Like most right-minded film fans we’re big fans of Sam Fuller (check out our list of essential films from the director). Kicking of his career as a crime reporter and novelist, Fuller soon found his way to Hollywood and after serving in World War Two as an infantryman, became a film director. Generally favoring low-budget and independently-produced pictures, but not averse to working within the studio system (he had a good relationship with Daryl Zanuck), he knocked out a string of genre classics — from “Pickup On South Street” and “Forty Guns” to “Shock Corridor” and his epic autobiographical masterpiece “The Big Red One” — that quietly influenced many of your favourite directors.
So to say we were excited to see “A Fuller Life” tucked away in the Venice program would be an understatement. Directed by the great filmmaker’s daughter Samantha, a former glass artist, it promised to dig into the man’s fascinating life and tremendous work, to mark what would have been his 101st birthday earlier this month. The film isn’t, however, quite what we were expecting. Running just over 80 minutes, it’s essentially an adaptation of Fuller’s memoir of the same name, divided into chapters, with a selection of famous names reading the filmmaker’s prose. Some, like William Friedkin and Wim Wenders (who cast Fuller Sr in his film “The American Friend“) were friends, some, like Jennifer Beals, Mark Hamill and Bill Duke, were collaborators, and some, like Tim Roth and James Franco (because James Franco is in everything) are admirers.
Their readings play out over a mix of archive footage, clips from his work, rostrum camera stills and, most interestingly, home movies shot by Fuller himself, including some of his wartime experiences. His childhood work as a newsboy and subsequent career as a crime writer are dealt with fairly briskly but the bulk of the film, and the best material, deals with his time in the Second World War. This was where he was involved in the D-Day landings, had a hilarious and touching encounter at a USO show with Marlene Dietrich and helped liberate a concentration camp, both of which can be glimpsed in footage shot by Fuller.
Unfortunately this means that there’s only fifteen minutes or so at the end to deal with the forty-odd year career in film, which means that masterpieces like “Shock Corridor” and “The Naked Kiss” are mostly passed over, with only his opus “The Big Red One” getting a fair shake. This is in keeping with both the source material and the man — Fuller was unpretentious about his work and didn’t like to discuss it much, but it seems fair to wish for a little more insight into the movies.
Similarly, by focusing exclusively on his own perspective and not including interviews with those that knew him, the film essentially comes across as a star-studded audiobook. Not a particularly good audiobook either — some readers are more natural than others, and many of their readings seem to have been filmed in one take; Franco, for instance, noticeably flubs his lines at one point.
Still, Fuller fans will get a real kick out of it, especially if they haven’t read the source material, while it’s also worth it for the casually curious viewer if only for the hugely impressive WWII footage. Perhaps more importantly, the film works very well as a daughter’s tribute to her father as a man, and that seems to be exactly what it set out to be. [C+]