August 18, 2015


For his last film under contract at Twentieth Century-Fox, Sam Fuller directed House of Bamboo (1955), a film noir relocated to Japan. Daryl Zanuck took Harry Kleiner’s screenplay for The Street With No Name (’48) and dropped it in Fuller’s lap, inviting him to remake it on location in Tokyo. Shot in CinemaScope and Deluxe color, it is Fuller’s most beautiful film, and the new Blu-ray from Twilight Time (available for purchase at Screen Archives) looks flawless. Clearly inspired by his surroundings, and backed by an A-picture budget, Fuller works variations on the slashing lines of slatted bamboo curtains, sliding doors, and the increasingly vertical Tokyo cityscape, ending in a justifiably famous rooftop amusement park ride, a deadly trip around Saturn’s rings.

Fox promoted House of Bamboo as the first Hollywood feature shot in Japan, but that was all just ballyhoo. In 1951 RKO produced their anti-commie drama Tokyo File 212 on location, complete with approval from Douglas MacArthur, who was then Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan. Four years later the pressure to produce propaganda was lessened, and Fuller sneaks some subversive elements into the film’s double-agent drama. The film follows a military cop (Robert Stack) who goes undercover, using the identity of the dishonorably discharged Eddie Spanier. As Spanier, he worms his way into a growing Tokyo gang led by Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan), who use a string of pachinko parlors as a front. Spanier gets close with Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi), whose husband was a member of Dawson’s crew until he was killed in a heist-gone-wrong. Together they help destabilize Dawson’s group from within, with assists handed out by the Japanese police’s Inspector Kito (Sessue Hayakawa, the first Asian star in Hollywood – he starred in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat in 1915) and the American Captain Hanson (Brad Dexter).


Fuller describes his additions to the script: “I moved the entire shebang to Tokyo, added stuff about Japanese contemporary life, threw in some sexual exploitation and interracial romance, and then, for some unexpected pizzazz, wrote a violent love scene between two hardened criminals.” The Dawson character is in a veiled relationship with his top lieutenant Griff, whom he calls “Ichiban”. Their bond is destroyed by the arrival of the cute Spanier, who Dawson begins to favor. At a post-heist party, Dawson seats Spanier next to him, which causes Griff to to have a drunken blow-up at his descending rank. Essentially Griff is upset at where Dawson positions him in the film’s mise-en-scene. This leads to the “violent love scene” to which Fuller refers, a brilliantly designed assassination in which a bathtub is plugged full of holes, life draining out along with the water. It plays as a scorned lover revenge killing, filled with rage and tenderness.


The pecking order of Dawson’s gang is established introductory scene in the movie. While trying to prove his underworld bona fides, Spanier attempts to shakedown Tokyo pachinko parlors for protection money. On his second attempt he is coldcocked by Griff (Cameron Mitchell), crashes through a sliding door and into a backroom where Dawson’s crew is arranged in a semicircle around him, with Robert Ryan seated king-like on a riser in the center. This sequence not only establishes the power structure of Dawson’s crew – the farther you radiate out from the center, the weaker the hold – but it establishes Japan as a kind of Russian nesting doll of facades. As each character is hiding secret identities and desires, so the city itself has rooms within rooms, frames within frames.


One thing Fuller hid from view was the resentment the Japanese people had towards the continuing American presence in their country, and the wide latitude granted to them in the Security Treaty signed in 1951. The relationship between the Japanese and U.S. military police is depicted as open and honest, as Inspector Kito and Captain Hanson exchange information freely in their investigation into Dawson’s gang. But while Fuller was filming, protesters would gather and “chanted anti-American slogans, trying to ruin the scene as best they could.” Fuller intended to use them as background footage – but once DP Joe MacDonald turned the camera on them, they dispersed, likely not wanting to have their faces caught on film.


Traversing these labyrinthine spaces are Robert Stack and Robert Ryan. Fuller claims he wanted Gary Cooper for the Spanier role, but realized that location shooting would be impossible with such a huge star – any street shooting would be immediately mobbed by fans. So instead he went with Stack, who was recommended to him by his friend Budd Boetticher, for whom Stack starred in Bullfighter and the Lady (1951). Stack brings a wiry, wary quality to the role, a hopped up paranoia that works well in this film of double and triple crosses. Robert Ryan was recommended by producer Buddy Adler, and his lank, louche performance is as relaxed as Stack’s is wound up. They are matched opposites who end up chasing each other through the modernizing Tokyo streets. What starts at a luxe pearl dealership ends at the elaborate rooftop playground at the Matsuma department store. Fuller and MacDonald have fun with the possibilities, at one point sticking the camera on a children’s train ride, following Dawson as he stumbles through the crowd. All the dissembling and hiding in cataracts of secret rooms ends on an amusement park ride, a replica of Saturn with rotating rings. Dawson is chased up there like a treed cat, though with the advantage of having a gun and knowing how to use it. The ride looks rusty and is set at an angle, so the camera takes a canted look at the final movement, and it seems Stack, Ryan and the cameraman are in as much danger as Dawson and Spanier. But they complete the precipitous sequence, and Dawson is left dangling, having run out of hiding places.


July 28, 2015


In the summer of 1956, Sam Fuller took a 50% stake in Globe Enterprises, an independent production company that would strike deals with RKO, Twentieth-Century Fox, and Columbia for financing and distribution. He received creative control over his projects, and though this setup only lasted through 1961, he made six strong films with Globe: Run of the Arrow, China Gate, Forty Guns, Verboten!, The Crimson Kimono, and Underworld U.S.A. His first Globe production, Run of the Arrow (’57), is now available on a long-overdue DVD from the Warner Archive, and reflects the unusual freedom Fuller secured himself in this period. It is a prickly, jumpy Western in which a post-Civil War Confederate loyalist named O’Meara (Rod Steiger) joins the Sioux in order to fight against the United States. It depicts America as a land of perpetual warfare, one in which race and cultural hatreds are reconfigured to justify the current battle, whether without or within. It is a film of jagged rhythms, its chase scenes broken into extreme long shots and close-ups, which are then followed by minutes-long takes of two-shot conversations. At no point does one feel settled or comfortable regarding a character’s motivations or their position in space, and that is how Fuller wanted it.


In the June 24, 1956 issue of the New York Times, Sam Fuller talked to Oscar Godbout about his new production, then called “Arrow”:  “This is a post-Civil War frontier story that will contain, according to Mr. Fuller, parallels between that period and the difficult social transition now roiling the South. He will be disappointed if it does not provide thinking material for the intellectually committed on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.” From the beginning Fuller conceived it as a story about Southern Whites, and their violent reactions against threats to their power. In the film O’Meara fires the last shot of the Civil War, which just misses the heart of Union Lt. Driscoll (Ralph Meeker). While his family encourages him to return home and accept the Confederate defeat, O’Meara wants to fight on. He figures the enemy of my enemy is my friend, so he heads West into Sioux territory, where he befriends the returning Indian scout Walking Coyote (Jay C. Flippen). They are captured by renegade Sioux warrior Crazy Wolf (H.M. Wynant), and in order to avoid execution, agree to try the (invented by Fuller) “Run of the Arrow”. It is a barefooted chase where they receive a head start based on the distance of an arrow shot by the pursuers.  O’Meara survives through the help of Yellow Moccasin (Sarita Montiel, who’s voice is dubbed by Angie Dickinson), the inevitably beautiful young Sioux who falls in love with him. For surviving the run, he is granted safe passage by Chief Blue Buffalo (a bronzed Charles Bronson), but instead O’Meara chooses to stay with the tribe and become a member of their society, taking Yellow Moccasin as his wife and the orphaned mute kid Silent Tongue (Billy Miller) as his son. But the U.S. Army wants to build a fort in Sioux territory, and they send Lt. Driscoll to protect U.S. interests. O’Meara is sent as the Sioux emissary, to guide Driscoll to build on neutral ground. But Driscoll is an irritable, racist warmonger, and rattles his saber until he gets the fight he was begging for.


The head of RKO, William Dozier, was an admirer of Fuller’s newspaper drama Park Row, and gave him the green light to make the project. These were the last days of RKO as a producer/distributor, and by the time Run of the Arrow was ready for release, it was Universal-International that handled it. While Fuller had control of his script, he needed Dozier’s approval for the cast. They had a stark disagreement for the lead actor. Dozier wanted Gary Cooper, while Fuller argued strenuously for the young method actor Rod Steiger. Steiger had made an impression in supporting roles in On the Waterfront and a slew of television dramas, and Fuller felt he was perfect for the part: “I need the opposite of Cooper. The character’s hateful, a misfit. I want this newcomer, Steiger. He’s got a sour face and a fat ass. He’ll look awkward, especially when he climbs up on a horse. See, my yarn’s about a sore loser, not a gallant hero” (from Fuller’s autobio, A Third Face). Dozier caved, and Steiger got his first starring role. Fuller had a tense relationship with his leading man, who, the director noted, “tended to overact”.  And one’s opinion of the film can hinge on the reaction Steiger’s performance, which is mannered, mumbly and admirably off-putting.


One of the more remarkable sequences occurs about an hour in, a conversation between O’Meara and Captain Clark (Brian Keith), who is leading the Army engineers to build a new fort. In an unbroken shot that lasts 4 minutes and 25 seconds, DP Joseph Biroc captures a relatively simple two-shot in which the formerly warring duo discusses the future of their country. It begins with everyday concerns, Clark complaining about his saddle, and tracks a few feet to a rest area with covered wagons and a table. “You’re not the only Johnny Reb fighting a one-man war against the United States, you know. Some of them went down to South America.”, Clark says, as he stares down into a few coffee mugs, tossing the old brew out of a few before he finds a clean one. He sits at the right edge of the frame. O’Meara standing off to the left,  claims that this part of the country isn’t part of the United States, and sits down with the words, “we had a right to fight for our rights”, while accepting a cup from Clark. The camera pushes in as O’Meara inveighs “The Union be damned, the Union be damned…we don’t like you makin’ up laws…We’ll go down like a free, White, Christian country.” Clark laughs, “Free, white and Christian, eh. Burning crosses and hiding under pillowcases and terrorizing families. Free, white and Christian!” Brian Keith delivers that devastating line with a smirk, eyeing Steiger to his right. Steiger clenches up, raises both hands to his cup and says, as if a chastened child, “I don’t know anything about that, sir.” Clark sarcastically responds with, “It’s always the other guy.”


The word “black” or “slave” is never uttered, but the righteous fire briefly dims in Steiger’s eyes, quickly acknowledging and then repressing what underlies a white Southerner’s freedom in post-Civil War America. Or a Northerner’s, for that matter. Captain Clark doesn’t last long, and Lt. Driscoll takes over. If Clark is dreaming of a better Union, Driscoll dreams only of colonization and subjugation. Every power structure in the film is split, internal battles spilling out into exterior ones. The Sioux are riven with dissension between the pragmatic Red Cloud (Frank de Kova) and the warlike Crazy Wolf, and the South has O’Meara’s mother preaching reconciliation with the North, while her son is a staunch separatist. These coalitions are repeatedly jumbled until alliances become meaningless, and all that’s left are the hatreds left undissipated by years of war and bloodshed. Fuller ends the film with the on-screen exhortation, “The end of this story can only be written by you!” Looking back at race relations in the United States in the 58 years since the film’s release, it now reads like an accusation.


August 19, 2014


“Sixty seconds before the baby shot its father, leaves fell lazily in Central Park.” -the first line of Sam Fuller’s Brainquake

Sam Fuller was not one for the slow burn. He preferred instant incineration. He learned his potent pulp technique in the NYC tabloids as a crime reporter, where an attention grabbing lede was all that mattered. The same skill is applied to his movie potboilers, as in The Naked Kiss‘ gonzo opener, where a bald prostitute assaults a john with her purse. His penchant for arresting opening scenes also appears in his novels – one of which is appearing in English for the first time this year. Fuller wrote Brainquake in the early 1990s, but it was only published in French and Japanese, rejected by U.S. editors for being too “European”. Intrepid pulp purveyors Hard Case Crime have corrected this injustice by releasing Brainquake last week in its English debut, complete with a gloriously seamy cover painting by Glen Orbik. The book is a densely plotted crime fiction farrago, deeply informed by Fuller’s experience as an exile. Ever since his inflammatory anti-racist White Dog was banned from U.S. cinemas, Fuller could only find work in Europe, and so he moved there with his wife Christa. The center of Brainquake is a monosyllabic bagman for the NYC mob who ends up on the lam in Paris. The bagman also happens to suffer from hallucination-inducing migraines that lend the book its title. Stacked with memorable characters, from a serial killer in priest’s garb to a melancholy French resistance fighter, the book is an overheated, overstuffed and never less than entertaining slab of Fuller’s expansive pulp imagination.


In 1990 Fuller was working on the British-French co-production Chiller, a TV anthology adapted from the short stories of Patricia Highsmith. For his episode Fuller chose The Day of Reckoning, a violent eco-parable about industrial chicken farming that ends with the patriarch getting pecked to death. Fuller had twelve days to shoot it, and didn’t have time to thoroughly vet each location. For the climactic pecking, they chose a small farm with hundreds of chickens. What they weren’t aware of was how they animals would react to being exposed to sunlight – and that the owner of the farm was more than willing to let them die, since they were headed for the slaughter. And so, Fuller recalls, “Blinded and terrified, the maniacal chickens scurried around until they finally dropped dead on the ground right in front of our crew.” But Fuller could always look on the bright side:  “The good thing about all those insane chickens was that they got my creative juices really stirred up.”

It was at this point, with images of horrific chicken deaths dancing through his head, that he completed Brainquake at a place outside Avignon, with his manuscript and “a couple boxes of cigars”. The story circles around Paul, a former mute who learned to speak in gravelly croaks, and who is a reliable bagman for the mob. He is perfect for the job – anonymous, quiet and reliable. Except for those hallucination-inducing migraines, which Paul dubs “brainquakes”, and are preceded by the sound of a flute and flickering color. He is life is upended when he becomes infatuated with mob wife Michelle. Her husband, a low level bookie, is the one who is gunned down by his baby, thanks to a booby-trapped stroller. Paul is overcome by a desire to protect her, and instead becomes a pawn in Michelle’s long con.


This is a massive condensation of the book, which introduces fascinating, seemingly central characters, only to gruesomely kill them off a few pages later. Also emerging as pivotal are the inflexible black  detective Zara, the star of the force who becomes enveloped in the case. Then there is the bureaucratic machine of the mob, made human in the figure of “The Boss”, the mother-figure whom Paul reports to, and Hampshire, the big boss who calls the shots from afar. In Brainquake the whole world is controlled by the rackets, with little hope for those who toil under its thumb. Fuller uses imagery of fleshy decay. Here he describes a corpse:

The tunnel between Al’s lower teeth at closest focus was a cutaneous crypt. His tongue drooped down a corner of his mouth through red lava. Fingernail scratches were red trenches in a Sahara wadi. The ceiling bulb reflecting in his frozen eyes was elliptical Daliism. Taken by the police photographer for his personal collection, the photos would eventually win acclaim when he published them in an art book selling for fifty dollars a copy.

His style consists of these quick jabs of imagery, staccato sentences that sketch out scenes of vivid immediacy. These are the strongest passages of the book, and convey the same giddy collision of high and low art as his punchy kino fist movies. The book bogs down in interior monologues, set off by italics. He reserves these to describe Paul’s brainquakes, but they are repetitive and brake the narrative velocity to a screeching halt. There is also a French resistance fighter who narrates his own nightmares, a beloved hero who is carrying an unrelievable guilt for an act of cowardice during the Occupation. There are no heroes in Fuller’s world, only survivors.


November 8, 2011

rebel highway

In one of the stranger experiments in cable television history, Showtime’s 1994 Rebel Highway series commissioned ten filmmakers to remake a 1950s exploitation movie. It was the brainchild of Lou Arkoff (the son of American International Pictures founder Samuel Z. Arkoff) and Debra Hill (producer of Halloween). They gave directors $ 1.3 million and a 12 day shooting schedule, to roughly approximate the original shooting conditions (modified for inflation). Unlike the ’50s cheapies, though, they were given final cut, and could choose their own screenwriter, editor and director of photography. This proved irresistible to the (mostly) impressive list of talents who signed on: Robert Rodriguez (Machete), John McNaughton (Wild Things), Mary Lambert (Pet Sematary), Allan Arkush (Rock ‘N’ Roll High School), Joe Dante (Gremlins), Jonathan Kaplan (The Accused), John Milius (Conan the Barbarian), William Friedkin (The Exorcist), Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat) and Uli Edel (The Baader Meinhof Complex).

All of the filmmakers, except for Rodriguez, were old enough to have lived through the era of the film they remade, engaging the aesthetics and politics of the originals in strikingly different ways, alternating between affection and parody often in the same film. Since its original airing, the series has completely disappeared from cultural memory, but Netflix Watch Instantly, that haphazard repository of moving image detritus, is now streaming every entry, and it’s well worth sampling the project’s eccentric film-historical time travel. Below, some thoughts on my favorites.

Joe Dante’s Runaway Daughters, an adaptation of Edward L. Cahn’s 1956 AIP production, is one of the few entries to completely stand on its own as a feature. It is a companion piece to Matinee, Dante’s loving evocation of a 1950s movie-huckster, modeled on William Castle, that he made the previous year. Both films were written by Charlie Haas, and share a tone of gentle satire, about the paranoia brought on by the threat of nuclear war and the space race, respectively. Runaway Daughters follows three high school girlfriends who chase down the no-good boy who loved and left.  Working class Holly (Mary Nicholson) thinks she’s pregnant, and is convinced by rich girl Angie (Julie Bowen from Modern Family) and middle-class Laura (Jenny Lewis, who later formed indie-rock band Rilo Kiley) to track the dog down. So they steal a car and hit the road, intercepting the cad before he signs up for the Navy.

Dante opens the film with an irony-drenched  found footage montage set to “Let the Good Times Roll”, from a jubilant Eisenhower and Nixon, to the NAACP hung in effigy, and closing with the repressed sexual longings of I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), the title character getting hairy while watching a stretching gymnast. The longing on-screen enters the narrative, as the trio of not-so-repressed girls is watching Werewolf at a drive-in, necking with impunity and ignoring the metaphors on screen. One of the neckees is Paul Rudd in one of his earliest roles, playing Angie’s bad boy squeeze, Jimmy Rusoff (named after the original screenwriter, Lou Rusoff). Dante gifts Rudd with the catch phrase from Speed Crazy (1959, a major part of Dante’s mash-up Movie Orgy (’68)), “Don’t crowd me!”, which Rudd dishes with appropriate petulance to his greasy gearhead Dad (played against type by Fabian, a late ’50s teen idol).

From this opening scene, it’s clear the girls are more mature than the films representing them, although the Red Menace makes them shaky just like everyone else. Bob (Chris Young) gets in Holly’s pants by waxing poetic over Sputnik, which has just launched into space. For the rest of the movie, though, the phalluses fail. On their journey, the girls run into drunk cops and a gang of flaccid anti-commies, the only sympathetic voice brought by an uncredited cameo from Cathy Moriarty. The lone competent male is played by Dante-axiom Dick Miller, a crusty private detective with a reflexive disdain of the young and their newfangled perversions. He asks the girls’ parents if they ask their kids “about the strange night world of twisted kicks, of weird rituals and equipment? Of whips and chains and rubber balls and dildos and handcuffs?” In this world, it is clear the ladies have to take the world into their own hands, and so they do.


Robert Rodriguez’s Roadracers (adapted from the immortal Arthur Swerdloff version of 1959) lacks any of the historical identifiers of Runaway Daughters, taking place completely in Hollywoodland. The most stylized entry in the series, Rodriguez has no interest in interrogating the period, only in refining his style, which at this point was still potently kinetic, coming right after El Mariachi. It stars David Arquette as cynical greaser Dude (in an appropriately mannered performance), who cruises around town with his girl Donna (Salma Hayek) and his fidgety buddy Nixer (John Hawkes). The overriding mood is provided by Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which is playing at the local cinema, and which Nixer returns to ritualistically. Dude doesn’t have to see it to know his town has been co-opted by evil. He’s chased by a sadistic cop (William Sadler) and his moderately sadistic son (Jason Wiles). Rodriguez institutes a rhythmic editing style, set up in the opening when he intercuts a rockabilly band and a car chasematching the downbeat with screeching turns. This tempo is maintained throughout, accessorized by swaggering slow-motion and low-angle anti-hero close-ups. As Dude grows more certain of the town’s rot, the images get more delirious and the action more violent, ending in a farrago of gleeful self-annihilation.


The most jaw-dropping part of the series is provided by the pen of Sam Fuller, who with his wife Christa provided the script for Girls in Prison, which was directed by John McNaughton (adapted from the 1956 Edward L. Cahn film). An overheated women-in-chains movie, it is graced by an opening of transcendent pulp paranoia. It  sets up the back-stories of the eponymous girls, in three bloody tales: a red-baiting newscaster gets bludgeoned to death with a hammer; a budding screenwriter (Ione Skye) mounts an Off-Broadway play, “The Witch Hunt”, that drives her father insane and leads her to savage a bigot with a broken bottle; and a budding country star (Missy Crider) is framed for the brutal stabbing of a abusive producer. Filmed with canted angles and looming shadows, it’s a wild and terrifying hallucination of a society spiked with a insatiable need for vengeance. It is impossible for the rest of the film to live up to this fever dream, but it goes through the rest of dramatic motions with enough pep and smarminess (including a deliciously vampy turn from Anne Heche) to make it a worthwhile sit.


Shake, Rattle and Rock is a joyful and reflective evocation of 50s rock musicals, this one a remake of the ’56 Edward L. Cahn movie about a town that tries to ban Rock ‘n’ Roll (for more on Cahn, check out Dave Kehr’s profile in a forthcoming Film Comment).  Directed by Allan Arkush in bright pastels and a wall-to-wall soundtrack of pop hits (from Fats Domino to Eddie Cochran), it is the most culturally precise movie in the series, along with Runaway Daughters. Renee Zellweger takes the lead as the rock aficionado whose parents just don’t understand. She first appears as a bouncing blur, singing along to Little Richard’s “The Girl Can’t Help It” (also used in the great Frank Tashlin film of the same name) in her bedroom, her addiction not outed to her parents until she appears dancing again on a local American Bandstand-type TV show, hosted by Danny Klay (Howie Mandel). Once Zellweger’s mom (Nora Dunn) sees this horrible gyrating, she gathers her sewing circle (including P.J. Soles from Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and a wonderfully bitchy Mary Woronov), to shut down the show and ban the music. There is also a subplot involving a black acapella group, “The Sirens”, who are trying to break through the town’s color barrier and hit it big, and who Zellweger teams up with to protect the town from her mom’s crew.

Arkush elicits effortlessly appealing performance from Zellweger, a perky ball of cashmere with a fierce sense of her personal rights. The director also has a light, and very funny, ironic touch in presenting the parents’ retrograde attitudes, but intimates that these comical buffoons are not a plot point to be overcome but the avatars of an entire culture. Instead of the expected ending of a bridged age-gap, it concludes on a note of muted despair, with freedom reluctantly deferred. It is unexpectedly the most political film of the series, robbing its characters of the young people’s bill-of-rights stated by Florine in Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme: “To be twenty years old, to be right, to keep hope, to be right when your government is wrong, to learn to see before learning to read.” For Zellweger, there is nothing to see and nothing to read, her only hope an escape to parts unknown.

For more information, please read Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of the series, in which he compares it to the French one produced by Arte, Tous les garcons et les filles de leur age.


May 17, 2011

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One of Sam Fuller’s most personal films, Park Row (1952), has been released on DVD through MGM’s burn-on-demand service, the “Limited Edition Collection” (available through Amazon and other retailers). Inspired by his time as a copy-boy for Hearst’s New York Journal and as a crime reporter for the New York Graphic, it is an impassioned paean to American journalism, opening with a scroll of the 1,772 active daily papers at the time (in 2009 the numbers were down to 1,387).  I can confirm that the listed Waukesha Daily Freeman is still running, with reasonable subscription rates. Fuller’s artistic temperament was formed in his ink-stained years, as he wanted his films to have the visceral impact and clarity of a 100 point size headline. Park Row is his gift to the business that made him. MGM’s DVD is presented in a solid if unspectacular transfer, with strong contrast. It includes a trailer.

In his raucously entertaining autobiography A Third Face, Fuller writes:

In 1952, I got an opportunity to make a film about the origins of American journalism and the passion for a free press. Park Row was the only film I’d ever produce with my own dough. But I had to make it, if for no other reason than to pay homage to the memories of my youth on that street I loved.

And an homage it is, a sweet love letter to the profession that gave him his start. It stars  Gene Evans and his clipped cadences as Phineas Mitchell, a born newsman floundering as a writer for the New York Star. When an enterprising printer pitches him on editing a new paper, The Globe is born, a muckraking start-up published on butcher paper that electrifies the city. Mitchell quickly riles up the Star’s owner, Charity Hackett (Mary Welch), and a circulation war flares and turns violent.

As Fuller notes, he used his own money to produce the film. He originally wanted to make it after his success with The Steel Helmet (1951), but Darryl Zanuck nixed the idea, since Richard Brooks was already directing a newspaper picture for 20th Century Fox, Deadline-USA (1952). Instead, he made another remarkable Korean War film in Fixed Bayonets. Fuller came back to Zanuck again with Park Row, and this time Zanuck agreed, but only if Fuller would turn it into a CinemaScope musical starring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward. So he “decided that the only way to make Park Row was to put up my own dough and produce it myself. Two hundred grand, to be exact. To hell with Zanuck and Fox! Fuck the entire studio system!”

With limited funds, the film takes place entirely on one small city street set, that included the two newspaper offices and a bar. Every shot feels insular and cramped, with Fuller grouping his small cast in tight formations in the foreground of the frame. He doesn’t have the space to execute many tracking shots (although there are a few doozies, including a brawl that ends at the feet of Benjamin Franklin), which gives the film an unusual tension. The dialogue crackles but the characters are static, prompting Manny Farber to complain about its, “absence of fluidity – two huge faces usually dominate the screen.” While there are more group shots than Farber remembers, it is definitely a movie of close-ups, Fuller’s attempt inscribe these invented faces into history – they become monuments to his memory of being a newsman. This is established in the opening of the film with shots of three statues resting on the Park Row street set: of Gutenberg, Benjamin Franklin and Horace Greeley.

His personal investment becomes most touching in the character of  Rusty (Dee Pollock), the young kid who Phineas hires to become the “printer’s devil”, who has to re-organize the used typefaces. He is clearly the incarnation of Fuller when he was at the Journal, soaking up the atmosphere and strange argot (guideline, key-line, point, pull, stick, stone) that holds the mystery of an undiscovered country. There is a lot of talk about journalistic ethics, but the first story the Globe publishes is one they help construct. Phineas tells Bowery Street legend Steve Brodie that he’ll print a story about him if he jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge. What starts as a joke becomes front page news as Brodie and Phineas soon see the publicity potential in such a stunt. The story fuels the Globe’s opening week surge, and renders Phineas’ ethical issues at the Star moot. Clearly his biggest complaint was not ethics but entertainment. The Star’s corruption had simply become boring, and Phineas simply wanted to bring ballyhoo back to the printed page.

Fuller adapted some real events into the story to fuel Phineas’ Globe. Steve Brodie was a real Bowery legend, who became famous for jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, even if it is now likely to be considered a hoax. In Luc Sante’s history of NYC shysters, Low Life, he writes that Brodie “had inconspicuous beginnings as a newsboy and bootblack, staking out the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge as his territory immediately after the 1883 opening. A few years later he began announcing to friends that, as a sort of dare, he planned to jump off the bridge. One of his friends was a printer named Tom Brennan, who had numerous connections in the newspaper world, and so word spread fast.” The line between “news” and “stories” is immediately blurred in Park Row, with Phineas becoming the hero over Charity only because his stories are more entertaining, if not more true.

It’s interesting to compare Fuller’s depiction of Brodie with Raoul Walsh’s, who filmed a version of the story with The Bowery in 1933. There is a difference in budget and approach. Fuller is working with no money, using the threadbare spaces to invest his film with a sense of monumentality, and a highly conscious nostalgia. Walsh was working with a big studio budget, and his frames are dense with people and action, evoking a sense of history-as-present. Even the basic conversational two-shot has drunkards and con-men gyrating in the background (he used his recollections of the real Bowery to construct his scenes, where he shot for Regeneration in 1915). These stylistic choices were made possible by their respective budgets, but they also fit each directors’ interests. Fuller is an idea man who uses images as rhythmic blunt force objects to get his concept across – working from the outside-in. Walsh prefers to go inside-out, building incidents and bits of business until patterns emerge of their own accord, a crafter of moments. Watch them both.


December 7, 2010


In November, Netflix introduced a “streaming only” option to their membership plan, for $7.99 a month, another marker in the slow death of the DVD. Their “Instant” offerings are frequently presented on faded and cropped masters likely made during the VHS days, but the rarity of their hodgepodge collection makes it a near-essential outlet for those interested in American film history. Unless one lives in a cinephilic megacity like New York or L.A., VOD offerings like Netflix Instant and DVD-on-demand outfits like the Warner Archive are the only (legally) easy way to view older titles.

The decline of art and repertory theaters make these services more important than ever. While driving around Buffalo during my Thanksgiving trip home, I passed by the marquee of the art theater I worked at as a disconsolate teen. It’s where I first saw In the Mood For Love and became aware of a cinematic world outside blockbuster-era Hollywood. The letters that greeted me were: Harry Potter/Morning Glory/Inside Job. Through my nostalgic prism this was a bile-inducing travesty, but if I was growing up there now I’d have a much vaster range of titles to watch through Netflix than what I was offered at the upstanding Dipson chain of theaters (you should all go to the old North Park movie palace if you drive through Buffalo).

To underline that fact, there has been a swift uptick in the amount of rare Golden Era Hollywood titles added to the Netflix Instant archives recently. Director Joe Dante posted a tantalizing list of newly available films in the comments section of Dave Kehr’s blog a few days ago. I watched two of them this week, Budd Boetticher’s Horizons West (1952) and Sam Fuller’s China Gate (1957).

I had only known Boetticher’s film previously as the title of Jim Kitses’ seminal critical study of the Western, which is required reading for most genre courses in college. It was made four years before he was paired with screenwriter Burt Kennedy and star Randolph Scott for Seven Men From Now, which kicked off their brilliant and psychologically tortured series of revenge Westerns. They are spare, interiorized dramas tinged with expressionist visual flourishes, like the hanging tree in Ride Lonesome. In comparison, Horizons West is more conventional, with a flatter visual scheme and more transparent character motivations. But there are intimations of his future masterpieces. It is presented in its correct 1.37:1 aspect ratio, in a faded but watchable color transfer.

It tells the story of the Hammond brothers, returning home to Austin from the defeated Confederate army. Robert Ryan is Dan, the older and bitter sibling (“I don’t like to lose”), while Rock Hudson is Neil, the optimist eager to take over the family farm. Dan soon joins a gang of deserters and thieves, and builds them up from cattle rustlers to very persuasive land speculators. Soon Dan imagines building a “Western empire”, where his wife Lorna can be his queen. But before all that he has to run roughshod over his family, and steal Lorna away from the uber-capitalist Northern dandy Cord (a bitchy, superb Raymond Burr).

It is a plot-heavy scenario, with little time for the slow-burn breakdowns of Randolph Scott, but Robert Ryan’s greedy megalomaniac gets the most screen time, and there is a doomed aura to his character that could have been investigated further in a more pared down script (“-I want to make money. -What changed you? -The war, I guess.”). Ryan is a disillusioned war veteran eager to exploit the wide open capitalism of postwar Texas, and succeeds wildly, only to become more violent. His slowly wrinkling face trends downward into a snarl, emphasizing a kind of resigned brutality that Ryan is a master at portraying. It’s a provocative sketch of the haunting leads that Burt Kennedy would crystallize in his later scripts for Boetticher.

Sam Fuller’s China Gate (1957) comes during one of his peaks, a few years after Pickup on South Street (1953) and the same year as Forty Guns and Run of the Arrow. It’s another of his slam-bang pulp plots laced with punchy dialogue, bravado camera movements, and a simmering social conscience. Shot in CinemaScope by Joseph Biroc, Netflix Instant presents it cropped in 1.33:1, something of a tragedy. But it is otherwise unavailable on DVD in America, so this bowdlerized version is all we have for now. In the opening paragraph of the chapter on China Gate in Fuller’s autobiography, A Third Face, he makes the characteristic statement:

Young writers and directors, seize your audience by the balls as soon as the credits hit the screen and hang on to them! Smack people right in the face with the passion of your story! Make the public love your characters or hate them, but, for Godsakes, never – never! – leave them indifferent!

In the opening sequence of China Gate, a young boy wanders through the ruins of a small village in North Vietnam during the First Indochina War. He hides a puppy inside his shirt, only letting him out to eat some scraps on the ground. Then a starving man spies the animal, and desperate for food, chases the boy with a knife wielded high. The kid hides in a nearby bunker housing soldiers and loses him. Fuller strategically wields swooping crane shots, moving in to create tension and then back out to establish the horrifically scarred landscape.

The boy is the child of “Lucky Legs” (Angie Dickinson), an alcoholic single mother of Chinese-Caucasian descent (“I’m a bit of everything and a lot of nothing”). She survives by smuggling booze across the border to China along with, it is strongly implied, prostitution. The French Foreign Legion hires her as a scout on a mission to bomb an major rebel arms cache. The detail is led by Sergeant Brock (Gene Barry), a racist who abandoned Lucky after he discovered their child looked Chinese. Also in this group of mercenaries is Nat King Cole (Goldie), who did the part for scale, simply because of his enthusiasm for the project, according to Fuller. Cole also sings the lovely, funereal theme song, written by composer Victor Young before his death (the lyrics were by Harold Adamson, and the film’s full score was completed by Max Steiner).

It is filled with the bitter, grotesque ironies of war, such as the former French gendarme getting gunned down after an extended monologue about his previous life, which closed with, “This is the way to live!” These soldiers of fortune are brutalized and scared, with one Hungarian suffering from hallucinations of Russian troops stalking him. Brock orders that he be killed. Another dies in a fluke accident, and whose last words are, “I hope there’s a heaven. It would kill me to have to come here again.”

It’s bleak and blackly comic, a desperate and prescient anti-war film made seven years before the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the ramping up of U.S. troops in the region. I’ll give Fuller the last word:

My tale is full of human foible and confusion. I deliberately wanted that confusion. I was still thinking of Clare Booth Luce’s remark that ‘anyone who isn’t thoroughly confused, isn’t thinking clearly.’


October 27, 2009

crimson kimono


Today finds me further entrenched in The Samuel Fuller Collection, a seven-disc box set which comes out today from Sony Pictures Home Entertaintment and the Film Foundation, and for which I had a hugely entertaining interview with Christa Fuller, Sam’s wife. Before I get to her exuberant personality, a few more notes about the movies…

An auteurist’s delight, the set traces Fuller’s career from assembly-line scriptwriter to writer-producer-director tyro. The leap from the innocuously pleasant It Happened in Hollywood (1937) to the delirious noir Underworld U.S.A. (1961) is fascinating, and the drips of his personality discernible in his screenwriting work from Hollywood through Shockproof (1949) and Scandal Sheet (1952) is something of a revelation. Fuller’s blunt-edged prose is handled deftly by Phil Karlson’s hopped-up realism in the latter, while Douglas Sirk’s gleaming surfaces and detached irony are an odd, endlessly fascinating fit for Shockproof, which should be some kind of auteurist case study.

Then there is the full-on eau de Fuller with The Crimson Kimono (1959) and Underworld U.S.A. Kimono is a nuanced take on inter-racial romance shot through with Korean war guilt and stunning location photography of L.A.’s Chinatown. Underworld U.S.A. is all clenched fists and close-ups, documenting the all consuming revenge kick that takes down Cliff Robertson and anyone near him. His tormentors are thrown up as shadows on an alley wall, his own brick-screen idols that he’ll track down one by one with bitter ferocity.

Below the fold is the interview with the delightful Christa Fuller, Sam’s wife for over thirty years and a great thinker and actress in her own right (her film debut was in Godard’s Alphaville), about her late husband’s career in newspapers, the Army, and Hollywood.

What have you learned about Fuller since you completed editing his autobiography, A Third Face?

A Harvard archivist went looking for Sam’s  papers, and he found something that Sam never told me. He was married to Buster Keaton’s wife who committed bigamy. He was 26 years old, had just sold Hats Off! [1936, Sam’s first scriptwriting gig], and she dragged him to Tijuana and married him.  After he found out she was still married to Buster, the marriage was annulled. He never told me. The archivist found the annulment papers and the newspaper announcement. Buster Keaton at the time claimed he was so drunk he didn’t remember having married her.

Sam was so disgusted he never told me. He even cut her face out of a photo. It’s just her and a woman’s sleeve, and he never told me about it. I was shocked. He told me when we met in Paris that he’d never marry or go out with actresses. He hadn’t told me why. He probably forgot about it. He was traumatized by it. So the marriage was annulled, and that’s how he was briefly related to Buster Keaton.

Was Sam’s writing style influenced by his time in the newspaper business? Power of the Press and Scandal Sheet (and later, Park Row), seem to show a strong influence from this time in his life.

Totally. Sam was broken into the newspaper business by John Huston’s mother, Rhea Gore. John and Sam worked at the New York Evening Graphic together, along with Walter Winchell. It was run by Emile Gauvreau, the crazy Irishman with eight beautiful daughters (Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht based their play and film, “The Front Page”, on him). And he was a health nut, he went barefoot from Nyack to New York every day. At the time they called the paper the “Porno” Graphic. And John Huston’s Mom, Rhea, broke Sam into crime reporting. John said he spent more time with his mother than he did. Rhea, even though she divorced Walter Huston and married into a railroad fortune, continued working as a newspaper woman. She was very ballsy, cutting through red tape, bribing cops to get the story. She’s a Sam Fuller character herself.

John didn’t get along with his mother, left the paper, ran off to Hollywood and started writing for William Wyler. He came to Hollywood before Sam. Sam started as a copyboy for Arthur Brisbane, one of the most powerful men he worked for. He was the brain behind William Randolph Hearst, and Sam was his personal copyboy when he was 14. Hearst wouldn’t make a move without him. Sam lost his father when he was 11, and Brisbane was a father figure to him. Sam had a lot of these father figures.

The newspaper office was like his living room, growing up…

Totally! Sam always wanted to run his own paper somewhere in New Hampshire and write his own editorials, and convey his own vision of the world.

What did Fuller think of some of the early adaptations of his work, like Power of the Press?

There’s some great dialogue in that. Like “Freedom’s dynamite, it to be handled with care”! It does sound like him. Scorsese said that Sam was so deeply American, the kind of America that is vanishing. When we lived in Europe together, it always struck me that Sam was innocence abroad. I think he was kind of like a Mark Twain character. Europeans have layers of perversion, and Sam was really innocent there.

What was his relationship like with the studio heads, and how did he manage to get such envelope-pushing material onto the screen, like the relationship between a Japanese-American man and a white American woman in The Crimson Kimono?

Such a beautiful film. Alain Resnais made Hiroshima Mon Amour around the same time, about a white woman with a Japanese man. The same year an article in an Oxford newspaper dubbed TheCrimson Kimono as “Los Angeles Mon Amour.” The head of the studio said to Sam, why don’t you make the white guy a little bit on the mean side, so we understand why she prefers the Japanese man. And Sam said, hell no. They have a lot of affinities, they’re both nice guys, fought in Korea together, and I’m not making the white guy on the mean side so the bible belt will buy it.

In Forty GunsSam wanted the heroine to die, and at the end he should have to shoot her, the woman he loved. Zanuck said “Barbara Stanwyck is a star, you cannot kill the star.” So Sam had to attach a happy ending. He had to compromise, they all had to. But Sam was a very moral guy. He never lied. He berated himself, undervalued himself. He didn’t want to marry me, saying “I’m 54 you’re 22, I don’t like younger women, ten years from now I’ll be an old fart, I’m a has-been.”  He talked himself out of it. He didn’t promise me anything. Because he didn’t bullshit me, I stayed with him. It’s hard to take, but it’s easier on a relationship. And that was courageous. Maybe it was the courage of a fool, but it worked.

He didn’t promise me lines in his films. I had to give up many of my own ambitions to make the marriage work. Even though Sam was a feminist and worked with women, it’s such a nerve-wracking business. I did squeeze in a master’s degree in literature and taught French for four years, and started a doctorate on Samuel Beckett. But then this White Dog thing happened, and we moved to Europe, and I never finished it. Instead I finished Sam’s autobiography.

Will you go back to the Ph.D.?

No, I’m still intrigued with Sam’s characters. I love Beckett, but there’s something so modern, so way ahead of his time in Sam’s work. I’m intrigued by he got away with it, and through so many ups and downs. Why do they call a European movie an art movie and his movies B-movies?

Howard Hawks bought the rights to Fuller’s first novel, The Dark Page, could you talk about that time in his life?

Hawks bought the novel while Sam was still in the war. I’ve got a letter Hawks wrote to Zanuck raving about Sam’s writing, and he bought the novel. This is one of the items I posted on the fan page for The Dark Page on Facebook. They republished the book last year in Scotland, the same company also re-published No Bed of his Own, by Val Lewton , the producer of Cat People. The first time he saw his book in print was in an army edition of The Dark Page, which ends up as a scene in The Big Red One.

Was Sam upset when Hawks sold the rights to his book to MPI?

Hawks was a businessman, Sam wasn’t. He bought it for 15 grand, and I think he sold it for 100, netting 85. He wanted to do it with Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson before it fell through. Of course if you’re a writer and Hawks buys it, and you’re young…

The plot is similar to many of his works,  including his novel Crown of India, where an older man trains a younger man, teaches him the ropes, and then the younger man has to expose the older man, and use his lessons against him. Totally Oedipus. The son always wants to outsmart the father. I’ve seen it with all the young directors that came and almost destroyed Sam, some of them. They always wanted something. There’s no innocence when somebody comes and says, “I admire you.” Sam was a very simple person, he never wanted to become a cult figure. Truffaut said about Sam that he’s simple without being simplistic, and that’s very rare. Well said.

Curtis Hanson was one of the nicest disciples. We knew him when he was 18 years old, when Sam and I first got married, he always knocked on Sam’s window. He wound up spending hours with him. Then there was Peter Bogdanovich. Sam helped him write Targets. Peter acknowledges it, but Sam didn’t want any credit.

Sam had his own father figures, but Sam was a gentleman, a civilized man, and I could see how he handled his Oedipus complexes. He never destroyed these father figures. He had all kinds, from Arthur Brisbane, and later on when he came to Hollywood, Peter Pan – Herbert Brenon, was one of his first. The German director E.A. Dupont, who directed Piccadilly, who helped him on I Shot Jesse James, was another. John Ford was one as well.

What was Sam’s relationship with Ford?

Ford loved Sam as a writer and always wanted to work with him. Sam thought John was the greatest director in the world. He worshipped him. John was very proud of Sam, and would call him every year on D-Day and say, “Fuck the Big Red One!” That was a running gag because Ford was in the Marines. Sam just had an unlimited admiration for him – he’s pure Americana.

Another father figure was General Terry De La Mesa Allen. He made the cover of Time and Newsweek. He was so famous at the time. All the dogfaces, all the soldiers loved him. He fought alongside them. He was so famous John Ford pleaded with Sam to meet him. Sam organized a luncheon or dinner, and I have pictures of Ford with General Allen. When he made the covers of Time and Newsweek, he was so modest. “I’m no hero”, he said, “dead men made me a general.” Listen to that line. Gives me goosebumps.

That sounds like a line right out of one of Sam’s war films…

He influenced Sam the most. All these years of battle, and Sam volunteered for it. People tend to forget, that when Sam volunteered in WWII, he was a writer and an artist. The whole war scene hit him differently than other soldiers. I think that Sam’s nervous system was shaken forever. People forget that he was in every major battle in WWII, including Omaha Beach. And war hysteria never left him. Sam had a very short fuse. People are never the same after an experience like that, for the rest of their lives.

Did he ever talk to you about his battle experiences, or was it something he kept to himself?

No, he talked about it constantly! That’s why people thought he was a macho guy, but Sam was very sensitive, he cried before me when we saw a film. And I think he was covering up his sensitivity by talking like he did, about killing Nazis and such. He really suffered for the rest of his life from war hysteria.

You acted in Dead Pigeon On Beethoven street, one of his lower budgeted European productions (for German TV)…

It was Pulp Fiction twenty years before Pulp Fiction. Sam always wanted to make a comedy, and this was a private eye spoof made for German TV. Sam couldn’t make a realistic German film about German cops. What does he know? And what is realism anyway? Wim Wenders said you should strike the world realism from the dictionary. At the time they had the Profumo Affair, where two call girls brought down the English government. So Sam wrote me a part of a girl who sets up politicians and blackmails them. At the time, Fassbinder, who was so obsessed with American cinema, he showed Sam that he made a Western. And it was awful. He showed it to Sam, in Cologne.

Never released?

No. And Fassbinder wanted to play the part of Charley Umlaut in Dead Pigeon, but they had already cast the role. The English loved it, they thought it was funny, it played at the London Film Festival. But the French, they expected Sam to make a straight film noir. You always get pigeonholed. Because Sam fought in WWII, he was punished for it. He had to do straight film noir. They wouldn’t let him do comedy, and he had such a great sense of humor, and such a great sense of the absurd.

Thieves After Dark was booed at the Berlin Film Festival in 1984, when John Cassavetes got the Golden Bear for Love Streams. But John loved the film, and we wound up spending the whole night with John and Gena Rowlands eating herring and drinking beer. And he said, “I loved the picture”. And I guess the French didn’t like the idea of Sam making comments about French unemployment. I saw it again, and it’s a very good film. They have a love-hate relationship with Hollywood. I remember when I was there, and they called John Ford a fascist. I just hated it. After I met Sam I saw Shock Corridor with a friend of mine who was a movie critic, and he said “Fuller is a genius, but he’s a fascist”.  Sam was the opposite of a fascist.


October 20, 2009


For the next two weeks I’ll be knee-deep in The Samuel Fuller Collection, a seven-disc set being released on October 27th by Sony Pictures, in association with Martin Scorsese’s heroic film preservation organization, The Film Foundation. It’s a doggedly auteurist production that traces the contours of Fuller’s entire career, presenting five of his writing gigs (It Happened in Hollywood (1937), Adventure in Sahara (1938), Power of the Press (1943), Shockproof (1949) and Scandal Sheet 1952)) along with two lesser-known directorial efforts (The Crimson Kimono (1959) and Underworld, U.S.A. (1961)). In this marketplace it’s downright courageous to release these later subterranean slices of Fuller, and just about saintly to include some of his early writing jobs. As the juvenilia of other great artists like Picasso are studied in the context of his life’s work, so should the early scribbling of this brusquely unique American. Without an institution like the Library of America to preserve and present a director’s work in the proper context (instead of being thrown to the wind in various star-themed sets), it’s up to studios to flog their geniuses, and their priorities clearly lie elsewhere. So much of the credit to this release must lie with Scorsese and his Film Foundation, who also released the essential Budd Boetticher Collection last year, and produced the Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics set due November 3rd.  In convincing Sony to release these films in cleaned-up masters, he’s keeping the spirit of serious film appreciation alive.

The earliest film in the set is a sprightly little comedy spiced with melancholy, It Happened in Hollywood(1937). It was Fuller’s second credit in Hollywood, after he wrote the scenario for Hats Off (1937), an elaborate bit of slapstick he conceived for Boris Petroff, who directed Mae West’s variety shows on Broadway. In his autobiography, A Third Face, he says about Hats Off that, “the finished film had just about nothing to do with my original story. Petroff fashioned a movie that made people forget about their problems. I’d wanted to expose man’s foolish belligerency.” That characteristic, foolish belligerency, is what pops up again and again in these early screenplays, regardless of the damage done to his scripts by the studios. Each film in the set, to varying degrees, contain a vague anti-authoritarian streak, whether the conservative mulishness of Richard Dix in It Happened in Hollywood or the violent resentment of Paul Kelly in Adventure in Sahara. But let’s start with the former, which is one of the minor delights of the set.

Directed with studied reserve by Harry Lachman, it’s a self-reflexive bit of Hollywood fantasy. He wrings a couple of surprising effects out of the material. The first is the opening, which shows Dix rescuing Gloria Gay (a luminous Fay Wray) on his noble horse Toby. It’s unclear that this is a film-within-a-film until the laughter and cheering of kids fill the audio track. Then the camera slowly pulls back from the screen and into the children’s hospital where Bart is holding court to an enraptured crowd. This clever shot establishes the construction of Bart’s image, how it is shaped by the frame and his fans outside of it. He is not a free man.

Based on the career of Tom Mix, it follows Tim Bart (Richard Dix, drawling as if his tongue were bathed in molasses), a hugely popular silent Western star who flops upon the transition to sound. With his ranch about to be sold, the only thing rooting him to Hollywood is the adoration of his sole remaining fan, an infirm boy who calls himself Billy the Kid. In a wild attempt to make Billy’s wish come true and meet all of his silver screen heroes, Bart gathers a menagerie of celebrity stand-ins and arranges a faux star-studded bash, a clever bit of burlesque celebrating Hollywood’s unseen working class. The affected hauteur of the Marlene Dietrich impersonator while rejecting a morose fake-Clark Gable is particularly amusing.

Lachman achieves a surreal carnival effect at the stand-in party, especially on a slow tracking shot down the dinner table, as W.C Fields, Charlie Chaplin, and Victor McLaglen impersonators cavort and mug as if they were in an old vaudeville routine. Fuller’s touch is all over this film, especially in its skepticism towards the idea of heroism and the idealizations that surround it (Fuller’s original title was Once a Hero). Tim Bart’s heroism is a clear construct, a virtue built by the studios and disposed of when technological advances make other stories more appealing. His aura is built by the production machine, and just as easily destroyed. There’s a devastating montage of all of Bart’s paraphernalia getting incinerated, cardboard cut-outs and sheriff badges going up in flames. That it was based on the story of Tom Mix gives the whole enterprise a feel of a low-budget valediction, and Bart’s improbable resurrection as a star at the end can be forgiven as a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy for that faded star. Fuller is credited as screenwriter on the film along with Ethel Hill and Harvey Fergusson.

Adventure in Sahara is an altogether different story, a dire little tale of mutiny in the French Foreign Legion. C. Henry Gordon plays a sadistic commander who drills his soldiers to death. Jim Wilson (Paul Kelly) hears of his brother’s death at this fascist’s hands, and enlists to seek revenge. He succeeds in leading a mutiny, kicking the officers out into the desert. But Gordon returns, and someone will have to pay… The film was directed rather anonymously by D. Ross Lederman, and the script was written by Maxwell Shane, as Fuller receives only a story credit. Aside from Wilson’s anti-fascist, anti-authoritarian bent, very little of Fuller’s personality shines through. The film twists itself in knots trying to show respect for military protocol as well as individual freedoms, and it turns into ideological mush. Gordon gives a deliciously hammy performance however, answering all questions with a beady eye and a crick in his neck. Fuller’s anecdote about his inspiration for the story is more entertaining than the movie itself:

He [Sam Briskin, head of Columbia] asked me if I could write an adventure movie for the studio. He may as well have been asking me if I could bake a seven-layer cake…. I took out a cigar and slowly prepared to light it, buying a few moments to figure out a way out of this mess. Briskin never took his beady eyes off me. I lit the cigar, blew the smoke out of my mouth, and proudly announced, “William Bligh meets Victor Hugo!” ‘Who the hell are they?’ snarled Briskin.

While working on his novel, The Dark Page, Fuller was knocking out scripts on the side to make a living. One of these was 1943’s Power of the Press, directed by Lew Landers, original story by Fuller, screenplay by Robert Hardy Andrews. This film stands as a curious precursor to his ode to journalism, Park Row(he was previously a crime reporter for the New York Evening GraphicThis film, mediated by Landers and Andrews, replaces his snarling wit with a series of moralistic speeches about the perils of isolationism. It is about a publishing magnate, John Cleveland Carter, who has a late change in heart about his yellow journalism practices, which threatens the domain of an oily fifth-columnist, Rankin. Gangland killings ensue, and after the dust settles, it’s a mild-mannered power battle between Rankin and Guy Kibbee, who plays a Horace Greeley worshipping small-town editor with whom Carter endowed his paper.

There are an endless number of comparisons to Rankin and his goons with Nazis. They run the place “like the Gestapo”, Rankin’s assistant is “a Himmler” and so on. The flavorful performances, Lee Tracy’s soulless managing editor first and foremost, prettify the propaganda machinery, but it eventually grinds to a halt with a series of static monologues about free speech and the dangers of isolationism. Fuller’s politics were probably similar at the time, but he would have never staged them so slowly or humorlessly. The only character with a whiff of Fuller’s life force is Eddie (Gloria Dickson), Carter’s secretary and the brains behind Kibbee’s goal to clean up the New York Gazette. She bulldozes through the publisher without a thought to her status or role, simply following her impulse.  Gloria is a little stiff as a performer, but if you squint hard enough, you can see the outlines of Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns.

Next week I’ll (hopefully) have an interview with Christa Fuller, Sam’s wife, as well as a discussion of the remaining titles in the set.


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.