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Thursday, January 30th, 2003


 

A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking

by Samuel Fuller and Jerome Rudes and Christa Lange Fuller

Hell and Highwater

A review by David Thomson

Sam Fuller was placed for all time with his appearance in Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou. There he is, a scruffy American in Paris, profoundly unimpressed by it all, drinking vodka, wearing dark glasses indoors, and taking the chic, half-naked women for granted. Jean-Paul Belmondo tries talking to him, and one of the women serves as a translator. Belmondo discovers that the American is a film director, in Paris to do Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal, which even then, in 1965, was an unlikely hope. The shades left one wondering whether Fuller was supposed to be blind. What other condition could be so suited to his runic announcements?

So what is cinema? asks Belmondo. And Fuller's rasping voice answers in English, without hesitation. He could have been born in possession of this uncompromising definition. "The film is like a battleground. Love ... Hate ... Action ... Violence ... Death. In one word — Emotion." And now he tells us in his autobiography that "I'd be rich if I had a nickel for every film magazine and festival program around the world who printed that goddamned line!" Maybe it was the first time in his life that he was less his own man than the graven image of "Sam Fuller," the cigar doing the talking.

The French had seized on Fuller years before. He was exactly their kind of noble savage, a B-picture Baudelaire, a rogue genius roaming the open prison known as America. Americans, in turn, have picked up on that famously wild energy. You can feel that romance with bravura, yarn-spinning panache in the way this book was recently reviewed in The New York Times, under the headline "A Ripsnorting Life Gets a Ripsnorting Memoir": the Fuller cliché exactly, the image that little Sammy Fuller was always so busy promoting of himself, with a six-gun in his hand, a cigar as fat as a missile in his mouth, and his head burning with sensationalism. Surely there was such a guy: tiny, snarly, self-made, a rock of mad honesty, as aggressively sentimental as Al Jolson, someone who said "Hell!" all the time and tried to give you the impression that just being with him was like trying to defend yourself against Marciano. He was the stoker for his own furnace, building a heat from which his protagonists burst out roaring, desperate, exultant — the naked, forked, and scorched animal.

When the young French critics went to the movies, they saw that and more — they beheld a kind of pulp fiction that tasted like caviar. They knew immediately that the life and the marvel of the man existed up there on the screen, and in its surging shapes. Lacking the English that might make them cringe at Fuller's dialogue, they had more reason to see the style. Here is Truffaut, reacting in 1958 to the picture Verboten: "Bom ... bom ... bom ... bomm. Bom ... bom ... bom ... bomm. To the strains of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, four or five American soldiers liberate a German village with nothing but hand weapons. Ludwig von Fuller, who doesn't fool around when he's making movies, gives us the illusion that we're watching the entire American army. A wounded GI cared for by a young German girl, Helga — an idyllic touch, love, Wagner takes over for Beethoven. Samuel Fuller, who handles his camera with great style, takes his forbidden lovers on a honeymoon on the Rhine that is straight out of Guillaume Apollinaire."

Or how about this, which is Godard again at Forty Guns (1957):

Barbara Stanwyck's brother grabs her to use her as a shield. "Go on, shoot, you dirty coward," he shouts to Barry Sullivan, who is covering them with his gun. And without hesitation Barry Sullivan calmly shoots Barbara Stanwyck, who crumples up, and then the brother, who falls mortally wounded in his turn. "Stop shooting, you dirty coward," cries the dying man — Bang! Bang! — "For pity's sake, stop shooting" — Bang! Bang! — "Stop shooting, you can see I'm dying" — Bang! Bang! Bang!

So it was Kiss Kiss Bang Bang — to recall the movie poster that gave a title to Pauline Kael's first collection, and Pauline was a fine moll for Sammy, a broad made on his petite scale, gasping in orgasm and outrage at the way his trashy thinking was embodied in one of the great camera styles of American film. She would have been well aware of the dangers that loomed when an instinct like Fuller's began to read and absorb his best reviews. And it is still wiser to trust the upheaval of the films than Fuller's soothing report of his own life.

On the one hand I can only urge you to get yourself to a video store, find I Shot Jesse James (1948), and realize that for his debut Fuller was maverick enough to want to make Bob Ford his hero; or Park Row (1952), which is his tribute to his beloved newspaper business, and the marker for his ceaseless debt to the poetry of headlines; or Pickup on South Street (1952) — which only won the Bronze Lion at the Venice Film Festival, howdya like that?; or House of Bamboo (1955), a straight masterpiece, with Robert Ryan having to kill the hood he loved, while murmuring, "You see it now, don't you, Griff?" to the corpse; or Run of the Arrow (1956), still the only American film that puts out the authentic Irish Confederate Comanche point of view; or China Gate (1957), with Angie Dickinson as Lucky Legs, and the legs sometimes sprawled across the great CinemaScope frame; or Forty Guns (1957); Verboten (1958); The Crimson Kimono (1959); Underworld USA (1960); Merrill's Marauders (1961); Shock Corridor (1963); The Naked Kiss (1963).

Between 1948 and 1963, in an age of alleged conservatism and anxiety in America, and of diminishing confidence in Hollywood, little Sam Fuller made over a dozen films (I have omitted some titles) that are as rabid, hungry, lean, and dangerous as a pack of wolves (and please don't tell me that wolves are actually misunderstood and wronged in legend et cetera — I mean wolves!, as in headline talk). Not one of those Fuller films was nominated for an Oscar. Not many of them were truly A pictures. Pickup on South Street runs only eighty minutes. They are movies about scumbags, hookers, thugs, molls, and mothers. And they constitute one of the punchiest bodies of work in American film. You have to see them — I mean really see them, in the full dark, clotted by the breath of strangers, on screens about the size of wrecked ships never likely to hit the real swell again.

The best book I know about Fuller was written by Nicholas Garnham and published in 1971. On the first page, Garnham owns up to his own passion, and the shabby, antique circumstances that created it — the passage is worth quoting, because such circumstances are so much harder to find now, and because if you haven't had to confront Angie Dickinson's legs as long as a school bus, you are reduced to the rather vague and shriveled eroticism of the VCR:

This book is a labor of love, a love born in the dark womb of Sunday afternoon moviehouses in rain-drenched provincial towns and the seedier areas of London. This book is the culmination of an odyssey whose islands are ancient cinemas named Rex, Imperial, Tolmer, whose sirens are named Fuller, Boetticher, Siegel, Ray, Mann and Aldrich. To see in those half-empty moviehouses, smelling of damp clothes and nicotine, above the heads of sheltering old-age pensioners the images of House of Bamboo, Pickup on South Street or Merrill's Marauders was to come face to face with a cinematic presence that demanded recognition.

Just as those London theaters are gone or gentrified, just as nicotine is now the outlaw of the age, so it would be hard today to find acceptable prints of Fuller's great works in their original aspect ratio. I mean as movies. VHS and DVD are the best chances for those films surviving, so long as we concede how tamed or reduced survival has become. The wolves are now Labrador retrievers. It's not that the seething dynamism in Fuller — the slamming close-ups, the shifting composition, the delirious tracking shots, and the concussions of editing — is missing on the small screen. You can see the effects, lined up like academic proofs. It's just that you no longer feel them, because the emotion of the film was always dependent on the size and the impact of the motion on the screen. Samuel Fuller remains a filmmaker as energized as Franz Kline, as doomy as Jim Thompson, as soaring and bitter as Charlie Parker. For whichever post-war explosion you relate Fuller to, you have to see the films and hear the hardmouth talk alongside the intimations of music. In Fuller's bursting 1950s, movie was a visual/dramatic/radio art. It was a frenzy on the wall, and the clamor of suggestive sounds in the dark.

All of which is absolutely vital if we are to forgive this well-intentioned, informative, but eventually misleading book about Sam Fuller. Fuller was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1911, the son of a Polish-Jewish mother and a Russian-Jewish father who had thrown out the Rabinovitch name (and Jewish training) and picked an alternative from the roster on the Mayflower. It is striking, therefore, that Fuller the autobiographer seizes on his own blunt, straightforward ways: "I come from a generation for whom telling the truth meant everything. I suppose I'm still pretty naïve about people being truthful. See, I still believe what James Cagney said in one of his movies: `You shake a man's hand and look him straight in the eye and everything will be all right.'" See. That's the key to the style. On screen, Sam is always saying "See!" and showing us. On the page, it's too often lecture.

Five hundred pages later, the story of this seething little life comes to its close. Along the way, Fuller has said "Hell!" or "Helluva!" so many times to hammer home his simple sincerity that the reader is punch-drunk (and a hundred percent unconvinced). Still, the book ends with very much the kind of protesting language that frequently makes Fuller's dialogue a struggle between tolerance and derision:

So here's my last word, dear reader.
Love.
That's right. Love.
I don't give a damn if it sounds like some corny ending to a B movie. Everybody's got troubles, setbacks, frustrations, tragedies. Love gets us through them. Love inspires generosity, patience and compassion. Love keeps us healthy and whole. If I've learned anything at all from writing all those stories, from fighting a world war, from making all those films, from being way up and being way down, I've learned that everything — everything! — can be expressed in just four god-blessed words: Love is the answer.

All together now? Let me say as gently as I can that this is the fond blather of an old man, probably much in love with a younger wife (the actress Christa Lang), but a million miles from the harsh worldview of such unforgettable characters as Skip (Richard Widmark), the pickpocket who knows no allegiances in the McCarthyist world of Pickup on South Street; O'Meara (Rod Steiger) the essential rebel and misanthrope in Run of the Arrow; Tolly (Cliff Robertson), the heartless seeker of insane personal vengeance in Underworld USA; or Kelly (Constance Towers), the prostitute in The Naked Kiss.

These characters, and all of Fuller's most characteristic people, are outsiders, on the brink of insanity, exhausted by vast, absurd ordeals and talking like emotional drunks. To quote the French critic Luc Moullet:

Fuller is a coarse character: everything he does is incongruous. There is a grain of madness in him. But we really need madmen.... Only the insane can hope one day to create a work comparable to the living model. In Fuller we see everything that other directors deliberately excuse from their films: disorder, filth, the unexplainable, the stubbled chin, a kind of fascinating ugliness in a man's face.... Man belongs to the order of the earth, and he must resemble it, in all the harshness of its beauty.

That is brilliant, until you think of Fuller reading it and having to get his cunning head around the idea of his own insanity. So it is unduly sane, genteel, or elderly to talk so much about love when life has been so tough. The Sam Fuller I met, in the early 1980s, was already his own parody, not just garrulous but barking out his own dialogue and carrying on as if he were in a film — and this was long after his best work. He was idolized by then, he was a legendary character — none of which is especially good for primitives. But even then I don't think anyone ever doubted that Fuller, personally, was dangerous, unruly, a force, in the way that some small men never lose. Nor for one moment do I think that Rabinovitch became Fuller tidily and that was that.

Education gets barely a mention in this book, and when it does come up it's as a place where Sammy got into fights. Soon, as you know, he was working — why not, he was a youth in the Depression — as a hotel bellboy and then as a beginner, loading papers for the New York Journal. How one longs for a reliable, searching commentary on those years. Yet Fuller the self-conscious dealer in truth covers childhood as quickly as a 1930s movie about Jimmy Cagney growing up to be a public enemy — and a live wire. It's not that the book is simply rose-colored or incomplete: it's a scenario already, a vivid dramatic sketch, typical of the kind of writing that supplies its own Pow!, Ouch!, and Chrissakes! By the standard of the 1930s, it is movie-writing for an age when disenchanted novelists had to work side by side with uninhibited purveyors of pulp.

Fuller became a crime reporter for Arthur Brisbane at the Journal. "God, how I loved it!" The melodrama, the sordid lives, the celebrities seen in private, the privileged vantages, the chance to tell it all in two hundred words. Here's Sam at an Ossining execution: "Three powerful shocks hit the man's body like a runaway train. His body began to shake, his skin turned purple, then blue, and smoke started coming off his flesh. For Chrissakes, he actually started to burn right in front of our eyes! The odor of charred human flesh is something right out of hell." I'm sure he was there, but the writing is sheer journalese — hitting every cliché, so full of imagined sensation that Fuller can picture it with his eyes shut. And that is the great lesson of his film-making. For if he was a hack with words, when he had to bring an event to life he was like no one else. Suddenly the clichés fell apart and were replaced by extraordinary and unique camera movements, Capa and Weegee compositions and nearly surreal pieces of action. He had no training for that — he had gone to movies like every other kid of his age. And he never had the kind of mind that could analyze his own experience, thank God. Understanding can kill the vitality of a primitive.

Journalism also provided a rough-and-ready politics: a landscape of dumb, luckless bastards who could end up in the chair because they had never worked out how to survive. It gave Fuller a vein of populism and care for the underdog that went hand in glove with the yellow press's shameless exploitation of its gullible readers and ruthless endorsement of the status quo. But then those politics came to real life in the war, when Fuller was an ant in the infantry, desperate to survive and even more desperate to dress up his own fear as survivor's toughness. He loved his unit, the Big Red One (celebrated in one of his later films in which Lee Marvin has to be solemn to the point of being statuesque as an eternally reliable sergeant). Again, Fuller doesn't tell the whole truth of war: the panic, the madness, the frenzy to endure at any cost. But his eye was getting more precise. He went ashore early at Omaha Beach on June 6:

Wave upon wave of our soldiers hit that beach. Nothing could stop the massive invasion. Machine guns rattled from up above, dropping dogfaces in the surf, turning the ocean red. Human screams were drowned out by the shrieking artillery shells that fell out of the foggy sky. Mines exploded underfoot. Smoldering bodies were everywhere. As thousands of dogfaces debarked, hundreds and hundreds dropped into the surf and across the sand. Heads, arms, fingers, testicles and legs were scattered everywhere as we ran up the beach, trying to dodge the corpses. I saw a man's mouth — just a mouth, for Chrissakes! — floating in the water.

In 1944, while he was in Europe, he had a novel called The Dark Page published. It was a real novel — though Fuller says next to nothing about its content in this book — as opposed to the pulps that he had done in the late 1930s (Burn Baby Burn and Test Tube Baby). Howard Hawks bought the rights to The Dark Page for $15,000, but never made the film. (He sold the rights at a big profit and it turned into a Phil Karlson picture, Scandal Sheet, made in 1952.) The Dark Page is the story of an intense and perverse relationship between a newspaper editor and a reporter, and it's an early sign of Fuller's fascination with betrayed friendships (a matter not raised in A Third Face).

But The Dark Page helped to get Fuller closer to movies (he had done a few screenplays before the war), and in 1948 he did his first film, I Shot Jesse James, for Robert L. Lippert, a drive-in tycoon who also made B pictures. As if to ace Hawks, Fuller hired John Ireland, a small sensation in Hawks's Red River, but a wild guy who had crossed Hawks and was never forgiven. I Shot Jesse James is still one of the more startling Fuller films, a western filled with dark ideas about male affection and the need for fame. Martin Scorsese, whose own work is filled with male bonding that can turn rancid, recollects in the foreword to this book seeing I Shot Jesse James as a child and never forgetting the instant of hesitation before betrayal. It's a rare moment, one that offers a thematic entry to Fuller's material — yet something ignored in this book. Why should the intense artist think to betray himself?

Fuller had sneaked in as a director, in the last wave of B pictures, when no one had any reason to expect the stylist that he would become. And, more or less, his natural career lasted — at a fast and furious rate — until Hollywood began to change. The old studio system faltered. The great directors were hailed as geniuses by French critics. And then the generation of Scorsese tried to fill their shoes. In Britain in the early 1960s, I recall, there was a fierce critical debate (essentially liberal humanist cinema against cinema for cinema's sake) when the young rebels offered Pickup on South Street as an insolent rebuke to the intellectual anguish of Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kubrick, and even David Lean. And it was not long after that that Fuller stood short and proud in the salon of Pierrot le Fou, issuing his ultimatum terms for the defense of movies.

Fuller was only fifty-three then, but he seemed older. B pictures were no more, and truly Fuller was a little embarrassed by the scale of A pictures. In 1965, he met the German actress Christa Lang, who would be his second wife and very much the protector of this book. Fuller took one festival tribute after another. He became the talisman of younger directors such as Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Curtis Hanson, Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, and Quentin Tarantino, all of whom were so movie literate that they might have produced about a quarter-cup of "primitive" if you had put them all in the same press. And so this book was written in years of old age and adulation, and surely helped into being by Fuller's widow and others.

He lived in Europe a lot. He toured festivals and did guest spots in the films of his young admirers. He did Fuller redux films: White Dog, where the wolf actually turns into a new Rin Tin Tin, and The Big Red One, his long-dreamed-of panorama of the infantry life. It's not bad, but if I tell you that instead of eighty-seven raw minutes slapped on the screen like a bloodstain he nursed dreams of a four-and-a-half-hour masterpiece, you will realize how Sam Fuller was turning into David Lean. And this book inevitably suffers from the benign, half-dozing dream of Fuller's prolonged celebrity. If only it could be as quick, tired, and direct as Thelma Ritter's Moe in her death scene from Pickup on South Street.

The limits and the omissions of the book are every bit as revealing of the real, awkward Fuller as what the book says. I should add that many of the pictures are superb: in the war section, it has Fuller's own pungent cartoons, some Robert Capa pictures (they were buddies), and Fuller's own snapshots — there is one, from a passing truck, of French girls in summer clothes that instantly captures his remote adoration of prettiness. And while the book certainly conveys Fuller's style as a scenarist, it offers no clue to his dynamic or hellish film-making. For that you must turn to the screen.

There is one last thing to be said, and it comes as wariness about the Fuller cult, especially as entertained by today's film intellectuals. Sam Fuller may not have cared to spell it out, or even face it himself, but he came to work as a director as a very wounded survivor — a little man oppressed by xenophobia, hard times, big bosses, the military, and all the corpses he had had to see. There is a spirit of outrage in Fuller's work, a roar of anguish at the world, and it is something we don't hear now. Today's directors have no politics. And so I don't think that it is accidental that Fuller reveled in the 1950s, an age in which so many political clichés were cracking open, and bugs were crawling out of the supposed fruit. The current revival of interest in Douglas Sirk, courtesy of Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven, only reminds us of a generation of brutalized idealists — men such as Nicholas Ray, Robert Aldrich, Otto Preminger, and Samuel Fuller. Fuller had known hell, and even if he regularly overdid Hell!, his films had a limping, warped hurt to them that you rarely find in our franchise-suckered times.


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