I Shot Jesse James
It perhaps comes from two anecdotes told by Fuller in his autobiography, the one concerning a GI who shot up a tentful of Arabs and was quietly dispatched by the squad leader, the other one Marlene Dietrich in her dressing room during a USO tour (and there was luncheon with Hitchcock at the Savoy, too).
Sarris describes it as “constructed almost entirely in close-ups of an oppressive intensity the cinema has not experienced since Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Fuller’s script was so compressed that there was no room for even one establishing atmosphere shot or one dramatically irrelevant scene in which characters could suggest an everyday existence.” The New York Times simply called it “a commonplace movie.”
The style might be likened to that of Joseph Kane, who is perhaps betokened in the impresario at the Opera House in St. Joe.
The Baron of Arizona
Fuller’s stunning unsung masterpiece of falsification on a colossal scale to support nothing less than a claim on the entire Territory of Arizona.
It takes years to plan and execute in the archives of Mexico and Spain. The forger spends three years as a Spanish monk to alter a land grant in the library, then marshals gypsies and an affair with a nobleman’s wife to get at the duplicate in a castle near Madrid.
Arizonans buy their own land back from him, the railroad its right-of-way (the story is true), while an expert from the Department of the Interior tracks down the clues.
And this is only the half of it, Fuller has him raise a girl from childhood to be the heiress of his invented claim, she falls in love, he acquires something more precious than Arizona (the film opens on a small celebration at the Governor’s Mansion after statehood is achieved in 1912).
The Steel Helmet
The key film of the Korean War, with Joseph H. Lewis’s Retreat, Hell!, Tay Garnett’s One Minute to Zero, Gordon Douglas’s The McConnell Story, and Mark Robson’s The Bridges at Toko-Ri.
Either you kill the Buddha (Victor Jory) or it kills you.
The South Korean kid appears variously in John Wayne’s The Green Berets and Robert Altman’s MASH.
The film is symmetrically disposed between the command post scene and the final battle with a tank. Lt. Gibbs dies at the cave entrance, Sgt. Rock inside the cave. Sgt. Lonergan’s death on the minefield below is the central scene.
Cpl. Denno walks across the frozen snow in a close-up of his glistening boots as they slowly move in the air, wavering ever so slightly, like a line of verse in composition finding its feet.
The commanding general’s jeep is blown up at the start of the film. His arm wound is dressed while he takes counsel of his staff and determines the retreat, all in the space of the cigarette smoked by an officer in the scene.
Freedom of the press, from Zenger to the circulation wars.
The American newspaper in New York, 1886, from hellbox to steam-operated linotype.
“The Lady in New-York Bay” needs a pedestal, the Globe provides one.
Capra had preached the proper function of journalism in The Power of the Press, Fuller takes cognizance of Welles’ Citizen Kane, Losey has the ending in The Lawless.
A perfect period evocation on a fine set, with Greeley and Franklin as genii loci.
“Diffuse... confusing... rambling” (A.W., New York Times).
“Earnest but flat” (Halliwell’s Film Guide).
Pickup On South Street
A personal vision informs the structure of this highly-developed, intensely-concentrated masterpiece. The pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) has “the hands of an artist”, he keeps his treasure in a film can. One morning on the subway he rifles the purse of a Commie’s moll, she’s carrying microfilm.
“The red side of the ledger” is when you slip up because you don’t feel well or your mind’s not on it, you’re pinched. Moe (Thelma Ritter) walks the streets selling “personality” ties, a buck apiece, she knows the grifters and gladly supplements her income by informing on them, no hard feelings between her and Skip, “he’s gotta live”, “she’s gotta eat”.
Joey (Richard Kiley) is a nervous rat who fears his Commie bosses and has no idea he’s being watched by Federal agents awaiting the drop. Skip interferes and won’t cooperate.
The moll, Candy (Jean Peters), got a break from Joey, thinks it’s big business. The cops offer Skip immunity, he won’t take it, Candy tracks him down through Moe. They fall in love, she’s a Red, he tells her, but her money’s still good. Candy is repulsed at the suggestion, “You think I’m a Commie?”
Fuller moves so fast that even the best of his critics can’t divine the structure and preparation of his films. There’s nothing haphazard or shorted, on the contrary, the construction and filming are amazingly detailed and accurate. His camerawork demonstrates the link between Hitchcock’s Murder! and Welles’ The Stranger freely, he edits by camera movement often. The Maltese Falcon appears in Candy’s threefold look at her employers (cp. The Spy in Black, The Birds). He makes a point of filming morning sunlight like the sundown in Out of the Past, getting a fast reflection.
Hell and High Water
A symphony in five movements.
Ŕ bout de souffle at the start, a major influence to all appearances.
Assault on a Queen for the outfitting of a Japanese “sewer pipe”.
The great submarine duel in the North Pacific.
A Crash Dive commando raid on a Red Chinese installation.
Finale, a B-29 raid on Korea or Manchuria with an atomic bomb, the Peking ploy.
House of Bamboo
It should be “a glimpse of American crime rings operating in Japan after World War II” (American Cinematographer) or “a subtly homoerotic relationship” (Slant Magazine).
Fuller has other ideas. He finds himself in Japan, as it always was, a tribute to the Occupation. He has a gangster story that serves him very well, and chances upon the locations for it.
Japan is a very happy place, beautiful, ancient, modern, a gang of thugs rule the roost out of pachinko parlors (this is the protection racket in Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui) who launch invasions and attacks for loot, their leader dies under a globe.
This was not perceived as the symbolic representation it is, critics being what they are.
The Fuller analysis finds every weakness in the West, the Red-baiting that serves the enemy’s purpose, the blind hatred that curtails its own strength, the purposelessness and recklessness against an enemy made more powerful thereby.
Mostly he identifies a ragged polarity of right and left, one not too far gone, the other off the deep end.
The metaphor as well as the reality is Indochina in 1954, a front of the Cold War precisely as Algeria was in Godard’s Le petit soldat.
The action of the film is this analysis, which destroys a huge dump of Soviet ammo in the North.
An articulate, inspired masterpiece from Fuller, entirely uncomprehended by Variety and the New York Times. “Enormously entertaining pulp,” says Hoberman in The Village Voice, “delivered with Fullerian formalist brio, and totally, productively crazy,” likewise.
Run of the Arrow
“I’m a Good Old Rebel” expresses the solid indignation of the South, Fuller looks at an Irishman of the Virginia infantry who betakes himself out West to the Sioux, whose French name is translated by Walking Coyote.
This is a fine and dandy thing, maugre the critical confusion (there are some critics who never see a forest if there’s a tree). Some have followed Variety in regarding Steiger’s brogue as a lapse, for example.
The first thirty minutes are among the most lacerating Fuller ever filmed, and then he gets into his argument.
Don Druker (Chicago Reader) sees an “imperialistic bias”, Time Out Film Guide damns with fainting praise (saying Lawrence of Arabia is a villainous rival), Halliwell speaks of “unpleasantness”, Bosley Crowther (New York Times) sees no Fort Apache.
The lady rancher with a spread so vast it’s guarded by the title characters and her brother, who runs afoul of the law.
One of the greatest Westerns ever made, with a sense of Johnny Guitar (dir. Nicholas Ray) and various understandings of the O.K. Corral.
The Third Reich will indeed last a thousand years, in the words of Hans Frank cited here by Robert H. Jackson, of ineradicable shame.
Fuller gets to the details of the last fighting, the American Military Government, and the Werewolves, created to harass the Occupation but seeing themselves as the re-creation of Hitler and his incipient Nazi Party as far back as 1919 (an American captain describes them as part of a worldwide problem known at home, even, “juvenile delinquency”).
George Seaton (The Big Lift) followed Billy Wilder’s lead (A Foreign Affair) in addressing the problem of German loyalty, Fuller probes this matter to the fullest, leaving no stone unturned, and exposing to the public film evidence at the Nuremberg Trials.
A Hitler youth is “plucked out burning” from the disaster, a verboten fräulein becomes a missus, the Werewolves are rounded up, and Fuller has exactly the grasp needed to mete out justice in the case.
“I always come away from Samuel Fuller films both admiring and jealous.” (Truffaut)
The Crimson Kimono
A lesson in art from a master artist, who portrays himself as Mac (Anna Lee).
A stripper’s dead, her librarian’s lover did it out of misplaced jealousy.
Two cops (Glenn Corbett, James Shigeta) fight over a girl (Victoria Shaw) in the art program at USC, her work lacks something indefinable.
Little Tokyo in Los Angeles seen well, with views of Downtown.
Four crooks beat another to death, his young son vows revenge.
Twenty years later he achieves it. They’re all top mobsters in their various rackets (drugs, unions, prostitution), he sees one die in prison, joins the syndicate and does the rest down.
Dolores Dorn has the critically overlooked performance here in a theme derived from The Baron of Arizona.
Cliff Robertson shows this as unmistakably the precedent for Terence Young’s The Valachi Papers.
The mob is a murderous gang high-flown in executive suites that front the rackets, a Federal Crime Committee serves the hero as ballast in a cagey swing at the entire echelon.
The epic of war, exhaustion and disease.
The breakout from India against a Jap linkup with Hitler.
The battles of Walawbum, Shaduzup and Myitkyina.
The desperation of the final battle before Myitkyina, for they are all the final battle, is depicted in a squad formation out of Remington’s Fight for the Water Hole.
Fuller anticipates the tears of Boorman’s Deliverance, and that is only Shaduzup.
His Burma locations are in the Philippines and by art look real.
The precedent is King Vidor’s Northwest Passage.
The grandeur and richness of Fuller’s conceptions, and the overall structure, are a self-contained version of the Scarface model adapted to clinical terms and all borne out by Wiseman’s Titicut Follies shortly thereafter.
Lang’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is another factor.
The Naked Kiss
It’s shown in two versions, a bald whore rifling a man’s wallet for her fee after beating him down with her shoe (he’s drunk, he pleads), she’s wearing a black bra and demi-slip, then a man of wealth plying a beauty with home movies of Venice, Byron, Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata (“carved out of moonlight”), her dream of it “on Lake Geneva in a boat with leaves falling”, the courtesan in excelsis.
She becomes a nurse to handicapped children endowed by him with charity, the major satirical theme, the same woman in both scenes, Baudelaire’s Beauty, “I never make change.”
Fuller affords his production a second line of satire on Nabokov’s account, his Crœsus is a europhile named Grant (“synonymous with charity”) who has a penchant for “special games” with the little ones.
Stanley Cortez takes the lighting director’s task to film noir heights in this gambit, much the same as the little song of the ward patients is like one of Pinter’s lyrics in its extreme condensation and formal satisfaction. Fuller is a great director and writer and producer, the structure huge and tottering pivots on a little girl who keeps mum under pressure but tells all blithely when treated kindly.
Fuller completed the film and saw it recut unrecognizably by the producers, saw it literally at a screening, where it was renamed Shark!. Generally it’s film critics who know more about filmmaking than directors do, unless it’s a matter here of vandals merely paying for the privilege.
Since what we have is bits and pieces shot by Fuller, we must construe them to have any idea of the film, pending the release of his screenplay. It’s not at all difficult to formulate a tentative reading. A truck-driving gunrunner in the Sudan loses his wares in a Le Salaire de la peur accident, he signs on as a diver with a scientific expedition. Sunken gold is the real object, “Chinese” Gordon is mentioned, the wreck of the Victoria has it.
The construction is mainly schematic, from this vantage, and gets the gunrunner working for the expedition as its main structural point. He’s stranded in a “pigsty” of a village, suspected by the local constable (also stranded there for some misconduct that is whispered only). The only hotel is a pesthole run by a “true capitalist” Caine calls Fatso, a little street Arab steals the watch Caine is trying to sell and is befriended by him as a colleague, Caine calls the boy Runt.
Professor Mallare and his mate Anna lose an Arab diver in the present opening scene, a shark kills the young man. Anna gives his wages to his grieving mother, who licks her thumb and counts the bills (it looks like a very sharp précis of Fernandez’s Un Dia de Vida).
Caine finds out about the gold and deals himself in. An acetylene torch opens the safe underwater, Caine and Mallare laboriously carry ingots to a waiting basket, the job is nearly finished when someone aboard the Anna starts dropping chum over the side, presumably Anna herself. One of Fuller’s greatest images has these bits of fish suddenly appear above the divers, amid placid sharks.
Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street
The whole constitutes an apparent recomposition of Richard Thorpe’s The Scorpio Letters, concerning undercover operations in a blackmail ring.
It opens with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, first movement, before the recapitulation, on a stained bronze head of the composer outdoors. Then a pigeon (an extra from Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc) flies and a shot is heard. Title and credits.
The first scene is mirrored at the end, and both are drawn stylistically from Ŕ bout de souffle, by way of The Quiller Memorandum. A dog attends the operative’s body, anticipating S.O.B. Exceedingly sharp cutting and the zoom lens are featured. A chase scene briefly is reflected in The Sting.
The face is Fuller’s medium, even to the eyes in an extreme close-up as here. A Welles stunt, picture postcard cuts to picture.
A phone booth’s rhomboid frosted panes give a Matisse portrait. The modulating power of the overhead shot later in The Mackintosh Man animates a street scene.
Rio Bravo, richly enjoyed by the hero, goes on about its business. Passersby are treated ŕ la Bresson.
A mickey dropped in the girl’s coffee dissolves in three quick separate shots, like Tippi Hedren in The Birds. The essence of photography is her face reflected in a store window, setting up the sort of André Kertesz joke that follows, blackmail photos on a couch (afterward, the contemporary painting on the wall is replaced by a seventeenth-century portrait). The game of switching heads in a photo is played.
Fuller’s idea of drama is that the drugged girl wakes up and starts to leave, tout simple, as calm and bewildered as Frank Nelson after being knocked unconscious in an episode of I Love Lucy.
An exterior crowd shot at closing time looks like The Stars Look Down. Renoir’s track-and-pan is set out, with an adjustable zoom.
You have to look to Peckinpah for a comparable style, The Killer Elite, for example. A quick quote from Psycho’s shower scene is put to good use.
The interrogation scene is most violent by suggestion. Anton Diffring simply puts his face close to Glenn Corbett’s in a two-shot and slaps his head a few times, but the compression is enormous.
Beethovens Geburtshaus is now a museum (this scene might be Roy William Neill’s Dressed to Kill). Corbett and Lang dawdle over glass cases containing his spectacles and ear trumpet, amid portraits and a pianoforte (its keyboard is covered by Plexiglas).
The comical ease of Fuller’s Cologne is in a shot (compare the Place de l’Opéra in Polanski’s Frantic) as the two walk down a narrow lane past commercial shops (Dr. Scholl’s DIENST AM FUSS—Fusspflege) to a König Pilsener under the rubric of China.
The charming business at the Hotel Petersberg (mickey in champagne, the search for His Excellency, his touching state of druggedness) is one of several comic episodes, punctuated by Chinese landscapes of fog and hills, a ruined tower, Alphaville, Krupp’s factory, etc. They end with a stretto of world leaders in snapshots, Lang’s mailed hand, and the punchline of the secondary joke (below), accompanied by Debussy’s Syrinx heard for the second time as the camera pans across a cocktail party and discovers the flutist.
Boat interior, night, purple cloths, golden light, leopard-skin, city lights slowly drifting past...
Fuller’s art is, among other things, the transformations of time in small increments, as in the carnival scene with hostile clown and confetti (thrown into the tight angled tracking shot). He looks up at the cathedral spires and tilts down to a parade with a marching band playing the song at the end of Paths of Glory. He gives you a monumental high long shot of the train station interior.
The prime joke is the swordfight, which blundering Corbett wins by throwing everything in the room at Diffring before cutting off his head. The secondary joke is an alternate version of a famous case handled by (if memory serves) Jerry Giesler, concerning a man on trial for attempted rape who turned out to be impotent.
The Eastmancolor cinematography (by Jerzy Lipman, of Knife in the Water) and the score are priceless. The German title adds “scene of the crime” (Wer is dod?—Sporbrod.) to the equation, and there is a novelization by Fuller.
The Big Red One
Fuller’s acerbic style is based on an understanding of great art common to William Shakespeare and Bridget Riley, that it comes from the manipulation of small elements.
The opening flashback in black and white resumes The Steel Helmet to puncture what Renoir called “La Grande Illusion,” and to set the mark for the film (which is reached in the fantastic ambush at the crucifix).
This film concerns the entire European Theater of Operations, and this style is capable of it, easily amalgamating complex images derived from Cross of Iron (and Lawrence of Arabia), King of Hearts, Immortal Battalion, etc. (the last frame suggests an afterthought of The Wild Bunch).
The Bangalore torpedo sequence is demonstrative. It’s framed by a soldier’s hand in the water showing the time on his watch. This is not merely picturesque, but states the relation, so much time, so much blood.
The major precedents go back to silent films, of which this is an inheritance. Rossellini’s Paisŕ is a useful comparison, and so is Robert Pirosh’s Combat!.
Criticism founders, and so did studio executives, on Variety’s remark, “too unevenly balanced and single-minded to work completely”, which really implies the reviewer has not seen what he was looking for, the tragical element of reflection, but it is there abundantly.
Fuller’s technique is entirely opposed to Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, he aims rather for a continuous placid range of thought that exactly cultivates this sense of another domain in the drama.
The point is, not following the affair the critics have dropped the ball nearly as badly as Paramount, which didn’t have the heart to release the film in the first place.
Les Voleurs de la nuit
One of the very best Nouvelle Vague films.
For some reason the most obscure of Fuller’s works, hardly known at all.
A guy and gal strike up a romance after a hard day at the unemployment office, then take revenge on the staff, “Tartuffe” (played by Claude Chabrol) and a lady they call “Mussolini”.
A goddamned amusing film by a master of the cinema.
It rises to snowy heights for a tragic climax, ending in the refuge of art.
Not in any event to be mistaken for the very poor showing by critics on a pure cinematic poem, with music by Schubert and Morricone.
Street of No Return
The one about the pop star and the real estate developer.
Maslin of the New York Times found it unbelievable.
Charles Vidor’s The Joker Is Wild gives the severed vocal cords, the phonybaloney race wars are an ancient device, the architectural models for a city based on crack are quite familiar.
The title is a music video, lyrics by the director. The ending is from Carl Reiner’s The Jerk.
Tinikling, or the Madonna and the Dragon
The Madonna is Aquino, the Dragon is Marcos. A view is taken of their war from the vantage point of two Newsworld photojournalists. Fuller’s Shark is almost at once seen in its original mode as Caine, filtered somewhat by the experience of Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street.
“The government shall be upon his shoulder” is the metaphor, the urchin befriended by Caine is here named King.
The bureau chief is Fuller, the point at issue is film of a dead anti-Marcos fighter, for which a high premium is offered by Marcos with the intent of burning it. A commander in the Mindanao forces opposing the regime kidnaps King to obtain it, he is a Marcos double agent (Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste for this).
Murder, My Sweet or Farewell, My Lovely figures in the whorehouse called Mama’s Casino run by Mama with a tight rein on deadbeats like our hero.
Nothing beats the freshness of location shooting, the briskness of editing, and the vast resources of Fuller’s skill and experience transcending all his studio work in a film that resembles others of a similar nature and doesn’t care to ape their style. A framed picture of MacArthur striding ashore sets the keynote, Lang’s American Guerrilla in the Philippines captures the tone as much as anything else, perhaps.
The garbage dump for executions, where the poor gather for daily largesse, and children ride the trash onto the heap, opens the film in a pungent image after the credits trace a map from Afghanistan and Lebanon. The score strives for and attains the irony of Tote Taube.