Garnham’s book is another thematic study, published around the same time as Hardy’s work. Written in as a labor of love in a clean, crisp style this one’s a keeper, if you can find it. Out of print.
Films by Fuller:
1948 I Shot Jesse James ****
1950 The Baron Of Arizona ***1/2
1950 The Steel Helmet ***1/2
1951 Fixed Bayonets ***1/2
1952 Park Row ***1/2
1953 Pickup on South Street ****
1954 Hell and High Water ***1/2
1955 House of Bamboo ****
1957 Run of the Arrow ****
1957 China Gate ***1/2
1957 Forty Guns ****
1959 Crimson Kimono ****
1959 Verboten! ***1/2
1960 Underworld U.S.A. ****
1962 Merrill’s Marauders ****
1962 It Tolls for Thee ***1/2 (The Virginian TV)
1962 330 Independence S.W. *** (The Dick Powell Theatre TV )
1963 Shock Corridor ****
1965 The Naked Kiss ****1/2
1966 High Devil ***1/2 (Iron Horse TV)
1969 Shark! (aka Caine) ***
1972 Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street ***1/2
1980 The Big Red One ***1/2
1982 White Dog ***1/2
1983 Les Voleurs de la Nuit ***1/2
1989 Sam Fuller’s Street of No Return ***
1990 The Day of Reckoning *** (TV)
1990 Tinikling ou “La madonne et le dragon” ***1/2