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Samuel Fuller (1911-1997)

 

American screenwriter, producer and director, a controversial figure in American cinema, who also wrote most of the screenplays of his film. Fuller has been called the Joe McCarthy of Hollywood film making, who seemingly opposed everything that he saw threatening the traditional American way of life. In Europe Fuller was a highly acclaimed auteur by leftist film-makers. Fuller's right-wing noir movie Pickup on South Street (1953) was ambiguous in its ideology and the thriller White Dog (1982), dealing with the subject of racism, was unjustly prevented from having a proper release. In the story an actress unknowingly acquires a dog that has been trained to attack blacks only. Then the dog is given to a black animal trainer but ironically now it starts to hate whites.

Jim Jarmusch: What is God to you?
Samuel Fuller: Nature.

(from Tigrero, dir. by Mika Kaurismäki, 1994)

Samuel Fuller was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of Rebecca Baum and Benjamin Rabinovitch. Fuller tells in his autobiography, A Third Face (2002), that he did not speak until he was five. His first word was "Hammer!" After Fuller's father died in 1923 the family moved to New York City, where Fuller became a copyboy on the New York Journal. At 17 he was a crime reporter for the San Diego Sun. During the Depression years Fuller wandered about the country on freight trains and began writing short stories. His first pulp novel, Burn Baby Burn, came out in 1935 and was followed by several others. In 1936 Fuller started his career in film business, collaborating on the script of James Cruze's Gangs of New York (1938).

In World War II Fuller fought in North Africa and Europe. He was awarded the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, and a Purple Heart. His war experiences Fuller collected in the masterpiece, The Big Red One, filmed in 1978 but released in 1980. It was hailed by many critics as one of the great American war dramas ever filmed. Fuller starts the film in World War I with surrealistic images – his opening scenes are usually so strong that they tend to overshadow the rest of the film. Lee Marvin plays a tough sergeant, who is a father figure to his baby-faced recruits, among them Robert Carradine as a cigar-chomping writer based on Fuller. "Surviving is the only glory in war," Carradine states at the end. The script was also adapted into a novel.

In one scene the character tries to convince his comrades that he is the author of the book they are reading on the front lines. Fuller's novel, The Dark Place, actually appeared in 1944 when he was fighting in Europe. The director Howard Hawks and Charles Feldman bought its screen rights for fifteen thousand dollars and Hawks hired Jules Furthman to write the adaptation. Fuller, who had returned from the war, was assigned to write a new script. The film, Scandal Sheet, directed by Phil Karlson and starring Broderick Crawford and John Derek, premiered finally in 1952. In the story an editor allows his star reporter to expose a murderer – himself.

Hawks had planned to film Ernest Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises, and when Fuller one day appeared in his office he asked him to write the script. The novel, set in Paris after World War II, told about a journalist, Jake Barness, who meets a promiscuous woman, Lady Brett. According to Todd McCarthy (in Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, 1997) Fuller suggested his idea for a great opening scene: "in a tent near the front during World War I, an injured Jake Barnes is on the operating table; the nurse is Brett, and the light from the lantern shines upon her as we hear Jake's balls drop, one, then the next, into a bucket. Thus, in one vivid scene would the audience be clued in to the nature of Jake's malady and Brett's knowledge of it." While working as a screenwriter, Fuller met his first wife, Martha Downes, an aspiring actress. They divorced in 1959. "Deep down, Martha never really accepted me, not all the attention I gave my mother," Fuller later said.

Fuller made his directorial debut with I Shot Jesse James (1949), in which Bob Ford, "the dirty little coward who shot Mr Howard," kills Jesse James to get the pardon that will allow him to marry his childhood sweetheart. Park Row (1953) reflected Fuller's own journalistic background – he was once supposed to be the youngest crime reporter in New York. House of Bamboo (1955) was filmed on location in Japan with the visual icons of cherry blossom and Kabuki theatre. Robert Stack is a military policeman who moves into undercover action against Tokyo gangsters. He is aided by Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi). Robert Ryan plays a mad ex-GI running his syndicate as a paramilitary organization. In a precredit sequence they rob an Army munitions train. At the end there is a shoot-out in a children's playground, and an idea which was to re-emerge in Samuel Peckinpah's films. China Gate (1957), shot three years after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, was one of the first American films about the war in Vietnam and contained most of the excuses for the subsequent US invasion of Vietnam. Nat King Cole was cast in the role of soldier of fortune, who wants to finish the job he started in Korea: "There's still a lot of live commies around."

Tigrero! was Fuller's great film project in the mid-1950s, which was never realized. John Wayne, Tyrone Power, and Ava Gardner were interested in the story which was set in the Amazon jungle. Darryl Zanuck sent Fuller to Mato Grosso to develop ideas for the film. In the story a woman helps her husband to escape from prison. They hire a jaguar hunter to help them to cross the Mato Grosso. Fuller shot on location much background material, and part of it was used in Shock Corridor (1963). Later this period in Fuller's life gave inspiration to Mika Kaurismäki's film Tigrero - A Film That Was Never Made (1994).

TIGRERO
(quietly)
Don't blame him too much. Men do crazy things under the spell of fear and panic. The jungle brings out the best and the worst in people. It was self-preservation. His mind snapped.
(pauses)
He loved you, all right --- It's just that he loved himself a little more.
(from Fuller's screenplay)

Forty Guns (1957) was condemned in America because of its brutal handling of the narrative structure, but in Europe it was praised for its stylistic vigour. The famous French film director Jean-Luc Godard imitated in his film A Bout de Souffle (1960) the shots, in which Eve Brent is seen through a gun barrel that tracks into a close-up of her and then cuts to her kissing Barry Sullivan, the marshal. Barbara Stanwyck is Jessica Drummond, a ruthless, whip-wielding woman. Jessica controls Cochise County with the aid of forty armed gunmen. She has a weak spot in her trigger-happy brother (John Ericson), who murders the marshal's brother and Jessica loses everything. Ericson uses her as a shield against the law in the film's climax; she is only wounded, but he dies crying"'I'm killed Mr. Bonnel, I'm killed," and Sullivan says coldly "Get a doctor, she'll live."

Run of the Arrow (1957) treated Native Americans sympathetically; seven years later John Ford made his Cheynne Autumn, which aimed to "tell the story from the Indians' point of view." Rod Steiger played a Southener who attempts to become a Sioux but finally accepts the defeat of the South by the North and becomes an American. "This is the last stop... The frontier is finished. There'll be no more towns to break – no more men to break." Jay C. Flippen explains in the film that he doesn't want to become the chief of his tribe because he "couldn't stand the politics".

Fuller's characters often struggle with their inner demons and the outside world. In Shock Corridor a dishonest reporter, Johnny (Peter Breck), plans to solve a murder that occurred in an insane asylum. He fakes mental illness and is committed to the asylum. However, Johnny's sanity is seriously threatened in the world where a black man insists that he is a member of KKK and shock therapy is part of the day's program. Constance Towers (stripper Kathy) says to Johnny: "Get off it! You're in a hopped-up show-off stage. Don't be Moses leading your lunatics to the Pulitzer Prize." Johnny loses his voice but wins his Pulitzer Prize. Distorted color stock footage used in the intervals was shot by Fuller in Japan and Africa. In publicity material the film was described as "a journey into a medical jungle doctors won't talk about."

"I write original stories."
(Fuller in Tigrero)

Usually Fuller was given B unit crews and actors, his place in the studio pecking order was not high, but in the 1960s he managed to produce three notable crime films: Underworld U.S.A. (1960), Shock Corridor, and The Naked Kiss (1964), one of the director's most shocking films, an assault on small-town smugness and corruption. The central character is Kelly, a prostitute, who decides to go straight. In the opening scene she fightS with her pimp and suddenly pulls off her wig to reveal her shaved head. "I saw a broken-down piece of machinery. Nothing but the buck, the bed and the bottle for the rest of my life. That's what I saw." Leaving her street life behind her, she becomes a nurse in a children's hospital in a small town. However, the local cop knows her past and lets her remain as long as he can enjoy her favours. Kelly falls in love with a man who turns out to be a child molester. Horrified, Kelly kills him. The town refuses to believe her explanation.

In Pickup on South Street the villains are Communist spies looking for a piece of microfilm. Skip (Richard Widmark) is a petty thief who acquires the microfilm by accident. He is conscripted into patriotic action. However, when he is asked what Communism stands for he answers: "Who cares?" Jean Peters is the near-prostitute Candy – in the opening scene Skip is a pickpocket stealing from her handbag on the subway. Fuller's camerawork is again energetic and raw. The film is almost constantly in motion, and gives in a nearly improvisatory manner a lively picture of New York City. The climatic shootout is made in a real environment, on a subway platform.

In Underworld U.S.A. Cliff Robertson is Tolly, whose father is beaten to death by members of a criminal gang. "It was a pretty tough break you had, being born in prison and your mother dying there." (Beatrice Kay to Cliff Robertson) Tolly tracks down the members of the gang one by one. Finally he wins the confidence of the boss of the syndicate, Conners (Robert Emhardt), who had no direct part in his father's death. When Conners turns against him, Tolly kills him in a swimming pool, and dies himself in an alley among the trash cans.

Fuller directed in the 1960s several episodes for various US TV series. At the beginning of the 1980s Fuller left the United States for France, where he was especially admired. Fuller himelf thought that "their infatuation was more to do with the fact that my films were American than that they were written and directed by me." He appeared in several American or European films as an actor or himself, as in Jean-Luc Godard´s Pierrot le Fou (1965), Wim Wender's American Friend (1977) and Hammett (1982), and Mika Kaurismäki's Helsinki Napoli - All Night Long (1987). "A film is like a battle ground," stated Fuller in Pierrot le Fou, "as love, hate, action, violence, death. In one word: emotions." Fuller was also seen in the US films The Last Picture Show (1971), directed by Peter Bogdanovich, 1941 (1979), directed by Steven Spielberg, and Return to Salem's Lot (1987). In Europe Fuller's works were shown in several retrospectives and in 1986 the director was the first guest of honor at Sodankylä film festival in Finland – the legendary visit is still remembered in Lapland.

After the failure of his first marriage, Fuller resigned to being a bachelor, until he met in 1965 the German actress Christa Lang; she was thirty-two years his junior. For his surprise, she knew a lot about American literature. "Tossing around in my bed at night, I kept asking myself what the hell a beautiful young woman like her would want with me," Fuller wrote in A Third Face: My Tale of  Writing (2002). "Every bone in my body disavowed the possibility of Christa and me ever having a life together. Our connection was too goddamned spontaneous and irrational. But boy oh boy, I was smitten!" Fuller and Lang married in 1967; they had one daughter. Lang was featured in such Fuller films as Tote Taube in der Beethovenstraße (1973), made for television, The Big Red One, Les voleurs de la nuit (1984), White Dog, and Street of No Return (1989.   

Among Fuller's unfinished projects were Flowers of Evil, which would take place in outer place, and a film about Abraham Lincoln, in which Lincoln is seen in a critical light. Fuller was an accomplished photographer and his still images of Manhattan, the East River docks, immigrants, Lucky Luciano, Ella Fitzgerald and others were collected in New York in the 1930s (1997). Samuel Fuller died on October 30, 1997.

For further reading: Samuel Fuller by Phil Hardy (1971); Samuel Fuller by Nicholas Garnham (1971); Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s: Neo-Realism, ed. by Jim Hillier (1985); Fuller, Samuel by Olivier Amiel (1985); Il était une fois -- Samuel Fuller: histoires d'Amérique racontées à Jean Narboni et Noël Simsolo, préface Martin Scorcese (1986); Sam Fuller. Film is a Battleground by Lee Server (1994); The Film Encyclopedia by Ephrain Katz (1994); Rikoksen hehku by Peter von Bagh (1997); A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking by Samuel Fuller, Christa Lang Fuller and Jerome Henry Rudes (2004); The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I'll Kill You by Lisa Dombrowski (2008); Maximum Movies - Pulp Fictions: Film Culture and the Worlds of Samuel Fuller, Mickey Spillane, and Jim Thompson by Peter Stanfield (2011); Samuel Fuller: Interviews, ed. by  Gerald Peary (2012) -  Note: Fuller's birth year in some sources 1912.  "Everything that Fuller touched, whether it was a war story or a western or a deep-sea adventure, he stamped with his own unmistakable signature, with a raw energy that animates his crude reactionary themes. It is not possible to talk of Fuller's career in terms of progression or decline because his cranky, kinetic style is as apparent in his first film, I Shot Jesse James (1949), as in one of his most recent, the vividly-titled Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (1975). Fuller is a law unto himself, Hollywood's great primitive, whose film noirs, true to form, are not quite the same as anyone else's." (Foster Hirsch in The Dark Side of the Screen, 1981)

Selected films as screenwriter:

  • Hats Off, 1936 (with Edmund Joseph and Thiele Lawrence)
  • It Happened in Hollywood, 1937 (with Harvey Ferguson and Ethel Hill)
  • Gangs of New York, 1938 (with James Cruze, Charles F. Royal, Wellyn Totman)
  • Adventure in Sahara, 1938 (story; screenplay by Maxwell Shane)
  • Federal Man-Hunt, 1938 (story, with William Lively, screenplay by Maxwell Shane)
  • Bovery Boy, 1940 (story; screenplay by Maxwell Shane)
  • Confirm or Deny, 1941 (story, with Henry Wales; screenplay by Jo Swerling
  • Power of the Press, 1943 (story, with Robert D. Andrews)
  • Gangs of the Waterfront, 1945 (story; remake of Gangs of New York)
  • Shockproof, 1949 (with Helen Deutsch)
  • The Tanks Are Coming, 1951 (story; screenplay by Robert Hardy Andrews)
  • Scandal Sheet, 1952 (from Fuller's novel The Dark Page, screenplay by Ted Sherman, Eugene Ling and James Poe)
  • The Command, 1954 (from James Warner Bellah's novel Rear Guard, with James Warner Bellah and Russell S. Hughes)
  • Burnett's Woman (story, episode in the TV series The Roaring 20's, teleplay by Larry Welch)
  • The Cape Town Affair, 1967 (remake of Pickup on South Street, co-sc., with Harold Medford, Dwight Taylor)
  • Deadly Trackers, 1973 (story, with Lukas Heller) 
  • The Klansman, 1974 (with Millard Kaufman, based on the novel by William Bradford Huie)
  • Let's Get Harry, 1986 (co-story with Mark Feldberg)
  • The Day of Reckoning, 1990 (TV film, in Chillers, with Christa Lang from a short story by Patricia Highsmith)
  • Tinikling ou 'La madonne et le dragon', 1990 (TV movie, adaptation and screenplay)
  • Girls in Prison, 1994 (TV series, with Christa Lang)

Selected films as screenwriter and director:

  • I Shot Jesse James, 1949 (also sc.)
  • Captain Video and His Video Rangers, 1949-55 (episodes in the TV series)
  • The Baron of Arizona, 1950 (also sc.)
  • The Steel Helmet, 1950 (also sc., prod.)
  • Fixed Bayonets!, 1951 (also sc., based on a novel by John Brophy)
  • Park Row, 1952 (also sc., prod.)
  • Pickup on South Street, 1953 (also sc.)
  • Hell and High Water, 1954 (also co-sc., with Jesse Lasky Jr.)
  • House of Bamboo, 1955 (additional dialogue)
  • Run of the Arrow, 1957 (also sc., prod.)
  • China Gate, 1957 (also sc., prod.)
  • Forty Guns, 1957 (also sc.)
  • Verboten!, 1959 (also sc.)
  • The Crimson Kimono, 1959 (also sc., prod.)
  • Underworld U.S.A., 1961 (also sc., prod.)
  • Merrill's Marauders, 1962 (also co-sc., with Milton Sperling, based on a book by Charlton Ogburn Jr.)
  • It Tolls for Thee, 1962 (episode, in the TV series The Virginian, also sc.)
  • Shock Corridor, 1963 (also sc., prod.)
  • The Naked Kiss, 1964 (also sc., prod.)
  • High Devil, 1966 (episode in the TV series Iron Horse; also co-sc.)
  • Hellcat, 1966 (episode in the TV series Iron Horse; also co.sc.)  
  • The Meanest Men in the West, 1967 (TV film, co-dir., with Charles S. Dubin; also co-sc., with Ed Waters)
  • Shark!, 1969 (also co-sc., with John Kingsbridge, based  on Victor Canning's novel His Bones Are Coral)
  • Tote Taube in der Beethovenstraße / Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, 1973 (episode, in TV series Tatort, also co-sc., with Manfred R.Köhler)
  • The Big Red One, 1980 (also sc.)
  • White Dog, 1982 (also co-sc., with Curtis Hanson; based on Romain Gary´s story)
  • Les voleurs de la nuit / Thieves After Dark, 1984
  • Street of No Return, 1989 (also co-sc.; basen on a story by David Goodis)

Selected bibliography:

  • Burn Baby Burn, 1935
  • Test Tube Baby, 1936
  • Make up and Kiss,1938
  • The Dark Page, 1944
    - film: Scandal Sheet (1952), directed by Phil Karlson, starring Broderick Crawford and John Derek
  • Crown of India, 1966
    - Intian kruunu (suom. Jorma-Veikko Sappinen, 1987)
  • 144 Piccadilly, 1971
  • The Big Red One, 1980 (introduction by Richard Schickel, 2005)
    - Voittamaton ykkönen (suom. Juhani Pietiläinen, 1981)
  • Quint’s World, 1988
  • New York in the 1930s, 1997
  • A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking, 2002 (with Christa Fuller and Jerome Henry Rudes)  
  • Samuel Fuller: Interviews, 2012 (edited by Gerald Peary)

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