Directed by Samuel Fuller - 7/13
Not a journalist, but a newspaperman, of the tabloid variety. Fuller offered the cinematic equivalent of screaming headlines in hundred-point type, sensational topics, tawdry situations, plots smeared with scandal. His films tackled the pressing social issues of the 20th Century head on -- racism, fascism, communism, organized crime -- without ever seeming to offer any real solution. Fuller seemed to enjoy peeling back the false fronts of modern society merely to reveal the cancer within. Like any jaded reporter, his job was to expose corruption, not cure it.
Born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1912 and raised in Manhattan, his first job was as a newsboy, selling several of New York's daily papers. "I would go to Park Row along with other newsboys to fetch a bundle of newspapers to sell in different parts of town. Since I could only carry a certain quantity, I would have to make several trips back and forth," Fuller recalled shortly before his death in 1997. "I remember standing in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge, where I would dream of the island of Manhattan and the world beyond, experiencing cosmic empathy for the entire universe."
Fuller's boyish idealism was short-lived and he quickly became a hard-boiled newspaperman. By age twelve he was a copy boy for the New York Journal, at seventeen a reporter for the San Diego Sun, by eighteen a police reporter for The Graphic (so lurid it was nicknamed "The Pornographic"), drawing and selling newspaper cartoons on the side. In a fitting blend of scandal and show business, the first headline Fuller ever wrote announced the drug-overdose death of Broadway actress Jeanne Eagels. Early on, Fuller recognized that beneath current events and social commentary, there had to be a foundation of drama and entertainment.
"The illustrated tabloid press had to hook its readers and generate mass emotion, whether the story was about the death of a beloved film star...or a suicide, murder, or simply a sports event." When he began making films, Fuller took this formula and reversed it, so that every piece of contrived drama and entertainment was charged with front-page urgency and flavored with an undercurrent of social commentary. Thus every one of Fuller's films -- Westerns, war movies, and films noir -- were painted with the same lurid brush of scandal sheet sensationalism.
Fuller came from a generation of writers and filmmakers who were adventurers first and artists second, who gained their education in the school of hard knocks rather than in one with ivied walls. Fuller claims to have hoboed across America during the Depression, gathering material that would find its way into his novels, screenplays and films. When World War II broke out, he served overseas, first in Africa, then Europe. During his duty with the Army's First Infantry (which is referred to in several of his films), Fuller earned the Bronze Star, the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.
His first book, Burn Baby Burn was published in 1935 (when he was 24), and was followed by a steady stream of novels and screenplays, several of which paid homage to his newspaper years: Power of the Press (1943), Scandal Sheet (1952) and Park Row (1952, which he also directed). When he began directing films in 1949, he specialized in low-budget genre pictures such as the Western I Shot Jesse James (1949) and the war thriller The Steel Helmet (1951). Like a frenzied reporter racing against deadline, Fuller's films were made quickly and cheaply, their plots tight and simple. And like a front page reporter's prose, the visual design of his films is lean and uncluttered, so that nothing distracts from the narrative's juicy center.
What distinguished Fuller from numerous other journeyman directors was his consistent ability to twist a timeworn genre into a new form. The Western Forty Guns (1957), starring Barbara Stanwyck, was infused with strange sexual tension. His crime thriller Pickup on South Street (1953) tackled the subject of McCarthy-era witch hunts. Shock Corridor (1963), in which a reporter goes undercover in an insane asylum, offers a maddening blend of social commentary as seen through the eyes of the demented. In Fuller's universe, no criminal is purely evil, no protagonist is purely virtuous. Every love story is clouded by mistrust. Fuller strived to be unpredictable and remained so until his death. When the dark and moody genre of film noir was at its peak, Fuller made his thriller, House of Bamboo (1955), in vivid color, in CinemaScope, and in Japan.
"I loathe this cliché vision of the underworld. Dark alleys and wet streets. I've done it. Everybody's done it. It becomes fake, and I don't like it," Fuller told interviewers Robert Porfirio and James Ursini in the 1970s, "I prefer to focus on something sinister at the edge of a beautiful playground or by children playing around pagodas--to use contrast."
Fuller was fascinated by cinema's ability to surprise viewers and touch them in unexpected ways. "When art can dramatize and hypnotize, entertain and educate, inspire and reveal, grip imagination and convey a sense of reality, play sacred emotions and interplay blinding colors -- that is art in its purest form and that form is the film," he wrote in 1964. It was this desire to thrill and provoke that motivated Fuller, and that made his films so unique and unpredictable.
Fuller received no great accolades during the prime of his career. Worse yet, he began to lose control over the making of his films in the 1980s. As Hollywood succumbed to the blockbuster mentality, there was little room for eclectic films that didn't quite fit a preconceived mold. Fuller's war epic The Big Red One (1980) was shortened by more than an hour and otherwise tampered with, while the controversial White Dog (1982) was never given a true theatrical or home video release in the U.S. Eventually, a discouraged Fuller left America for the greener pastures of Europe, where (since the 1950s) his films had been rediscovered by the filmmakers and critics of the French New Wave, who proclaimed him as an artist of the highest order.
Jean-Luc Godard gave Fuller a cameo in his 1965 film Pierrot le Fou, and other talented directors followed suit, paying loving homage to the wily director with bit parts in their films: An American Friend (1977, Wim Wenders), 1941 (1979, Steven Spielberg) and La Vie de Boheme (1992, Aki Kaurismaki). In 1996, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese and Tim Robbins appeared in the documentary The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera (1996), which offered an intimate portrait of Fuller by exploring the mementos, films and stories accumulated over the course of the director's eventful 86-year life.
Fuller died on October 30, 1997, and though he never received the mainstream adulation his tabloid perspective would seem to guarantee, he managed to capture the imagination of the more open-minded moviegoers and individualistic directors who comprised this old reporter's loyal cinematic "readership."
By Bret Wood