“It’s a blessing to love my country — even when it gives me ulcers.”
— “Shock Corridor”
Grab ‘em by the balls. That’s Sam Fuller’s theory of filmmaking, as he states it over and over again in his autobiography, “A Third Face.” When he isn’t describing a script or movie as a “gonad grabber,” it’s usually because he’s calling it a “pisscutter.”
Balls play a crucial role in many aspects of Fuller’s story. “Hell,” he boasts, “I could live another hundred years and come up with plenty of original tales that, when turned into movies, would still grab audiences by the balls!” Of the conditions upon his arrival in Scotland during World War II in preparation for the Allied invasion of Europe, Fuller, born in Worcester, Mass., and a member of the U.S. infantry, recalls “it was colder than Kelsey’s nuts.” But Fuller’s moviemaking instincts speak to other parts of the anatomy as well … the one a few hairs to the north, for example. He is proud of the advice he once gave Jim Jarmusch: “If a story doesn’t give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes, throw it in the goddamned garbage.”
Fuller made movies by those words, as anybody who’s ever seen “Pickup on South Street” or “Verboten!” “Shock Corridor” or “The Naked Kiss,” “Park Row” or the suppressed “White Dog” knows. The first shot of Fuller’s last theatrical movie, 1989′s “Street of No Return” (made when he was 78), is of some guy we don’t even know (and never see again) getting a hammer in the face in the midst of a race riot. We don’t even find out what that riot has to do with the rest of the movie until the last half-hour of the picture.
Fuller has been rightly described as an American primitive. Befitting someone who worked as a copy boy in the heyday of New York newspapers, and who got his start as a reporter on the infamous scandal sheet the New York Graphic, Fuller’s was a true tabloid sensibility. What is the title of the first movie he directed, “I Shot Jesse James,” if not a screaming headline in 72-point type?
Fuller, who died in 1997 at age 85, was criticized and dismissed for that pulp sensibility for years. But his reputation may have suffered more damage from the people who invoke the sleaziness of his movies in order to praise him. In the liner notes to the Criterion DVD of “The Naked Kiss,” Michael Dare writes, “He’s been proclaimed a quintessential American director by the international film community, which means he’s fascistic, virile and shamelessly manipulative.”
That’s a hell of a thing to write about someone you supposedly admire. I’ll give Dare virile and manipulative. Fascistic? It’s a knee-jerk response to the violence in Fuller’s movies, and an odd one to apply to a director who consistently used multiracial casting, hated arbitrary authority, despised the hypocrisy of “normal” society, took hookers, pickpockets, drunks, strippers and bums for his heroes, and who made tabloid movies so florid that, formally, they bordered on anarchy.
Fuller’s movies are celebrations of individuality that are themselves demonstrations of that quality. The line often used to sum up Fuller’s worldview was the one he spoke, playing himself, in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou”: “Film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word, emotion.” But I’d choose this exchange from the free-association game he played with Tim Robbins in the actor’s film about Fuller, “The Typewriter, the Rifle & the Movie Camera”:
Fuller: Don’t believe in it.
Fuller: Don’t believe in it.
Fuller: Enemy of mankind.
Fuller: Enemy of mankind.
Just like that exchange, Fuller’s movies work from gut instinct. Probably the best summation of Fuller’s method came from François Truffaut in his 1960 review of “Verboten!”: “This is direct cinema,” Truffaut wrote, “uncriticizable, irreproachable, ‘given’ cinema, rather than assimilated, digested or reflected upon.”
Truffaut didn’t mean that Fuller’s movies were above criticism, but that for them to be refined or subtle would be antithetical to what they are. The movies are cheap, fast, crude, lurid, often awkwardly acted. Fantasy sequences or musical numbers (even a rock video in “Street of No Return”) are liable to intrude on the action and, just as abruptly, end.
To proclaim Sam Fuller a great artist is contrary to the terms in which we enjoy his movies. It is equally wrong to dismiss his movies, for all their hysteria and leaps in logic, as mindless. “Fuller doesn’t take time to think,” Truffaut wrote; “it is clear that he is in his glory when he is shooting.” Out of that visceral approach came startling, forceful moments, shots or scenes that derive their impact precisely from Fuller’s “bad taste,” his willingness not to blunt the impact.
Some of those effects can be subtle. Movie audiences usually feel most vulnerable when we are looking at action framed in a tight shot. That’s why horror movies rely on those moments when there’s no telling what might leap out of the corners of the screen. Fuller reverses that effect in “Pickup on South Street” in a scene in which Richard Kiley, as a Communist agent, beats up his girlfriend, played by Jean Peters. Instead of bringing the camera close in on Peters, Fuller cuts to a wide shot of her apartment, physically removing us from the beating but immediately defining the boundaries of the space Peters is suddenly trapped in. The effect is almost suffocatingly claustrophobic.
Elsewhere, Fuller is saved by the conviction he put into scenes so obvious they would be embarrassing in the hands of more sophisticated directors. In “White Dog,” the canine of the title, an animal trained by racists to kill black people, hunts down and kills a black man on the altar of a church. Fuller cuts from the man’s corpse to a stained-glass window of St. Francis, and then to the bloodstained maw of the snow-white dog snarling at the image of the benevolent saint. There isn’t a trace of subtlety in it, but Fuller makes you feel that everything holy and decent is in peril.
If, as Truffaut supposed, Fuller was in his glory when shooting, he was just as much in his glory when writing or talking. Fuller begins “A Third Face” by telling us that he barely spoke during his first five years. He had enough self-knowledge to note that he more than made up for it throughout the rest of his life. The appendix to “A Third Face,” listing the pulp novels he wrote, and his produced and unproduced screenplays, runs to 72 credits. Other than Fuller, the character who figures most prominently in “A Third Face” is the director’s old battered Royal typewriter.
“A Third Face” is one hell of a book — a pisscutter. It’s exactly the type of autobiography you’d imagine from Sam Fuller, with story piled upon story, coming in at just under 600 pages. If there were any doubt, the book makes it clear that Sam Fuller is the greatest character Sam Fuller ever created. That craggy face with its perennial cigar and the flowing white mane that Fuller wore in his later years is the visage of a born character. And Fuller does everything he can to live up to it.
“A Third Face” could easily be the sort of pulpy picaresque that doesn’t get written anymore, ranging as it does from Fuller’s early days in the newspaper business on Park Row, where he worked as personal copy boy for the legendary editor Arthur Brisbane and met the likes of William Randolph Hearst, to his days as a tabloid reporter (breaking the story of actress Jeanne Eagels’ suicide), to his World War II experiences, to his years in Hollywood and finally, as the elder statesman of B moviemaking, feted and adored by European critics and young filmmakers.
For all its garrulousness, Fuller’s writing suggests that he never forgot the punchy style he honed as a reporter. His descriptions can have the spare evocativeness of a good line drawing. He gets the timorous, pathetic quality of Hearst, the stark contrast between the man’s power and lumbering physique and his emotional neediness. Fuller describes Hearst as “a tall, heavyset man with oblique eyebrows and very sad eyes.” I love that “oblique.” Eyebrows, the very items that add emphasis and punctuation to our most expressive feature, are in retreat in the face Fuller describes. Fuller goes on: “When he talked he made birdlike noises. His voice sounded like a sharp little whistle. There was nothing pompous about him except for his very expensive-looking dark suit … You’d have never guessed that he was the most powerful newspaper publisher in the world.”
The best section of “A Third Face” is Fuller’s recounting of his experiences in World War II. Offered a safe job in communications because of his experience as a reporter, Fuller chose instead to go into the infantry, where, he says, the likelihood was that he would come back “dead, wounded or crazy.” Fuller was in the first Allied assault of the war, on Arzew beach in Algeria. He was also in the D-Day invasion of Normandy and part of the troops that liberated the Falkenau concentration camp in Germany.
“A Third Face” is, I think, a classic war memoir. It’s not just Fuller’s vivid images (a soldier’s severed arm with wristwatch still ticking) or horrifying stories (of the American sergeant shooting one of his soldiers through the heart after he murders six Arab civilians in the North African invasion). With his typical instinctiveness, Fuller gets at what Paul Fussell, 45 years later, would label the “ideological gap” of combat, the void between the lofty goal of the Allies and the soldier’s basic determination to survive. And, as happened to Fussell, Fuller’s memoir might be mistakenly interpreted as saying that there was no difference between the Allies and the Nazis. He isn’t saying that, of course. But he knows in his gut that no one under fire was thinking about saving the world from Fascism.
Fuller’s recounting of “his” war is the best key we will ever have to the sensibility that informed his films. It is the opposite of macho braggadocio or brutality for its own sake. Rather, it’s a refusal to dress up brutality in the loftiness of heroism. Writing of killing a man for the first time, Fuller even refuses to spare himself. “The act begets the most basic revulsion … Afterward, when you kill, you’re shooting the same man over and over again. Your will to survive surprises you, eventually kicking abstract thoughts like remorse or mercy out of your brain. The reality is, you’re glad the other guy is dead and you’re still alive.”
You sense, in that passage, where a movie like “Shock Corridor” came from. A B demonstration of William Carlos Williams’ line “the pure products of America go crazy,” the movie presents three mental patients: One (a James Meredith-like black student who believes he is a member of the KKK) is driven mad by bigotry; another (a Southerner who betrayed his fellow soldiers in Korea because his racist parents never gave him any cause to feel good about his country) by mindless anti-communism; the third (a scientist who worked on the H-bomb and who has retreated into childhood) by nuclear war.
And it could be that Fuller’s experience at Falkenau solidified the inclination that led one critic to describe his movies as the work of a “radical integrationist.” Fuller firmly believes that racism is a product of conditioning. The bleak twist to that view is that he doesn’t believe anyone who has succumbed can ever be reconditioned. Racism and bigotry in Fuller’s movies are a toxin that, having entered the soul, can be redirected but never eradicated.
That’s the message of “White Dog,” a film about a young actress who takes in a stray dog that she later discovers has been trained to kill black people. She brings the dog to a black animal trainer who believes that if he can retrain the dog it will prove racism can be eliminated. He does change the dog, except that the animal now hates the white skin that made it a killing machine.
“White Dog” has all of the usual Fuller faults, including pulpiness and obviousness. It is also one of the toughest, most pitiless movies ever made about racism in this country. The reason you’ve probably never heard of “White Dog” is that in the midst of production, an NAACP spokesman named Willis Edwards showed up on the set to see if the film was “distorting the image of black people.” Fuller told the producer to get Edwards the hell off his set.
He had a right to. As he points out, not only were his films consistently multiracial but he had depicted a romance between an Asian man and a white woman in “The Crimson Kimono,” he had given Nat King Cole a major role in “China Gate” at a time when Cole’s popular variety show was canceled because no sponsor wanted to be associated with a black entertainer, and he had taken a very tough stand on the depiction of the black man driven mad by racism in “Shock Corridor.”
Although no one outside the studio and Fuller’s crew had seen it, word began to circulate that “White Dog” was a racist movie. Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, at that time the heads of Paramount, made a decision that the film’s profit potential would not be enough to offset the likely controversy, and the picture was shelved. It was released in Europe, played a few art houses in the U.S., and was shown on HBO. (A few years later, a film booker told me that one Paramount executive had a sign on his office door that read “Don’t ask me about ‘White Dog’.”)
But the confusion over that movie was typical of the confusion that has always greeted the “politics” of Sam Fuller’s movies. “Pickup on South Street” managed to get Fuller both labeled a McCarthyite and summoned before J. Edgar Hoover, who thought the film was pro-Communist. Both of those assumptions irked a good small-D democrat like Fuller, but they also suggest how difficult it was to pin him down.
Take Fuller’s noirs. “Pickup on South Street” or “Street of No Return” don’t offer the shadings or craft you find in great noirs like “The Big Heat,” “Kiss of Death” or Fred Zinnemann’s remarkable and little-seen 1949 film “Act of Violence.” However, for movies that are so quintessentially American, so established within familiar genres, they don’t offer the comfort of defined choices.
What’s most surprising about the moviemaking section of “A Third Face” is how well Fuller got along in the old studio system. He fared much better at Fox under Darryl Zanuck (he may be the only filmmaker ever to have good things to say about Zanuck) and seemed to have more freedom than he did when he worked independently. After 1964′s “The Naked Kiss,” Fuller didn’t work again for seven years, and then largely in Europe. In the new Hollywood, “White Dog” was suppressed and “The Big Red One,” the realization of his long-cherished dream of making a film about his war experiences, was taken away from him and cut from Fuller’s final four-and-a-half-hour version to 113 minutes.
Some of the reasons Fuller struggled to find work in his later years are related to the changing appetites of film audiences. But part of it has to be his refusal to make his work ingratiating or morally predictable. His age also played a part, as studios were reluctant to green-light a project with an aged director although, until the stroke he suffered in his 80s, Fuller was still energetic and in good health. Even the producing team of Jonathan Demme and Martin Scorsese was not enough to win the go-ahead for Fuller’s “The Chair vs. Ruth Snyder,” the story of the first woman executed in the United States.
Fuller spent many of his final years in Paris with his second wife, the German actress Christa Lang, and their daughter. (Lang and Fuller’s friend Jerome Rudes finished this memoir after his death.) Fuller’s reminiscences of life in Paris, his interactions with his neighbors while he spent his days puffing cigars and banging away at his Royal, make for some of the sweetest, mellowest parts of “A Third Face.” And Fuller can’t disguise his pleasure at the friendship offered him by younger filmmakers like Wim Wenders (who cast Fuller in three of his movies) and Jim Jarmusch.
Though it sounds like a cliché, some of the struggles of Fuller’s final years are what you’d expect for a filmmaker who finds more favor overseas than in his own country. That dilemma unintentionally plays itself out over the course of Fuller’s delirious last movie, “Street of No Return.” The story of a rock singer (Keith Carradine) who has his throat slashed for falling in love with a gangster’s girlfriend and ends up living as a bum, the movie is noir as an impressionistic blur, a compendium of dark city streets smeared with reflected neon, down-and-outers, femme fatales, corrupt cops (and honest, tough ones) and hoods.
Fuller’s narrative drive keeps the movie from being set adrift in its pulpy romantic fatalism. The strangest thing about the film — funded by European investors and shot entirely in Lisbon — is that the actors all speak English and act as if they are in an American noir despite the obvious European locale. It was likely a case of Fuller making do with the resources at hand. Yet by the end of the picture, it also comes to seem a metaphor for the fate of all American pulp artists. Working in an unabashedly American genre, directors like Fuller found their real spiritual home in Europe.
By the time “Street of No Return” was made, Fuller’s style of filmmaking seemed more suited to Europe than to America. The movie is both Fuller’s homecoming and a statement of physical exile, the work of an American director playing out his pulp poetry in the land to which it had become most suited, where everything could exist as an archetype. “Street of No Return” is a culmination of Fuller’s crazy and driven lowlife vision. In it, he succeeded in making America a state of mind.