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Monday, January 18, 2010

Director Choice --- Samuel Fuller

I once looked at Hell and High Water with a film studies professor who said little until a scene where a guy’s thumb got mutilated in a submarine hatch. Ah yes, Sam Fuller, he laughed appreciatively as the character writhed in agony. Of all directors bearing maverick label, Fuller may be easiest to venerate. He painted with the broadest brush, always had a big cigar in his mouth, and came of hardscrabble background that made his narrative calls unimpeachable among buffs who never saw combat or insides of city rooms like he did. Sam also lived long enough to mentor a lot of them. He’s the kind of flamboyant auteur I’d like to have sat down with, being among few that really fit definition of that overused tag (he did it all upon assuming control of sets). Columbia’s recent seven-disc Samuel Fuller Collection gives voice to industry successors who sat at the Great Man’s knee and learned at least as much about life as wild and wooly films he yanked out of cauldrons filled with strife and attempted studio interference. Here was the tough guy artist every beginner wanted to be when he grew up (and I limit that to he for suspecting that women don't find Fuller’s work so appealing). Surely SF knew galvanizing effect he had on New Hollywood acolytes. They tell of finding him night and day bent over a typewriter, knocking out scripts and articles like tabloid pieces he generated daily during gangland twenties. I wonder if his wife and daughter aren’t still finding stories tucked away in Fuller closets and drawers.

The Columbia set introduced me to several B’s Samuel Fuller penned on his way to becoming a full service writer/producer/director. Others mostly took screenplay credit, but concepts and ideas seem to have largely originated with Sam. The nice thing about the DVD box is dual usefulness as Fuller instructional plus first acquaintance for many with Columbia B output from the 30’s/40’s. Other than some horror films and one or two westerns John Wayne happened to appear in, we’ve had nothing by way of low-budget disc representation from this company. An inside Hollywood story with Richard Dix and Fay Wray would be welcome in my household even if Sam Fuller had nothing to do with it. The fact he wrote It Happened In Hollywood with three other scribes is sole basis for inclusion here, but whatever gets DVD release done is Jake by me. Same for The Power Of The Press, a six reel quick-shot I particularly enjoyed seeing guest celeb Tim Robbins gush over as though it were opening shot of a coming social Revolution. Fancier writers than me (and I hope it stays that way) call Fuller an authentic American primitive and/or a didactic patriot. That’s how big a net this man throws. Mostly though, he was a yarn spinner always stacks ahead of whatever one he’d just finished shooting. Six Fuller clones might have kept up with adapting to movies all the stories he developed. There was a trade announcement in 1964 wherein Sam touted a forthcoming comic team of Constance Towers and Patsy Kelly, the two just off The Naked Kiss. They’d get laughs, he promised, just like Kelly had done with Thelma Todd back in 30’s comedies the director remembered fondly. That notion came to merciful naught, but who knows? --- Fuller might have made something wonderful of it. Disc extra disciples say he used to generate narratives in a standing position based on half a sentence one of them would get out, the whole thing ready for a binder minutes later. This writer/director’s enthusiasm for the craft was such as to nearly implode his fertile brain. Fuller’s kind of prolificacy wouldn’t let him sleep. Such overabundance of talent must have seemed at times more curse than blessing.

A novel of Sam’s that broke through was The Dark Page, well named for exploring newspapers and crimes they exploited. Howard Hawks bought it not long after 1944 publication and that promised an important screen translation. How it ended up at Columbia’s discount store is a tale insiders could better tell, but I wonder if 1948’s The Big Clock stole a little of its thunder for a very similar premise. Fuller didn’t get to direct the movie as emerged in 1952. That was done, and well, by Phil Karlson. Scandal Sheet was a title deemed better suited to lower berths it mostly occupied (domestic rentals a mere $581,000). Columbia shoveled economy bookings full with what they had for stars. Lead Broderick Crawford fluked an Academy Award a couple years before, but what else would go on sustaining him other than big bruiser roles like he played before Willie Stark? TCM reminded us lately of how good some of those are (seen The Mob?). John Derek was like Tony Curtis minus intensive training Universal-International would have accorded him, while Donna Reed worked ways toward her own fluke of an Oscar for From Here To Eternity the following year. Scandal Sheet is very much a writer’s movie, which makes it a Samuel Fuller movie even if someone else called Action and Cut (and they say this very good show is considerably denuded from the book). For what he had to offer (and so much of it), I wonder why Columbia didn’t just hire Fuller to do three or four per annum, on his own efficient terms. He was known for coming in under schedule and budget, after all. Given opportunity, SK could have turned out films with the frequency of bulldog editions he’d sold on streets as a boy. Buried and obscure Fuller films continue to surface. Park Row turned up on TCM. Three of his for Lippert have been released. Even incendiary White Dog barks again on Criterion's label. I haven’t watched that for being less often of an incendiary frame of mind and knowing what trauma cut-loose Fullers can inflict. His work scores best, I think, with youth in quest of shock and awe. The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor are two ideally suited for them and others girded for a pummeling (Fuller college retrospects were always reliable programming). Of the seven Columbia packaged, Underworld USA deals the harshest dose of Fuller per expectation interviews and profiles create. Watch it and know his is a sensibility utterly unlike anyone else’s in movies.


Blogger la peregrina said...

(and I limit that to he for suspecting that women don't find Fuller’s work so appealing)

Wrong. :)

9:04 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

You like Fuller, la peregrina, but do other women go for him? I'd be interested to know. For that matter, what classic directors would women tend to like best? Or do men and women differ at all in this regard?

9:18 AM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

Got to meet--or at least shake hands with--Fuller in school when he was brought in for a 2-3 day visit (This was a few months after The Big Red One was released). Wish I knew more about him at the time to ask any worthwhile questions. Since then, I've seen most of his stuff.

I really recommend White Dog--caught a screening and Q&A (w/ Jon Davison) a couple years ago and thought it really delivered. Nice turn by Burl Ives as well.

It seems all my sons' friends who are into film know Fuller primarily from Shock Corridor.

10:39 AM  
Blogger VP81955 said...

You mentioned Constance Towers, whose best work probably came under Fuller -- but did you know that in 1963-64, about the time Fuller wanted to team her up with Ptsy Kelly, Towers was apparently trying to put together (and star in) a biopic about Carole Lombard? (Too bad it never came to fruition, because I think she'd have been ideal as Carole.) Find out more about it at

12:31 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

You mentioned Constance Towers, whose best work probably came under Fuller

Agreed, although she's also great in Ford's 'Sgt. Rutledge' and 'The Horse Soldiers'. I wonder if she is the object of Ford and Fullers conversation in that picture John posted?

Towers is also still working, last time I checked, on one of the daytime soaps. Unfortunately, plastic surgery has changed her appearance such that her most remarkable assets (her eyes) are barely recognizable to this fan.

4:30 PM  
Blogger la peregrina said...

John, I don't know whether or not other women like Fuller but I can't see any reason why some wouldn't like him.

The directors I like besides Sam Fuller include Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, John Ford, Frank Capra, John Huston, Fritz Lang, Robert Wise, Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks.

What all these guys have in common is their ability to pick or write good stories and then put them up on the screen in a visually interesting way. I don't think men and women differ in their appreciation of this fact.

9:32 PM  

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