Sam Fuller directed, wrote and produced his pictures in headlines. There was always a kind of tabloid journalistic stylization to his work, mixed with the boldness of a scandal sheet’s lead story, the succinctness of boiling it all down to as few striking words as possible. Fuller became a moviemaker with rich first-hand experiences of life as a copy boy from age 12 for the old New York Journal, by age 17 a crime reporter for the San Diego Sun, and as a soldier in World War II, fighting with the First Infantry Division—“The Big Red One”—throughout North Africa and Europe, awarded the Bronze Star, the Silver Star, and a Purple Heart. By the time Fuller made his first film–with a typical Fuller title: I Shot Jesse James (1949)–he had seen enough true horrors, tragedy, and human comedy to make even the worst picture-crises pale by comparison, and the most outrageous picture-plots seem tame.
Because of the unquestionable authorial presence behind all his work, the French New Wave critics and filmmakers of the 1950s adopted Fuller as a perfect illustration of a subversive “auteur” filmmaker functioning within the Hollywood studio system. One of the finest of his numerous crime pictures has an A-cast and deep B-noir funkiness, starring Richard Widmark (in his lead heavy period), Jean Peters (at her sexiest), Thelma Ritter (at her most poignant, and Oscar-nominated), Richard Kiley (smarmy as hell) in 1953’s gripping, hard-bitten PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (available on DVD).
I first saw the film about forty-five years ago in London, on my maiden voyage to Europe, which may have given the work an added piquancy. For my movie-card file, I wrote: “Tough, violent, exciting underworld thriller, about a pickpocket who accidentally steals a valuable piece of microfilm stolen from the government by Communists; melodramatic but well-played and directed.” Two years later, in Beverly Hills, having seen several more Fuller pictures and having come to know and work with the man himself, I saw Pickup again, and rated it “Excellent,” adding: “Among Fuller’s best films, and probably the best portrait of life among thieves ever shot. Violent, terse, yet compassionate, Fuller never compromises his characters, and he shows the objectivity-subjectivity of a great crime reporter; the love scenes have an Odetsian power and the picture as a whole is close to a masterpiece of intensity. With Underworld, U.S.A., it is probably his most thoroughly successful movie.” The reference to playwright-screenwriter Clifford Odets, noted for a certain street poetry in his dialog, was inspired by lines like Widmark’s after first kissing Peters: “Sometimes you look for oil, you hit a gusher.”
Samuel Michael Fuller (1911-1997), whom most people who knew him well called Sammy, remains an outstanding example of the sort of energy and originality that comes to pictures because of outside, non-show-business, activities. Besides newspapers, crime and war, he had ridden freight trains during the Depression, published his first novel (Burn Baby Burn) before he was 25, collaborated on his first film script the following year (1936). Fuller’s extensive, harrowing, shell-shock-provoking war experiences resulted in several of the best American movies about war, including the first on Korea, The Steel Helmet (1950). Both Steven Spielberg and Terry Malick, whose World War II movies competed for the Oscar in 1998, cited Fuller as a major influence with pictures like Helmet, Fixed Bayonets (1951), China Gate (1957), Verboten (1959), Merrill’s Marauders (1962) and, of course, The Big Red One (1980). Surprisingly, for a guy who had lived through some of the worst of human behavior, to the end Sammy as a person retained a tough innocence, a clean inner beauty that was touching. In a world of crooks, Fuller was the last honest pal.