PEEPING CHABROLS AND OTHER PERVERSITIES: SAM FULLER’S THIEVES AFTER DARK (1984)

March 24, 2009

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Claude Chabrol leans out a window to leer at his upstairs neighbor, who is shaving her legs in the nude. A few lecherous seconds later, with sweat beading on his forehead, he loses his grip and tumbles to an ignominious death. This is only one of  many brilliantly perverted sequences in Sam Fuller’s Thieves After Dark, his rarely seen 1984 curio, the first after his exile from Hollywood.

In 1982, with his late masterpiece White Dog nearing release, he sat down with Paramount studio heads Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who promptly told him they were shelving it. Rumors were swirling that the film was racist, based solely on the plot outline – about a dog who had been trained to kill black people. None of the critics had actually seen the film, which is as savage an attack on racist ideology that Hollywood has ever produced (Criterion released the film on DVD last year). In his inimitable autobiography, A Third Face, Fuller says:

It’s difficult to express the hurt of having a finished film locked away in a vault, never to be screened for an audience. It’s like someone putting your newborn baby in a goddamned maximum-security vault.

Disgusted with Paramount’s reaction, he quickly accepted an offer to make a film in Paris. It was the beginning of a thirteen year exile from the US.

French novelist Olivier Beer was a fan of Fuller’s, and he convinced producer Jo Siritzky to fund an adaptation of his novel, Le Chant des Enfants Morts. The author and filmmaker were supposed to collaborate on the script, but Fuller claims that Beer “didn’t know a damn thing about writing screenplays.” He claims he ended up writing most of it himself, despite Beer’s co-writing credit. It’s the story of an unemployed couple, one a hopeful cellist (Bobby Di Cicco, from The Big Red One (1981)), the other a thrill-seeking layabout (Veronique Jannot). Fuller wanted Isabelle Huppert for the part, but Siritzky pushed for the soap opera star, who he saw on the cover of Paris Match. The lovers meet at an unemployment office after being offered shitty service jobs, and their anger at this slight quickly turns into half-cocked plans for revenge. Their jokey attempt to humiliate their social service workers (including Chabrol, whom they nickname Tartuffe) soon turns violent, and they are forced to go on the run.

With clear limitations in the budget and the casting, it’s a minor entry in the Fuller canon, but the sheer force of his personality and his kino-fist style shine through, as in the Chabrol sequence. Aggressively using extreme close-ups, direct address, expressive montage, and hard-boiled dialogue from his yellow journalism days (“Tartuffe must have slept with a lot of horses to pay for this pad”), it’s a treasure-trove of Fullerania. It’s just the tools at his disposal are rather dull. It also must be said that the version I screened, likely taped off of television, was an English dubbed version. Lisa Dombrowski states that Fuller shot two versions, one in French, and one where the French actors speak English. She also claims he supervised an American-accented dub. The version I acquired is unfortunately the last, a poorly synched dub at that. Seeing it in either of the two original soundtracks would surely be an improvement.

Even in its original guise, though, it didn’t fare well. Booed at its premiere at the 1984 Berlin Film Festival (after which Fuller claims John Cassavetes professed his love for it), and never released in the US, it quickly disappeared from view. It wasn’t even screened as part of the Museum of the Moving Image’s retrospective in 2007. It deserves better. The opening sequence is a perfect example of his forceful, playful use of montage. Di Cicco sneaks into a symphony orchestra’s backstage area,  hooded and menacing. Fuller inter-cuts his entrance with inserts of the conductor’s baton and the cellist’s bow, then cutting in extreme close-ups of Di Cicco’s eyes. He ratchets up this disembodied tension until he shows Bobby mimicking the conductor’s movements in a kind of air-conducting.  Instead of the assassination or robbery attempt that’s expected, a man’s character is revealed. He’s just a frustrated musician. He gets kicked out, and Fuller frames the expulsion in shadow, a bodiless hand plucking him out.

The unemployment agency sequence is even more impressive. Di Cicco and Jannot are escorted into different offices, and Fuller settles into a long shot of Chabrol and the cellist. Their mouths start to move, but no sound comes out. Fuller cuts to Jannot and her social worker, mouths agape, increasingly agitated, but still no dialogue. Instead, it’s cued to Ennio Morricone’s score, the speed of the cuts picking up as the anger bubbles up in the two leads, their flapping jaws replacing the conductor’s baton. It’s a beautiful match to the opener, again emphasizing the character’s powerlessness, while also harnessing Fuller’s talent for caricature. Chabrol is an eyebrow raising fop, with an obsequious full-skull smile, while Jannot’s examiner is a middle-aged harpy, too busy combing her moustache to attend to her client. There’s no release until Jannot tosses a chair through a window.

Fuller himself takes a cameo as an unscrupulous fence named Zoltan (his toddler-aged daughter Samantha has a key bit late in the film as well). With a fake eyepatch (he takes it off to examine the merchandise) and an obsession with watching footage of Isabelle Huppert spit up blood in “Lady of the Camelias” (1981, perhaps in a dig to Siritzky?). Sitting on his gilded throne with his stone greyhounds flanking him, Fuller hams it up with gravel-voiced glee, a king of the American cinema.

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