Samuel Fuller was a real hero. Long before he ever directed a movie, he had already had an extremely rich and colorful life. He was a crime reporter for a New York tabloid, a published novelist, and then a corporal throughout America’s involvement in World War II, going wherever the First Infantry (known as “The Big Red One”) went, which was practically every major theater of operation in the western hemisphere. Sammy was on the beach at Normandy on D-Day, and at the liberation of concentration camps. Wherever he was, he usually carried a 16mm camera and filmed a great many of these events (as he would do throughout his life—including the first day my first-born child came home from hospital). Upon his return, he was suffering from noise fatigue and battle shock to such a degree that for a while he could not bear to hear even the tap of finger to table.
In 1949, Fuller began directing his own scripts with a distinctively off-beat Western, I Shot Jesse James. A couple of years later, he had his first hit with the independently produced Korean War film (the first to deal with that conflict), The Steel Helmet. From the start, Fuller’s pictures had an iconoclastic, hard-hitting pulp-fiction approach that combined boldly plotted melodrama with often sensational social themes. His unusually personal films, and his own maverick style in life—-extremely warm, but fiercely independent, pugnacious, loud, forceful and inexhaustible—-made him a hero to a number of disparate filmmakers, from Godard to Spielberg to Tarantino, from Martin Scorsese to Curtis Hansen.
To me, Sammy was a true pal, helped my career invaluably by essentially doing a complete rewrite of my first movie’s script (Targets) in about two hours, pacing back and forth in his living room. I reciprocated as best I could by helping to get one of his made (The Big Red One). But Fuller also gave me a few memorable filmmaking tips, including one I think of whenever preparing a picture: “Save your money for the finish, kid,” he said, and didn’t just mean that literally, since an ending transforms a picture, being what we are left with, and therefore of crucial importance.
One of Fuller’s most typical and adventurous works, if not among his best realized, is the wildly political Shock Corridor (available on DVD), a kind of harsh, surreal cartoon, combining Daumier and Dick Tracy. The outrageous plot: A newspaperman (Peter Breck) conspires, with the help of his editor and his extremely dubious girlfriend (Constance Towers), to get himself committed to an insane asylum in order to solve a brutal killing that happened there. The quote from Euripedes which opens and closes the movie gives a pretty good idea of where the story goes: “Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.” (The film-insider’s alternate is “Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make great in show business.”) The reporter gets his wish for glory and becomes, as someone says at the end, “The first Pulitzer Prize winner who’s mute and insane.”
On his way down the long corridor of the title, the reporter digs up information from three inmate witnesses to the murder: a nuclear scientist who’s now drawing pictures like a six-year-old (Gene Evans); a Southern Civil War fanatic who went over to the Russians during the Korean War (James Best); and a black man (Hari Rhodes) who has been driven to becoming a rabid racist, a hater of himself and all who are not “100% American.” When this character—-one of the best acted in an otherwise uneven ensemble—-puts on a Ku Klux Klan hood and starts spouting racist vitriol, the picture’s subversive intentions become clear, and the image it projects so ironically of America’s worst tensions is as sharp and vivid as a slap in the face.
Not all of the movie is as potent, some of the plot machinations are pretty implausible, and sometimes clumsily handled, yet the almost primitive simplicity of the bold and daring concept manages to prevail. Shock Corridor is a picture which, if presented in Polish or German with English subtitles, would be considered an unqualified masterpiece.
It isn’t quite that. The very best of Fuller includes all of his war pictures—-Spielberg claimed Fuller as his major influence on Saving Private Ryan—-and the riveting Richard Widmark crime melodrama, Pickup on South Street (see Picture of the Week 9/18/10), the bizarre Barbara Stanwyck western, Forty Guns, the viciously compelling Mafia film with Cliff Robertson, Underworld, U.S.A. These should be seen before Shock Corridor, which is for those of us who already love Sammy Fuller, and can see around its faults–its budgetary, casting, and time limitations–to the wonderfully exciting, strangely innocent, and deeply moral man within.