THE TABLOID FILMS of SAMUEL FULLER

Film/Video Features
THE TABLOID FILMS of SAMUEL FULLER
By
Oct 18, 2007, 00:18

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Wild trumpet-driven jazz plays. We see a tall blonde swinging a purse at the camera. Cut to a man recoiling from the blows and staggering backwards; the camera goes back to the woman and jerks around giddily as she continues battering him. “Please, Kelly, I'm drunk!” says the man. A hand comes from out of frame and snatches her wig, revealing her bald head. Her shirt comes off as she knocks the drunk on his ass. She kneels and sprays his face with a seltzer bottle, then starts rifling his pockets. “Eight hundred dollars! You parasite! I'm taking only what's coming to me!” she says as she counts out seventy-five dollars, throwing the rest of it in his face. “I'm not rolling you, you drunken leech; I'm only taking the seventy-five dollars that's coming to me”; Kelly plants the toe of one of her high heels in his ribs one last time for good measure. She stands up and goes to the mirror. Pulling on her wig and preening in front of the camera, the opening credits finally roll. The camera falls on a desk calendar. The date: July 4, l96l, Kelly's Independence Day.

The Naked Kiss

These are the opening scenes of Samuel Fuller's l963 The Naked Kiss; the hand pulling off Kelly's (Constance Towers') wig belongs to Fuller himself. The image of a bald-headed prostitute in a bra and skirt beating the crap out of her pimp was shocking enough in l963, but the story only gets more lurid from there. That sums up a lot of Fuller's style; startle the hell out of the audience first off with a sequence that asks the audience to “write a caption” for it, and then go on to explain its context.

Sam Fuller died October 30, l997 at the age of eighty-six. At age thirteen, he quit school to become a copy boy for the pulpy New York Journal, during an age when the tabloids' longtime fixation on guns, blood and breasts were becoming more closely tied to social concerns. He went on to become the Journal's youngest crime reporter, rode the rails for a time during the Depression, and published several pulp novels (Burn Baby Burn, l935; Test Tube Baby and Make Up and Kiss, l936; The Dark Page, l944, filmed as Scandal Sheet, l952), eventually getting started in the movie business in l94l. By l942, Fuller had joined the U.S. Army, seeing combat with the First Army in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and Czechoslovakia, surviving D-Day and pressing on to the concentration camps at Birkenau (later putting these experiences into the autobiographical The Big Red One). All of these experiences show plainly in his filmmaking; he had a knack for taking conventional genres and infusing them with his wildly original energies and strong convictions. A Fuller film might be crude, violent, heavy-handed, raw and occasionally brilliant, but it will never dull. His stories were often the stuff of newspaper headlines; he would use a single shot or image to say a thousand words, in a style as graphic and silently compelling as a WeeGee or Jacob Riis photograph.

Pickup on South Street

No man who witnessed the horrors of ground combat in WWII Europe came back the same as before. Some became alcoholics; some suffered endless nightmares; some felt the perpetual exhaustion we now call “post-traumatic stress disorder.” Sam Fuller's worldview was shaped forever by what he saw. Fuller's political views confused and endeared him to fans and critics on the left and right both. His politics were woven through nearly every story, often using hard-bitten outcast heroes as his direct political mouthpieces. Though he despised communists, he held an equal degree of contempt for the likes of Joe McCarthy and Dick Nixon. If anything, Fuller's political outlook was closer to anarchy; he looked at anarchy as being a healthy remedy for the confines of modern society. When the FBI interrogates Skip in Pickup on South Street by trying to appeal to his national pride, he sneers through several layers of Sinatra cool, “Are you waving the flag at me?” To quote Fuller himself, “The majority of people are prepared to fight but it isn't really for their country or for an ideal but because they value their lives. I can't stand patriots. Lincoln once said something remarkable; ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel'.” This sort of ambiguity alienated critics on both sides of the political fence, but noted French film radical Godard lauded Fuller's work, and later cast him in his Pierrot le Fou. Certain soft-headed lefties would dismiss a film like Pickup or The Steel Helmet as being simple McCarthyism, but the politics of those films are far too complex and cryptic to be lumped in with such fare as Big Jim McClain or The Manchurian Candidate.

While outlining his scripts, Fuller was in the habit of using a chalkboard and three different colors of chalk, putting his plot elements in three separate columns. He would use red chalk for action, blue chalk for romance, and white chalk for simple exposition, making sure that all the elements were in balance with each other, and would then proceed to overlap and collide the parts with each other. This approach was novel, original, and a little insane, and was completely Fuller. He viewed the landscape of human emotions as intertwined and inseparable and was once quoted as saying, “You cannot force people to love one another, to think in the same way. You cannot make them, and I'm delighted. I love confusion, I love conflict, I love argument. If the whole world believed the same thing... imagine a world inhabited only by women or men, it would be terrible. Even if you're right, you have no right to impose your way of thinking on me.” He believed in neither heroes nor cowards; as far back as l960 John Wayne showed interest in The Big Red One, only to be turned down by Fuller, who didn't want a Hollywood hero-type for his film. His interest in the role of the individual kept him from widening his perspective and making grand, sweeping political statements; rather, the politics would be played out in microcosm between characters, and often reduced to mere thematic devices.

Fuller's work frequently horrified critics because of its political coarseness and lack of social consciousness, while the same critics admired his visual style. It was generally considered too esoteric to appeal to mainstream audiences, and too “lowbrow” to get across to the arthouse crowd. He was often dismissed as making statements that were too broad and simplistic to lend themselves to serious analysis (Andrew Sarris called him “an authentic American primitive”), but those same qualities are what give Fuller's films their visceral gut-punch appeal. He belonged to a generation of filmmakers that preceded the “film-school” directors like DePalma, Scorsese and Coppola, with more seat-of-the-pants feel and less of direction firmly bound in the strictures of film theory. Scorsese has said that a fight sequence in Raging Bull was specifically patterned after a segment of The Steel Helmet, and has often quoted Fuller as a major influence. Godard swiped a shot or two directly from Forty Guns for his Breathless; modern filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Rick Linklater are also great admirers of Fuller's style. His politics, at this late date, seem far ahead of their time and more firmly rooted in the real world; for all the dangers that Communism ever posed, the political ambitions of McCarthy's opportunists were as much of a threat to democracy. After all, he was of the generation that put their national beliefs on the line (and in Fuller's case, caught some shrapnel as a result), rather than coming home and playing on patriotism for political gain. Fuller's films might be compared to a restaurant with mediocre decor and atmosphere, but low prices and good (if not great) food; you know it may not be the best, but you continue to go back again and again. His stunted, sordid perspective holds up well after all these years; with his uniquely prescient vision, Sam Fuller definitely helped define and redefine the term “independent filmmaker.”

The Steel Helmet (l95l) was an early box-office success, and probably the first feature film to deal with the Korean War. The success of the film was somewhat remarkable considering its tone is unrelentingly grim and utterly unlike the jingoistic, celebratory note of most post-WWII war movies. Sergeant Zack (Gene Evans) is the only survivor after his platoon is executed by North Koreans. He pulls himself along painfully, hands tied behind his back with his own bootlaces, until he is discovered by a ten year old South Korean boy. He dubs the boy Short Round, and the two eventually hook up with an infantry squad. They find a Buddhist temple which they take over to use as an observation post. The squad is a group of misfits; a black medic, a WWII conscientious objector, a Japanese-American WWII vet, a mute, and a ninety-day-wonder OCS-grad officer in charge. The squad discovers a North Korean officer in the temple and take him prisoner, and Fuller uses him to work in his agenda in a less than oblique way. The captive goads the black medic by reminding him that blacks are forced to sit on the back of the bus in America, and provokingly remarks to the Nisei vet that Japanese-Americans were rounded up and shipped to interment camps in the U.S. during WWII. On finding out that the medic saw action at the end of WWII, Zack says, “Oh yeah, that outfit was put together to find out if you guys could fight.” Outspoken stuff for l95l, and reflective of Fuller's abiding hatred of prejudice and bigotry. The Steel Helmet has a gritty, authentic look that transcends its low budget and occasional staginess; all the GI's have Vaseline smeared on their faces and wear grimy uniforms. More notable, though, is the lack of propagandizing typical of the era. “Commies” are mentioned, but anti-Communist rhetoric is not. The GI's are merely exhausted; they talk mainly of food, rest and going home. It definitely did not endear Bronze Star recipient Fuller to the U.S. Army.

The Steel Helmet

Fuller's biggest success of the time (and superficially at least, his most conventional film) is the l953 noir effort, Pickup on South Street. Candy (Jean Peters) has her purse picked on the subway by small-time thief and ex-con Skip (Richard Widmark), neither of them realizing that the purse contains microfilm bound for Communist spies or that they are being watched by Federal agents. The NYPD and the Feds catch up with Skip and try to cajole him into turning over the microfilm, but as one of Fuller's “outsider,” antihero protagonists, the patriotic angle cuts no ice with him. He plays both sides against the middle when he finds out that the Communists are involved, hoping to make a big score off the deal. Moe (Thelma Ritter) is a professional snitch who helps lead the cops to Skip; she's saving all of her stool-pigeon money for a nice grave and a pretty headstone (“If I was buried in potter's field, it'd just about kill me!”). When Joey, the Communist agent, finally catches up with her in her dingy flop, she practically begs him to shoot her, while the syrupy strains of Chevalier play on her victrola. It's a tragic, strange, and very effective scene. Pickup is set almost entirely in the garbage-strewn alleys, grimy subways, seedy waterfront dives and gloomy streets of New York City; it's marked by extremely lengthy takes and fluid, mobile camera work. The closing scene in which Skip tracks down Joey in the subway is one of the more violent scenes you'll find in ‘50s film noir.

The late ‘50s and early ‘60s found Fuller doing marginally more conventional crime dramas, war films, police procedurals and Westerns, staying on the fringes of Hollywood and enjoying some box-office success. Then, in 1963, his creative juices started squirting like out-of-control Water Piks. Shock Corridor is the tale of a somewhat amoral reporter (Barrett, played by Peter Breck) who feigns mental illness to go underground in a mental hospital and try to find a murderer. It's been called “an impolite film,” and is about as subtle in its allegory as a mule kicking down a barn door. Barrett encounters a black man who, as the first black student at a Southern university, endures so much abuse at the hands of whites that he eventually snaps and thinks he's a Klansman. The scenes of the black man wearing his KKK hood and shouting white-supremacist garbage are particularly powerful and unnerving. Other patients include a Korean War vet (played by James Best, of Dukes of Hazzard fame) who, after brainwashing from his North Korean captors, imagines himself a Civil War Southern general, and a Manhattan Project-era nuclear scientist (actor Gene Evans) whose guilt eventually reduced him to the mentality of a six-year-old child. The metaphor points to the mental hospital as a microcosm of an American society gone mad. Barrett undergoes a typical outdated regimen of psychiatric care, including electroshock and restraints, and slowly descends into madness himself. During one particularly striking hallucination, Barrett imagines a raging thunderstorm in the corridor of the institution; Fuller had been urged not to shoot the scene since it required flooding the soundstage. Characteristically, he went ahead as planned and ruined a lot of equipment in the process. Legend has it that the scene was set for the last day of shooting; Fuller left his car idling outside with the trunk open. When shooting was completed, he threw the film magazines in the car and burned rubber for Mexico to develop and edit the film undisturbed.

As insane as Shock Corridor was, The Naked Kiss was even more out of control. Kelly (Constance Powers) plays a prostitute who decides to escape to small-town Grantville to try to start a new life, or at least not have a pimp to turn her money over to. Her first trick is Griff, the local chief of police (Anthony Eisley), who has no problem using her services, but then tells her to take her business elsewhere, to Candy's place in the next town. Kelly looks in the mirror and decides to give up the life of a prostitute, getting a job instead as a nurse in the local hospital for handicapped kids. There she flourishes, infusing the children with her sheer willpower to get them to perform their therapy. She gives another young nurse a thousand dollars to not have an abortion, and when a girlfriend makes a few bucks as a prospective hooker at Candy's, Kelly goes to the brothel and stuffs the cash down the cadaverous madam's throat, after flogging her with a purse. Eventually she meets and falls in love with Grant (Michael Dante), Korean War veteran and scion of the community. Fuller's movies don't often deal with pleasant subjects and settings, and Kelly's new life is so exaggeratedly bucolic, it seems almost David Lynch-ish. Her world is eventually (and inevitably) shattered, though this time as the result of Grant's vices.

In Fuller's unsentimental view, redemption is a hard road, as Kelly learned. It's a true example of the director's tabloid sensibilities, sensational to the point of being surreal (especially with the film's incorporation of the taboo subject of pedophilia). At times, The Naked Kiss is an utter potboiler; at other times shocking, disturbing or just plain weird (like the handicapped kids' musical number). It was not well received by critics or audiences at the time, and Fuller didn't work in Hollywood again until l980. Keep an eye out for the big red “one” on the dressmaker's dummy, Shock Corridor on the marquee of the Grantville theater, and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls' Edy Williams.

White Dog

The controversial White Dog was completed in 1982 but never released, and proved to be Fuller's last Hollywood movie. Based on the novel by Romain Gary, White Dog is the story of Julie (Kristy McNichol), who adopts a white German shepherd stray and bonds with the dog instantly. To her horror, she soon finds out that the dog attacks black people on sight. Rather than give the dog away or have it put down, she decides to retrain him, and hands him over to Keys and Carruthers (Paul Winfield and Burl Ives) for deprogramming. The film's main problem is in the casting, most noticeable during the film's pivotal scenes. When Julie meets the dog's original owner (Parley Faer, the fat-boy mayor from The Andy Griffith Show) the confrontation that followed should have been the most powerful scene of the whole movie, but teen heartthrob McNichol can't muster up the reserves demanded by the script. White Dog was condemned as a racist film when it was made, which I never understood. It seems that the metaphor is as obvious as any of Fuller's; the dog, like people, is only doing what it was programmed to do, and the point was in trying to unlearn that behavior and rehabilitate him. At any rate, White Dog got such a resounding thumbs-down from the studio that Fuller and Hollywood parted ways forever. He went on to write, produce, and perform in several more films in Europe during the ‘80s and ‘90s.

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A SAM FULLER FILMOGRAPHY I Shot Jesse James, l949  The Baron of Arizona, l950 The Steel Helmet, l95l Fixed Bayonets, l95l Park Row, l952 Pickup on South Street, l953 Hell and High Water, l954 House of Bamboo, l955 Run of the Arrow, l957 China Gate, l957 Forty Guns, l957 Verboten!, l959 The Crimson Kimono, l959 Underworld, U.S.A., l96l Merrill's Marauders, l962 Shock Corridor, l963 The Naked Kiss, l964 Shark!, l969 (uncredited) Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, l972 The Big Red One, l980 White Dog, l982 Les Voleurs de la Nuit/Thieves After Dark, l984 Street of No Return, l989
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This article originally appeared in Your Flesh #40

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