Amazing director and writer. He directed one of my favorite film noirs Pickup on South Street and one of the most interesting and bizarre westerns Forty Guns. Considered one of the first "independent" directors.
Naked Kiss, Shock Corridor and Forty Guns
This article is taken from www.senseofcenema.com
"PRIMITIVE DIES." That was the bald headline which disgraced the tiny item in an Australian newspaper declaring the passing in 1997 of Samuel Fuller - accompanied, of course, by a mugshot of the filmmaker chomping on a cigar. How does a great, influential director get to be encapsulated, by some copy writer who may have known little and seen less of his work, as a 'primitive'? A primitive like Ed Wood (deranged Z-movie bungler), or a primitive like Steven Spielberg (unreflective entertainer for the people)? A primitive like Robert Aldrich ('classical' action, violence, machismo) or like Gaspar Noé (a 'modern' confrontationalist, sensationalist)?
To answer these questions properly would probably require a book-length detour through the fields of cultural studies, reception studies, Bourdieu-informed studies of social taste and distinction, comparative histories of American and European cinema, and last but far from least the variegated national histories of film criticism itself. And the effort would not be wasted. For the artist who dies a 'primitive' is an artist unknown, undigested, a mystery hiding under stereotype and cliché and posturing.
Most of us who love film 'know' something about 'Sam' Fuller. We know that he stood against a wall during a luridly-filtered party scene in Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le fou (1965) and told Jean-Paul Belmondo and us that cinema is "like a battleground: love, hate, action, violence, death. in one word, emotion" - even if we haven't yet seen Pierrot le fou. We know that his films evidence a 'tabloid' aesthetic (inspired by his youthful days in the newspaper game) and wallop a 'kino-fist'; that they are, above all, dynamic, kinetic, visceral. From A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995), we know about the bold long takes, the wild and woolly camera movements, the disorientating close-ups (the first of which was the first shot in his first feature, I Shot Jesse James ), the starkly angular comic-book compositions, the furious montages. We know whom he has influenced, the contemporary directors who cite him lovingly, from Jim Jarmusch to Leos Carax.
And maybe we've also heard about the 'bad' B-movie acting (delivered by Gene Barry or Constance Towers), the 'excruciating' dialogue alternating heavy-handed slogans and hard-boiled retorts, the 'lurid' plots. (My vain attempt, once upon a time, to explain the 'serious' premise of White Dog  - "a metaphor for racist socialisation" - to a Literature Professor led only to his superior mirth and my peeved discomfort.) We know he had something to do with politics, and that political statements are made in his films - but whether he was arch-conservative or anarchist, or something weirdly Liberal in-between, seems to be a murky call (1) - especially if you haven't yet seen the films for yourself. And I don't mean that as a lofty rebuke: one of the principal reasons there's a fog around Fuller is that, in many places, his films remain very hard to see, on big or small screens. I myself still await, after 25 years on the trail, an opportunity to see the hallowed titles Park Row (1952), a celebration of the newspaper industry and Fuller's personal favourite, and Fixed Bayonets (1951), one of his many projects (across film, novels and TV) devoted to war.
Fuller is a filmmaker who - maybe more than any other filmmaker - calls forth pithy encapsulations. Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Bertrand Tavernier, in their massive 50 ans de cinema américain, consider for a few lines Christian Viviani's suggestive formulation - "by pushing the ridiculous just a little too far, he attains poetry" - and end up reversing it: by pushing poetry just a little too far, he attains the ridiculous. (2) Criticism surely needs its encapsulations flung back and forth in the course of debate and cinephilic formation; but in the case of Fuller, the summary verdicts for or against tend to replace actual, in-depth analytical work on the films themselves.
Is no judgment on Fuller, positive or negative, celebratory or condemnatory, free from some loaded judgement implying an elaborate and unstated system of social taste? The cinematic moves that look 'primitive' to some in Forty Guns (1957) seem to others virtuosic. (I incline towards the latter verdict.) This blurry situation is exacerbated by the fact that Fuller - again, possibly more than any other director - has been sliced up very differently by successive 'schools' of criticism, creating a monstrous series of incommensurable Fullers. In one of the finest essays in the annals of English-language criticism - with certainly one of the best titles, "Tough Nuts to Crack" - Ronnie Scheib begins a study of Shock Corridor (1963) with this handy breakdown of the terrain:
For the Cro-Magnites, Fuller is the great American primitive, swinging through the trees with a camera between his toes - he may have a pea brain but he sure got big eyes - and rhythm. For the outlying Solar Plexites, Fuller's a down-home, funky director, as American as violence and cheesecake. For the Aesthetes, he's a poetic film noir auteur, a modernist - they saw him in Pierrot le fou and scrambled off to see his films. And, by Gosh, there they were: recurrent themes, Brechtian distanciation, jump cuts, dislocation of sound and image, all you could ask for in an authentic American Artefact. For the Moralists, Fuller is either a Nasty Fascist or a Misunderstood Liberal. (3)
Fuller, after he was discovered and hailed by critics, stuck close to film culture. He gave numerous interviews, acknowledged critics who had given his career a hand, generously attended retrospective events and Film Festivals. But Fuller was also frozen within the rather coarse-grained characterisations that his successive critic-champions elaborated. At the beginning, in the early 1950s, there was the minority report offered by Manny Farber, who praised Fuller among those post-'40s filmmakers who find their "best stride in a culture-free atmosphere that allows a director to waste his and the audience's time", calling fond attention to the "episodic, spastically slow and fast" rhythm of the work, its "skepticism and energy". (4)
Seven years later, more influentially, there was the enthusiasm of Luc Moullet in Cahiers du cinéma, who praises Fuller's camera movements on the grounds that they are "fortunately, totally gratuitous: it is in terms of the emotive power of the movement that the scene is organized". (5) This notion of Fuller as an essentially 'inorganic', bits-and-pieces filmmaker, devoted to a 'cinema of the flourish', has ruled the appreciations of many since, including Scorsese (who eulogises the way a body slams into a wall and the camera movement picks up the energy of the blow) and Quentin Tarantino (as narrated in the documentary on Fuller The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera [Adam Simon, 1996]). Nowadays, when such flourishes are legion, even routine, we can easily overlook what they must have once meant to 'modernists' like Farber and Moullet in the '50s: in the context of a more conventionalised and rigid mainstream, Fuller's stylistic tics were the first signs of a personal cinema suddenly possible within the 'system' - hence Moullet's regard for these "instinctive. rough sketches" revealing "the force of the instantaneous and of the unfinished". (6)
Later, in a remarkable historic moment, British film culture in the late '60s and early '70s showed its love for Sam by producing three books in as many years: an Edinburgh Film Festival anthology, plus studies by Phil Hardy and Nicholas Garnham. (7) The last of these leans more towards a socio-political perspective than a purely aesthetic one (with Fuller positioned somewhere between the ideological myopia of Old Hollywood and the global, radical reportage offered by the various New Waves), but the first two issue squarely from the heady excitement of a 'structuralist' or 'textualist' moment in British film culture. Here, Fuller's movies are dissolved into one great corpus and become a churning Sargasso Sea of oppositions and antinomies, contradictions and reversals, striking images and juxtapositions. No movie really emerges as better executed or more vividly realised than any other - such evaluative pretensions of a 'Leavisite' period having been left behind in the wild rush to Paris - and all partake of an exhilarating 'Fuller effect'.
That's truthful to the extent that no Fuller film is entirely bereft of some interest, some idea, some moment that is captivating on some level. But his career is uneven, as even the most diehard fans would have to now admit. Past the initial blast of its colour and design elements, House of Bamboo (1955) does not sustain its drive or interest. The Crimson Kimono (1959) and China Gate (1957) offer brilliantly provocative (and prophetic) diagrams of multi-cultural/multi-racial tangles and conflicts, but little else. Underworld USA (1961) is the kind of film which is an absolute revelation to see when you're 15 years old and souped-up on cinematic spectacle - and these days, I guess, also galvanised by the Tarantino machine - but its magic doesn't last through repeated viewings. (8) Some are more like didactic pamphlets than fully or convincingly dramatised movies - for example, that bizarre patchwork of fiction and documentary concerning the rise of a 'neo Nazi youth movement', Verboten! (1958). Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (1973) is his most obviously strained, 'Godardian' effort at pleasing his European aficionados - going fatally further in this direction than other '50s contemporaries like Aldrich, Frank Tashlin, Nicholas Ray, even Alfred Hitchcock, whose work shifted in its 'pitch' after it had been acclaimed, feted and reinterpreted abroad. Merrill's Marauders (1962) fits the structural template of the 'Fuller war movie' down to a tee, but it's hard to get excited about in isolation, without the buzz of pro-Fuller cinephile rhetoric heightening the significance and impact of stray good scenes. Curiously, when even a whiff of 'production values' moves in, the mitigating buzz disappears fast - as is the case when watching the mediocre Hell and High Water (1954). Fuller is firmly fixed in the popular filmgoing imagination - however unfairly - as a 'King of the Bs', which is already what Farber was happy to see him stay back in 1952.
So what makes Fuller a great director - that is, beyond the myth and the hype? My proposed pantheon: Pickup on South Street (1953), Run of the Arrow (1957), Forty Guns, Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss (1964), The Big Red One (1980), White Dog. How many directors manage seven films of that calibre? Fuller's best work attained its combustible powers in the '50s, in the company of a 'new generation' that included Aldrich and Nicholas Ray. These filmmakers can be thought as melodramatists , but not like Douglas Sirk or Vincente Minnelli, who mined the 'woman's' domestic melodrama, to some similar ends, in the same period. Fuller is on the side of action-melodrama or, as so many critics called it down the years, 'lyrical violence'. His films were part of a loose movement that upped the ante on violence and tension, heightened a certain noir romanticism (the individual against society, lovers on the run.) and explored new forms of psychological characterisation. Fuller's films are all about drives, impulses, emotional states that are imprinted on the social being, as traces of ideological socialisation, as much as they issue from within the hearts, minds and guts of individuals. All Fuller's characters are divided and twisted creatures (the most oft-cited emblematic character being the demented black man who shouts KKK slogans in Shock Corridor): it is the clash of inner and outer states that fuel his narratives and shape the actions - and also, as a by-product, equalise the genders. These characters hammer out their problems by bashing themselves against each other and the world - hence the intense, even obsessive physicality of this cinema, and (as in all melodrama) its 'lurid' taste for grotesque bodily metaphors of social conditions.
Although it sounds like a slightly old-fashioned description nowadays, Fuller's films embody and exhibit 'ideological contradiction' - but in a game, vivid, virtuosic, frequently perverse way. (Underworld USA, for example, was made to show how organised crime took taxes from government - which "made me very happy" - and how someone could use the FBI as a tool of revenge: "I thought it would be very funny".) (9) His tales of identity-in-flux are strikingly prescient of what gets called nowadays postcolonial cinema, especially in Run of the Arrow. And Fuller's films - with their heterogeneous mixes of footage, their hallucinatory dream sequences (especially in Shock Corridor), their plot trajectories of reporting and transmission, their clashes of sound and image - are also prophetic of the role of 'the audiovisual' in our modern world. According to Scheib, ". what TV homogenizes, deadens, disconnects radically and connects trivially, Fuller electrifies, forcing his audience to confront the impossible juxtaposition of absolutes, of consciousnesses that cannot, yet do, share the same frame, and the multiplicity of absent syntaxes which could articulate their coexistence and their consecutivity." (10)
But where Fuller is definitely not a prototype of postmodernism is in his insistence on a few absolute values, values which are the pumping heart of his cinema. Perversity and amorality may be plentiful, but this storyteller will not abide injustice, hypocrisy ("getting involved in something emotionally and doing nothing about it"), (11) or the corruption of innocence. Underworld USA, The Naked Kiss and The Big Red One give us the impression that nothing was more sentimentally sacred to Fuller than childhood, and nothing more despicably evil than its desecration.
Thanks to tireless researchers who have trailed through studio archives and interviewed surviving crew members, we have some idea now exactly what Hitchcock, Ray or Fritz Lang actually did in the process of directing a movie - how they worked on the script and pre-production, how they staged and re-shaped a scene on the set, how they edited and completed their work. With Fuller we (as yet) know virtually nothing of this. Like most directors, he never talked about the nitty-gritty of his filmmaking. Everything was aphorisms, broad strokes, spontaneous advice to young, aspiring filmmakers - such as counselling that the start of any movie has to give the viewer an erection. In a characteristically tub-thumping 1964 essay titled "What is a Film?", Fuller gets no closer to technicalities than this: "What other medium can take us into the eye of a character, probe through his mind, catch a look that would take a dozen words to describe?" (12) As a result, there has been little appreciation of Fuller's true craft as a director - in fact, there has been precious little serious writing on him at all since the Anglo fever of the early '70s died down.
Pickup on South Street would be a good place to start such a project of recovery, since it is his most classical film, demonstrating what V.F. Perkins has described as a "strategy of style", a "rhetoric more or less constantly in play which is nevertheless not a particularly obtrusive rhetoric" (13) - a far cry from the usual kino-fist reveries. In both Pickup on South Street and The Big Red One we see Fuller's mastery with using dialogue-less, action-based scenes to advance narration and express complex arrangements of milieu and theme - as in the wonderfully economic colliding of bodies, looks, gestures, characters and narrative lines in the former (culminating in the immortal opening exchange: "What happened?"/"I'm not sure yet"), and the heartbreaking scene of Lee Marvin carrying a dying child on his solders in the latter (an autobiographical account of his wartime experience), an extended passage structured delicately around mechanical, toy music. In Fuller's more modernist mood, Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss (twin peaks of '60s cinema) generate their complex effects of disquiet from what he described as "a European tempo, that to me is a superior tempo. If you make any scenes with violence the contrast is excellent". (14)
Fuller directed five films of varying lengths after White Dog, as well as writing novels, an autobiography (soon to appear), a travel book on old Manhattan, even a comic book - but in the 15 year period until his death (having relocated to France) he mainly moved in the larger-than-life realm of his own myth. As Coursodon and Tavernier point out, he was one of the few filmmakers ever to benefit consistently from the support of truly cinephile producers (Peter Bogdanovich, Jon Davison, Jacques Bral). (15) Street of No Return (1989) is typical of the work of this period - some wild and outrageous scenes, mostly referring back to his past glories, but swamped by awful attempts at emulating rock-video mannerisms. In the meantime, he acted for Amos Gitai (Golem, the Ghost of Exile, 1992), Aki (La Vie de bohème, 1992) and Mika (Tigrero: A Film That was Never Made, 1994) Kaurismäki, Wim Wenders (The State of Things, 1982, plus a spookily touching envoi in The End of Violence, 1997) and Larry Cohen (A Return to Salem's Lot, 1987) - Cohen being a close artistic cousin of Fuller, an equally uneven 'melodramatist' of special distinction, whose great ideas occasionally outrun his capacity to depict them legibly on screen.
For me, the best testament to Fuller from this final period is John McNaughton's cable telemovie Girls in Prison (1994), from a script by Fuller and his wife Christa Lang; this wonderfully straight politicisation of a pulp movie from the '50s hurls in everything - blacklist, war, media corruption - and binds it to the collective hysterias of women who find solidarity behind bars. It's Shock Corridor with a happy ending - the final, in-concert reprise of the lilting country'n'western tune that structures the whole story, "Endless Sleep".
Great documentary about Fuller "The Typewriter, the Rifle & the Movie Camera"
Samuel Fuller at IMDB
Samuel Fuller illustration by Amazing Ameziane