The Two-fisted Films of Sam Fuller
It is a strange irony that the French, for all their criticisms of America, tend so often to discover and celebrate great American artists long before their compatriots. Such is the case with Sam Fuller, a masterful filmmaker who is now starting to receive the Criterion treatment in the U.S., after being hailed as an auteur in France since the sixties. Fuller is, to me, a better version of Quentin Tarantino: they share a certain visual panache, weird twists and humor, and merging of high art and B-movie melodrama, but Fuller’s films don’t take place in a moral void. Unlike Tarantino, you feel that Fuller actually lived in the world among other people.
It is hard to know if the French read Fuller correctly though. His work is often described as “subversive” of American norms; but it’s really more jaundiced than subversive. Fuller isn’t an ideologue or political crusader. He’s more like your salty Uncle who has no time for the sentimental hogwash of polite society and would rather associate with prostitutes than with the Ladies League of Decency. Every interview with Fuller gives the impression that he was a true character of the sort that America has produced in spades. His “people” were hooligans and his “politics” were the politics of scraping by.
Here, in brief, are some of the films of Sam Fuller, with some suggestions about where to begin:
Fixed Bayonets! (1951): A ripping war flick about a unit in Korea assigned to hold down a snowy mountain pass in suicidal conditions, Fixed Bayonets is action packed, while still including a dash of cynical commentary: the scene with the soldiers’ faces as they realize their terrible assignment with a rousing war song on the soundtrack is especially cutting. Another Fuller motif: a character with an ironic flaw- here a natural born military leader who can’t kill. In the end, though, WWII veteran Fuller finds enough hope in the camaraderie of men in an impossible situation coming together to save each other.
Pickup on South Street (1953): One of my favorites, this crime drama is anchored with a great performance by the inimitable Richard Widmark as a pickpocket who’s unwittingly stolen military secrets en route to the Soviets and fallen in love with the dame pressured into delivering them. Also entangled in this is a professional stool pigeon, strangely loyal to the criminals she rats out, who dreams of being buried in a very exclusive cemetery. Fuller met with J. Edgar Hoover before shooting, but still shows the hoodlum’s lack of faith in either communism or the “patriotic eyewash” of cold war America. He becomes a hero in the end, in a thrillingly over-the-top subway fistfight scene, but he does so because the commies smacked his girl around. Pure B-movie bliss.
Forty Guns (1957): The film that made Fuller’s name abroad, Forty Guns is a Western about a rich landowner and her forty hired guns who rule a small town with an iron fist and the honest lawman who falls in love with her anyway. Martin Scorcese has pointed out that the film doesn’t entirely make sense, but is so visually striking that it matters not a whit.
Underworld U.S.A. (1961): My own introduction to Fuller, Crime U.S.A. is a noir that’s so gritty you feel like you need to wash your hands afterwards. Cliff Robertson plays a street thug who takes on the mafia in order to avenge his father’s death. Typical Fuller types- the older hard-ridden matron, the damaged dame whose combination of curves serves a higher purpose and whose heart is pure, and the hoodlum who stalks the streets like a caged animal- are all here. The film is particularly wary about human motivations: aside from avenging his father’s death, there’s very little to like about our hero. It’s hard to find a purer noir.
Shock Corridor (1963): Criterion has issued a great DVD of the complete cut of Shock Corridor, which is worth checking out. It’s an indescribably eccentric movie about a reporter posing as insane in order to solve a murder in an asylum. Naturally, he begins to lose his grip on sanity and the visuals become increasingly strange, including color hallucinations in the black and white film. Never one to play it safe, Fuller’s “mad” patients all seem to have been pushed over the edge by the madness of American society: a nuclear physicist who’s reverted to childhood, an integrated black student who believes himself to be a white racist, a southern white who turned red in Korea to escape his bigoted parents. Fuller himself barely keeps the film on the rails- a scene with “nymphomaniacs” raping the hero is particularly mind-boggling.
The Naked Kiss (1964): The sort of melodrama once called a “weepy”, The Naked Kiss is the story of a prostitute who tries to live in the genteel suburbs and the decent people who make it nearly impossible for her. It’s not a dull movie, but the film only cooks when Fuller is showing the lives of hookers, strippers and sexual deviants, and slows down whenever he wants to show what a goodhearted person she is. The saccharine musical number with orphaned children is enough to make one register for sterilization.
The Big Red One (1980): The story of Fuller’s experiences fighting in the First Infantry Division during World War II, some consider The Big Red One to be the greatest war movie ever made. I wouldn’t go so far, but it is the culmination of all his work on the subject, and probably his masterpiece. Again we have a platoon fighting in impossible circumstances, from North Africa across Europe. Again we have strange touches, like the liberated asylum whose inmates seem saner than our heroes. And again Fuller suggests that soldiers have little to rely on but each other, while showing unit cohesion as the exemplar of human loyalty. Finally, a concluding scene in which the heroes liberate a concentration camp and the hero character massacres a German soldier hiding in a crematorium oven is totally horrifying, while making the point that, yes, this war was worth fighting.
White Dog (1982): Paramount, notoriously, shelved this film and wouldn’t let it be shown, for fear of offending the black community, breaking Fuller’s heart and driving him out of the country. A particularly stupid move, given the film’s savage attack on racism, White Dog is the disturbing story of a young actress who rescues a beautiful German shepherd, only to discover that he has been trained to attack blacks. It’s a thriller/melodrama, which becomes a bit much to take in spots, but White Dog sticks in your mind due to Fuller’s underlying hopelessness about living with or ‘curing’ racists, even if they are beloved family members.
(Note: Obviously, I’m a Fuller fan. I’m not trying to suggest his films are canonical here. I’m just tubthumping for a director I like. Also, this list is not exhaustive. If there’s a great Fuller movie I’ve missed, please suggest it in the comments!)