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Crooks, Psychos and Soldiers: the Cinema of Sam Fuller

Crooks, Psychos and Soldiers: the Cinema of Sam Fuller

Articles - Directing

The first scene should give
you a woody: Sam on The Big One.

In the new Independent Film Channel
documentary, The Typewriter, The Rifle, and The Movie Camera (by
Tim Robbins and Adam Simon), Jim Jarmusch quotes Sam Fuller as
saying, "If the first scene doesn’t give you a hard-on then
throw the goddamn thing away." The same could be said of every
scene in a Fuller film. A tough, cigar-chewing auteur with a bone-deep
distaste for compromise, Fuller rarely committed an image to film
that didn’t tell the truth. Critic Andrew Sarris called him "an
authentic American primitive." His films exposed at low angles
the underside of government, crime, and community, and how politicians,
crooks and Good Samaritans sometimes ate off the same greasy plates.
During the ’50s and early ’60s, Fuller made 17 films that shot
straight at the heart of this hypocrisy. He wrote and produced
nearly all of his films, blazing through his Westerns, war pictures,
and crime dramas with a tight-fisted ferocity. He loved to beat
up on Commies and bigots, and he didn’t much care for cops, mayors,
martyrs or heroes either. He thought the noble were foolish and
the rich were all hiding something. If a wimp wandered into one
of his screenplays he’d kill the bastard off.

He preferred to let his protagonists destroy themselves
or limp along to the next battle. Often they survived on a kind
of nonchalant brutality. "A dead man’s nothin’ but a corpse," is
a sergeant’s epitaph for a fallen comrade in Steel Helmet (1951).
And in Underworld U.S.A. (1961), a fat drug kingpin has
this answer for a crony who suggests they shouldn’t sell drugs
to schoolkids: "Don’t tell me the end of a needle has a conscience." It’s
dialogue like this that led film historian David Thomson to write
of Fuller, "In truth he is barbarous and that is why he is
unique."

Barbarians, in the guise of crooks, psychos, and
soldiers, were the Fuller archetypes. Merrill’s Marauder’s (1962),
his grim war film about a march through Burma, hasn’t got a speck
of sentiment in it, but it’s filled with issues/19/images that speak in matter-of-fact
detail about the reasons men fight. His first film, I Shot Jesse
James
(1949), is a character study of Bob Ford, the backshooter
who gunned down a Western legend and spent the rest of his life
tortured by it. And in White Dog (1982) the most intriguing
character is a German shepherd trained to attack blacks. Sympathy
for anyone was hard to come by, as expressed in lines like this: "Killing
insane people isn’t good for P.R., killing sane people is okay." (The
Big Red One
, 1980).

One of his best films, Pickup on South Street (1953),
stars Richard Widmark as Skip McCoy, a wily pickpocket with the
name and spunk of a shortstop, who plays the Feds off against the
Communists in a deal for some microfilm. It was a favorite theme
of Fuller’s to blur the line between the good guys and bad guys,
and he often found more integrity, a kind of mangy truth, in the
low-brow aspirations of hoods.

Lee Marvin hits the beach as his squad gets
its baptism by fire during the invasion of North Africa in The
Big Red One
.

"There’s a big difference between a traitor
and a pickpocket," says McCoy’s pal Thelma Ritter (who has
a wonderfully pathetic death scene), but very little difference
between the cops and the Reds, or the Fascists, or the Mafia, or
anyone who tries to make all the rules. "There will always
be people like us," says the drug lord in Underworld U.S.A. "We’ll
win the war, we always have." And they do, as the film ends
with Clift Robertson stumbling down a dark street to his doom.

Fuller loved the shadows of film noir, the rawness
of the west, the chaos of battle. He didn’t much care if his tracking
camera jittered, or if he forgot to get the medium shot. What mattered
most was that his economical aesthetics kept him working. He was
not a man who liked to sit still.

He started out as a copyboy for the New York Journal when
he was only 12; five years later he was a crime reporter for the San
Diego Sun
. During the Depression, when he was in his 20s, he
rode the rails. He wrote pulp fiction, fought in Europe and North
Africa during WWII, and knocked around Hollywood writing screenplays
until his directorial debut at age 37. His first two films, I
Shot Jesse James
and The Baron of Arizona, are B-movie
knock-offs, but they’re filled with enough bug’s eye close-ups
and scampering dolly shots to energize the flat, biopic storylines.

The studios were impressed enough to let him start
making films based on his journalistic and wartime experiences.
His two excellent war films, Steel Helmet, set during the
Korean War, and The Big Red One, about the First Infantry
during WWII, were made nearly 30 years apart, but both depicted
a battleground where the enemy was nearly unseen and the rules
were simple: "A South Korean is running with you, a North
Korean is running at you" says a foot soldier in Steel
Helmet
.

The famous "helmet shot" appears in both
these films: a close-up of a half-shell peeking above the horizon
of a foxhole, slowly rising until the eyes, the "dead man’s
stare," become visible. It’s a bleak, contradictory image,
menacing and cowering. The battles following these shots were confused,
hazed by dust, fog or smoke. Martin Scorsese designed one of the
fight scenes in Raging Bull on these disorienting sequences.

In the early ’60s Fuller made a pair of movies, Shock
Corridor
(1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964),
that were shot in a revved-up tabloid style which spun B-movie
kitsch into low art, thanks largely to the black-and-white photography
of Stanley Cortez. Shock Corridor begins with some lofty,
cornball platitudes about truth in journalism before it rips
into its story about a newspaperman who gets himself committed
to an insane asylum so he can write a Pulitzer-prize winning
piece. It’s a far-fetched idea, and the story is told with too
many simple, didactic strokes, but Fuller does make his point:
whether it’s Communism, matrydom, nuclear totalitarianism, or
the pursuit of the Pultizer, men will destroy themselves for
a cause.

Naked Kiss begins with what is perhaps Fuller’s
most memorable sequence: a bald hooker in black beats the crap
out of her pimp with her handbag. Following that stunner of a beginning
the hooker moves to a small town, reforms herself by becoming a
nurse, falls in love with a pillar of the community, then discovers
he is a child molester and murders him. At that point the hypocrites
come out like termites.

Fuller’s corrosive style fell into popular and critical
neglect in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and his output was inconsistent. Shark! (1969)
starring Burt Reynolds as a treasure hunter, was disowned by the
director; Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (1972), despite
the snappy title, should have been. In it Fuller was copying Godard
with the breathless jumpcutting but the scenes play more like skits
from the old "Monkees" TV series. His last
film, Street of No Return (1989), is an incoherent
bore.

To amuse himself, Fuller made cameo appearances in
other directors’ films. He played himself in Godard’s Pierrot
Le Fou
, a gangster in Wenders’s The American Friend,
a movie director in Dennis Hopper’s ill-conceived The Last Movie.

In 1980 Fuller got a chance to make his masterpiece, The
Big Red One
, about a crack rifle outfit in WWII. The sergeant
(a beautifully understated Lee Marvin) is haunted by an incident
in WWI where he killed a German soldier minutes after the war
had ended. Even as he maneuvers his soldiers through yet another
war, the sergeant seems to survive only to atone for that mistake,
or to justify it. "We don’t murder, we kill," he tells
his four young marksmen, who themselves manage to sidestep death
but are bewildered by a God’s grace they know they haven’t earned.

Fuller finds a rough poetry in several sequences:
a D-Day assault that lasts for hours, as told by the extreme close-ups
of a dead soldier’s wrist-watch awash in the surf; a German platoon
that plays dead in the shadow of a giant cross; a baby delivered
in an enemy tank, its startling cries accompanying the lonely image
of a last surviving German soldier running into the sunset. And
finally, when Marvin again seems to kill a soldier only hours after
the war has officially ended, he can only surrender to the tragic
absurdity of it. When it turns out the soldier isn’t dead, the
film ends on the hopeful image of Marvin taking him to a hospital.
It’s as close as Fuller ever comes to a happy ending.

Sadly, much of the 85-year-old director’s output
is unavailable on video. He recently suffered a stroke and is attempting
a recovery in L.A. But he’s not in the grave yet. He’s tough and
stubborn and was on stage for an Independent Spirit Awards tribute
a few weeks ago. Who knows, he may yet make his dream film about
Balzac and Alexandre Dumas. Sam Fuller still might be the last
director on earth you’d want to mess with. MM

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