There has never been a filmmaker quite like Sam Fuller: as director Curtis Hanson remarks in one of the interviews on this DVD set, he constituted his own genre. Fuller’s staccato, slap-in-the-face melodramas, war stories and genre pieces all bore his unique voice. As it happens only two of the films on this 7-disc set are bona fide Fuller productions, The Crimson Kimono (1959) and Underworld U.S.A. (1961). They may not be his best films but they’re significant contributions to…
to his catalogue: Kimono deals with racial identity, friendship forged in war, and a part of Los Angeles that even some natives might not be familiar with, Little Tokyo. (It also has a lurid hook that didn’t hurt in promoting the picture: it opens with a buxom blond stripper being shot down in the middle of a busy street.) Underworld U.S.A. puts a personal slant on the story of a criminal career: a boy sees his father slain in a back alley, and spends the rest of his life propelled by revenge.
Martin Scorsese is a particular fan of this film. In his on-camera introduction he says, “Some say that he was always a pulp artist, but at this point in his career…everything extraneous [in his pictures] was cut away. They were blunt and direct and forceful. It’s the style of the film that you really remember. I mean, almost every shot hit you like a punch.
“I think it has to do with the composition, the camera movement, but also, the rhythm of the cutting—a kind of jarring kind of cutting—and basic elemental nature of the story, because the character played by Cliff Robertson [is] defined by his vengeance. It’s behind every move he makes and Fuller was always jarring the viewers to attention with clashes of images, sounds, emotions… There are so many images and cuts and gestures of the actors and moves from this particular film that have stayed with me over the years and affected my own movies.”
The DVD set also covers two earlier phases of Fuller’s career as a screenwriter, offering three B movies and two later films that executed his stories with flair, if not Fuller’s own distinct visual approach (Shockproof, with Cornel Wilde, directed by Douglas Sirk, and Scandal Sheet, based on Fuller’s novel The Dark Page, directed by Phil Karlson, with Broderick Crawford and John Derek.)
In many ways the discoveries in this collection are the oldest, and least significant films, a trio of Columbia Pictures programmers. It Happened in Hollywood (1937) is a good-hearted story about a silent-film cowboy hero (Richard Dix) whose career fades during the sound era…but when a boy who’s always been a loyal fan shows up in Hollywood, Dix feels obliged to put up a good front. Fuller shared writing credit with four others on this simple yarn, including the redoubtable Myles Connolly (Frank Capra’s close friend and colleague), but anyone who might be tempted to write it off as trivial should remember that years later, in his heyday, Fuller cast cowboy star Tim McCoy in a small part in Run of the Arrow. I once asked him why and he told me that McCoy had been a boyhood hero of his.
Adventure in Sahara (1938), with a story by Fuller and a screenplay by Maxwell Shane,is a standard-issue Foreign Legion tale that runs just under one hour. It is a model of simplicity and efficiency in storytelling. Director D. Ross Lederman is no one’s idea of an auteur, but he handles this road-company Beau Geste with vigor and panache. While Paul Kelly is a capable hero, it’s character actor C. Henry Gordon who stands out as a despicable desert despot. I had a lot of fun watching this one.
Power of the Press (1943) is more interesting for its ambition than its execution. Again, Fuller gets story credit, while Robert D. Andrews wrote the screenplay. On the surface this is a formulaic piece about a small-town newspaperman (Guy Kibbee) who comes to the big city and takes over a major daily from its corrupt editor. It’s the specifics that add interest: that editor and his publisher are isolationists, in the midst of World War Two, who provoke the public with rabble-rousing (and often unsubstantiated) stories designed to fuel their personal influence…and profits. Villainy is in the capable hands of actors like Otto Kruger and Victor Jory, while newspaper-movie veteran Lee Tracy plays a much-too-malleable managing editor…but the film suffers from B-movie superficiality and too much speechifying by Kibbee. Still, the concept of unpatriotic power brokers stirring public foment for their private gain is pretty compelling. I’m glad I had a chance to see this.
Fuller never forgot, or forsook, his experience working on a newspaper, and it informs much of his work. Other observations about the filmmaker by his wife Christa, his daughter Samantha, and such friends and admirers as Wim Wenders, Tim Robbins, Scorsese and Hanson are provided in an interesting 25-minute documentary (as well as specific introductions to selected films) in this collection. The movies have all been nicely restored, making this DVD set a worthwhile addition to any film library. (Sony / The Film Foundation)