Sam Fuller’s Art of Gracelessness

11/11/2009 3:31 PM |


Samuel Fuller’s movies are equal parts street corner and gutter, a combination of two-inch-headline journalistic hullabaloo and pulp poetics. Andrew Sarris called him “an authentic American primitive,” while Dana Polan described him as “the opposite of graceful; his style seems to suggest that in a world where grace provides little redemption, its utilization would be a kind of lie.” This one-of-a-kind, immediately recognizable persona is on full display in Sony’s seven disc box set The Samuel Fuller Collection, which pulls together seven hard-to-find films that the cigar-chomping filmmaker was involved in, none of which were previously available on DVD.

Among the most coveted of Fuller’s works featured here are The Crimson Kimono (1959) and Underworld U.S.A. (1961), two stories of crime and society told from opposite ends of the moral spectrum: one from the cops, and one from the crooks. In the tradition of 1930s Warner Bros. gangster pictures such as The Public Enemy (1931), Underworld U.S.A. is a street-punk picaresque, beginning with a teenage Tolly Devlin rolling drunks in alleys. After witnessing the murder of his father by four shadowy figures, he begins a life-long quest to uncover the identity of the murderers and exact revenge. However, it isn’t until twenty years later that Devlin (now played by Cliff Robertson) gets his chance. Working for both the mobs and the cops, he ruthlessly plays both ends against the middle in a vigilante attempt at taking down organized crime.

Famously shot on-location in Little Tokyo, The Crimson Kimono follows two detectives (played by Glenn Corbett and James Shigeta) on the hunt for a killer who specializes in collecting rare East Asian artifacts. The opening sequence, in which a burlesque dancer is chased off-stage and into the middle of the street where she is shot, is among his most bombastic and sensational openings. The director later related to Eric Sherman and Martin Rubin, “We didn’t stage it. That was real traffic. If some idiot had pulled out all of a sudden, the girl would have gotten it. Most dangerous scene I’ve ever shot.” Fuller’s philosophical stand-in (a bourbon-swilling female artist) gets all the great lines: “Life is like a battle, Chris, somebody has to get a bloody nose” and “Smoking a cigarette is like drinking beer out of a thimble. A man is only a man, my dear, but a good cigar is a smoke.” What is most unique about the picture, however, is its handling of racial tension between the two main characters, one a White American and the other a Japanese-American, and their seemingly unbreakable homosocial bond that falls apart over the love of a Caucasian woman. Like anything Fuller has done, it is far from subtle, but for all his directness he never loses sight of nuance or complexity and, as the ending shows, he never offers easy, bow-tied answers.

While Fuller pulled triple duty as director/writer/producer on The Crimson Kimono and Underworld U.S.A., what distinguishes the box set from other auteur-centric collections is the attention devoted to films in which Fuller served only as a writer (often either in collaboration, or in adaptation) that predate his directorial work by as much as a decade. It Happened in Hollywood (1937), Fuller’s second credit as a writer, is one of the real “finds” here, a tale of the rise-and-fall of a silent Western actor (here played by Richard Dix, loosely based on real-life cowboy star Tom Mix) who refuses to alter his “goody guy” image to become a gangster once the talkies hit the screen. Arguably the film’s highlight, a procession of “fake” star look-alikes (Chaplin, Garbo, and the like) calls attention to the film’s preoccupation with stardom and the tension between image and action, as well as larger issues of cultural mythology that would distinguish Fuller’s work throughout his life. Adventure in Sahara (1938) is short on Fuller but full of sadism, sand, shooting, and sword-wielding Arabs. On the other hand, Lew Landers’ Power of the Press (1943) shows more of Fuller’s sensibility, with honest newspaper editor Guy Kibbee fighting against corrupt journalism and didactically declaring, “He that taketh the sword shall perish by the sword. So I guess that he that fakes the news is entitled to perish by fake news!” The film is also notable for its co-star, the underrated Lee Tracy, whose Depression-era cynicism and street smarts put him in the same league as James Cagney.

The more instructive collaborations feature directors with more fully formed styles, sensibilities as equally distinct as Fuller’s. In Shockproof (1949) Douglas Sirk certainly lends his visual splendor to Fuller’s script (adding a touch of the “grace” Polan suggested was missing from Fuller’s own direction) about a female ex-con (Patricia Knight) caught between her parole officer (Cornel Wilde) and hoodlum lover (John Baragrey). Fuller may have thought Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet (based on Fuller’s novel The Dark Page) was “disappointing” (“It was a lesson in losing artistic control of my work that I wouldn’t ever forget.”), but the fusion of documentary realism and journalistic sensationalism seems more fitting than perhaps Fuller cared to have admit. And while John Derek might be too soft for the hardened newspaperman he was supposed to portray, Henry Morgan is pitch-perfect as the sidekick photographer with lines like, “You know, that wasn’t a bad looking dame. Too bad the guy used an axe on her head. Spoiled some pretty pictures for me.”

Fans of the director won’t want to miss out on this release, and while newcomers might be advised to start more canonic films like Pickup on South Street (1953), Shock Corridor (1963), or The Naked Kiss (1964), the back-to-back productions of The Crimson Kimono and Underworld U.S.A. give you as potent and defining a dose of Fuller as any of his more famous works.


Also on DVD this week:

Ballast (2008) (Kino, Region 1) – The best part of Lance Hammer’s story of desperation in the Mississippi Delta is the cinematography by Lol Crawley, shot on 35mm with all natural lighting. Emotional devastation has rarely looked so damn beautiful.

Lake Tahoe (2008) (Film Movement, Region 1) – The L’s Simon Abram really liked this one: “Lake Tahoe, Mexican auteur Fernando Eimbcke’s quietly assured follow-up to his equally satisfying Duck Season, is a tantalizing anti-bildungsroman which laconically follows a bunch of teens as they cope with grief and angst on a hot summer day.”

Near Dark (1987) (Lionsgate, Blu Ray Region ‘A’) – Before <em>The Hurt Locker and Point Break, Kathryn Bigelow made this reinterpretation of the vampire and Western genres, equal parts action and atmosphere. The film’s extended opening, which follows the slow, torturous, and uncertain “change” from human to vampire, is tremendous. Rarely has such an internal mutation been conveyed so cinematically.