Andrew Sarris once famously called Samuel Fuller an “authentic American primitive.” Sarris went on to write that the “excitement Fuller arouses in critics sensitive to visual forms is equaled by the horror he arouses in critics of the Left for the lack of social perspective in his films.”
The charge of primitivism, which also has a political component suggesting conservative views, became unfashionable as Fuller grew more famous, but seeing his first three films for the first time all in a row, thanks to the new Criterion-Eclipse set, The First Films of Samuel Fuller (Eclipse-Criterion, three discs in slim cases, $44.95, street date Tuesday, August 14, 2007), makes clear why Sarris held this opinion about Fuller back in 1967 when he was compiling his book The American Cinema, which appeared before Fuller became the darling of the German New Wave and before Fuller himself directed Tote Taube in der Beethovenstraße, The Big Red One (1980), White Dog (1982), Les Voleurs de la nuit (1984), Samuel Fuller’s Street of No Return (1989) and the TV movie The Day of Reckoning, which do little to undermine Sarris’s assessment. I don’t think that these films would necessarily modify the “accusation” of primitivism, but some of them were more prestigious. In any case, Fuller’s crude, bombastic style is the very thing that his fans like about him, his knack for cutting through the decorous crap with which most filmmakers drape their projects. Fuller was the original “in your face” director, both figuratively and literally.
If Sarris overstates Fuller’s political conservatism, which is primarily based on the seeming anti-communist thread in Pick Up on South Street, made for Fox, he also overstates the number of close-ups in I Shot Jesse James. The western is not as dramatically awash in close ups as Sarris asserts, although maybe there were relatively more close ups in Fuller’s film than most of its contemporaries. But they also tend to be highly dramatic, so that, like the lions Potemkin, you tend to remember more of them than were actually there. One suspects that Sarris was going on memory here rather than on a recent reviewing of Jesse James. Fuller political views, as became obvious with later films, and which he enunciated cleaerly in his posthumous autobiography, A Third Face, are of what you might call the “macho Democrat” variety of Hemingway, Mailer, and other dogfaces turned writers.
It’s true that Jesse James opens with some rather impatient, menacing, disorienting close ups. And Fuller was prone to the shock close up, what Mike Nelson and the film crew call a rouchet. But there is a great deal of variety to Fuller’s visual style, as Sarris also points out. In The Steel Helmet, there is a great deal of camera movement, and Hollywood great James Wong Howe even photographed the low budget The Baron of Arizona.
Sarris places Fuller in that second tier of muscular filmmakers that includes Anthony Man, Robert Aldrich, Nicholas Ray, and Raoul Walsh (Boetticher is in the third tier, but should be up there with these other boys). The big mystery of Fuller’s career, however, is why he didn’t end up like Edgar G. Ulmer. Fuller’s roots had all the proper earmarks, including a vigorous, noirish visual style attached to diverse films labored upon in financially impoverished circumstances. Ulmer was “exiled” to Poverty Row because of his affair with a top executive’s wife. Fuller started there and clawed his way to the top, at at least near the top, with brazenness and sheer force of will.
All three of the films in the Eclipse box were produced by Robert Lippert, a minor if prolific mogul at the time. Lippert’s hefty catalog was recently picked up by Kit Parker films, and this Fuller box appears to be a collaboration between Criterion-Eclipse and Kit Parker. Fuller speaks warmly of Lippert in his memoir. Lippert had the guts to back a neophyte when it was still unusual for a screenwriter to take over the directorial reins.
Fuller makes it clear that he was utterly uninterested in the western aspects of his first film, I Shot Jesse James, released in 1949. Like many of Walsh’s films, it’s really a male love story, a man who killed the thing he loved, which he can only admit with his dying breath. Fuller didn’t care much for Jesse James, whom he called a pervert and a transvestite. But he didn’t share that view with Lippert, to whom he supplied what he was contracted to give, a western. For Fuller, though, it was a shadow play, a morality tale about the mistakes we make in our lurch toward what we take to be freedom.
In the case of Bob Ford (a sometimes visibly intoxicated John Ireland), it is marriage to Cynthy (an unexpectedly rounded and affecting Barbara Britton). His drive to be with Cynthy is so desperate and so inhuman that it screams for subterranean interpretation.
The play begins like all childlike morality plays. “I still have enough to get Cynthy a ring,” Ford mutters to himself idealistically. As Ford, Ireland is an uncertain, stoop shouldered figure, and he walks very much like Henry Fonda, his shirt, at least in the beginning, like John Wayne’s in The Searcher’s
The film is called I Shot Jesse James, but the point of view is divided up among several protagonists. With whom should we lay our sympathy? In fact, there are no heroes or sympathetic figures in the movie. It is an objective study: and yet it isn’t. Fulller’s sympathy is expansive. He likes everybody. He cannot pick and chose among his characters the way that Hollywood conventionally demands that their directors do.
One thing I noticed from Jesse James was how exquisite a photographer of women Fuller ((in collaboration with his DPs) he happened to be. Britton has one of the longest, most kissable necks in all cinema, and Fuller makes full play with it. Other facets of Fuller’s pre-movie past, when he was a reporter, that are more recognizable are his penchant for headlines to advance the story. Less predictable are the theatrical aspects of the story, that is, that at one point Ford becomes an enactor of his own story on stage, though a poor one. There, he is booed for not killing James, while in the real world he is viewed as a coward and an opportunist. As in all of the Fuller films included in this set, there is a moment when the protagonist is subjected to a terrible public humiliation, in this case when Ford breaks down on stage, his guilt becoming a subject of public discourse.
Being a Lippert production, there is a lax attention to detail. For example, in one scene Ford, referring back to an earlier moment, gets the the number of guys he shot worng. And the day for night contrast in the final shoot out is unnerving. Otherwise, I Shot Jesse James is an efficient, psychologically complex film that is as ravishing a debut as Citizen Kane.
With Steel Helmet, the second film on the disc, the viewer is in Stanley Kubrick territory: it’s like that director’s unviewable Fear and Desire. At the same time, it anticipates Fuller’s own Shock Corridor. At the same time it is like Fuller’s future Shock Corridor and The Big Red One.
What is interesting about the film is that one of the name of one of the main characters may have been borrowed by Spielberg for the second Indiana Jones film (”Short Round”), and that unlike most Hollywood films, there is no true heroically buffed main character at the center of the film. Gene Evans, as the man under the steel helmet, is at bottom not likable. That goes against Hollywood practice. But it is fully in line with Fuller’s personal view of what war is like, and what it does to people who fight it.
The Baron of Arizona is probably one of Fuller’s least seen films, as well as one of the most unusual or unexpected works in his catalog. For those reasons, it is arguably the most revelatory addition to the box. What a bizarre story, and wholly based on actual events! The narrative tells the long, convoluted tale of one man’s attempts to pull the biggest scam in American history. Despite the fact that Vincent Price plays the “villain,” like Gene Evans in Steel Helmet, he sucks at cigars non-stop, like Fuller in real life. There is little doubt that there is an edge of identification by Fuller in the lead characters in these three films.
And Price sinks his teeth into a role that demands that he play in succession a bureaucrat, a step-father, a monk, a gypsy, a lover, and a baron. There is always something hammy about Price’s approach to roles but here the ham is an indice to the multiple layers of the plot as Price is always acting at being someone he isn’t. And what a lot happens in this plot-packed film, from gypsy raids to lynchings. Decor is subtly, or not to subtly, employed to underscore Price’s rise in power, from a small monk’s cell to a huge office that sports a fabulous map of Arizona behind it, the cake he is about to slice up.
And what a relief that the Eclipse films come shed of supplements. One can dive right into the movies. Many film buffs may demand more than the anonymous text on the inside cover of the slim cases, to me it was a holiday. Thank god I don’t have to either feel guilty for not reading what little there was (as I did not). What the lack of scholarly apparatus also means is that innocent viewers will be able to experience Fuller’s first three films the way original filmgoers did.
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