The Essentials: The 5 Best Sam Fuller Films

The great Sam Fuller began life as a crime reporter at the age of 17, before writing pulp novels and doing mostly uncredited work on screenplays through the 1930s (his first credit was on 1936’s “Hats Off“). He served in World War Two, seeing action in France, Italy and North Africa, as well as being present at (and filming) the liberation of the concentration camp at Sokolov. By the time he came to direct in 1939 — having been inspired by his anger at what Douglas Sirk did to his screenplay “Shockproof” — Fuller would infuse his work with his experience as both a journalist and a soldier.

Indeed, the director once made a parallel between moviemaking and war in a quote that served as something of a mission statement for his career “Film is like a battleground, with love, hate, action, violence, death…in one word, emotion.” Shooting with both a journalistic eye and a heightened style, producing work that was simultaneously crass and subtle, he’s one of the great pulp filmmakers, and a director who proved a huge influence on everyone. Especially cinephiles and directors who would go on to become much more famous than he. The Nouvelle Vague adored him (Francois Truffaut, etc.) and Jean-Luc Godard would go as far paying him open tribute by giving him a cameo in “Pierrot Le Fou.” Wim Wenders would do the same with Fuller’s small part in “The American Friend.” Other admirers would include Martin ScorseseJim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino. Even if career problems meant that he never became the household name he should have been (he didn’t direct between 1972 and 1980, and the misreading of 1982’s “White Dog” saw him become a pariah in Hollywood), Fuller’s lasting stamp on cinema is still felt today.

Fuller was born 100 years ago this weekend, on August 12th 1912, and to mark the occasion, we wanted to pick out five of the director’s greatest pictures as a little taster of the fine films that he produced throughout his career. Read on for more, and if we left out your favorite Fuller flick, you can argue your case in the comments section below.

Pickup On South Street” (1953)
A fairly direct inspiration for Robert Bresson‘s “Pickpocket” (a title Fuller wanted to use for this film, but was rejected after studio bosses found it “too European”), Fuller’s follow up to his self-financed passion project “Park Row” isn’t his most personal project by a long way, but it’s certainly one of his leanest and most entertaining films. It kicks off as pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) lifts a wallet belonging to Candy (Jean Peters, who would later marry Howard Hughes), a wallet that, unbeknownst to either of them, is carrying secret government information that Candy’s ex boyfriend, a Communist spy, is trying to get to his Soviet masters. Pursued by cops, the government and the communists, he tries to play the sides off against each other for his own profit, with tragic consequences for his friend Moe (an Oscar-nominated Thelma Ritter). Written down, the plot (which is really an espionage thriller in film noir trappings) is sort of ludicrous, but Fuller leaves so little fat on the 80-minute picture that you’re immediately swept up in its pulpy charms, left breathless by the end. And it helps that the film is both sexy and brutal for its time, even after the Production Code had their way with the script. Fuller doesn’t always get credit as a director of actors, but here, his cast are all pretty much superb (Peters is a little wooden, but fits the part’s sheer sexuality well enough that it doesn’t matter too much), especially Widmark, who simultaneously plays notes of both weaselly self-interest and long-buried good-heartedness, and Ritter, who doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but makes the most of every single second. Even today, few thrillers are as tough or as entertaining, and the Criterion version is thoroughly recommended.

Forty Guns” (1957)
Fuller had started off with Westerns (his first two, “I Shot Jesse James” and “The Baron Of Arizona,” were both in the genre, as was 1957’s “Run Of the Arrow“) but his finest entry in the genre might be his pioneering widescreen oater “Forty Guns,” made only just after “Run Of The Arrow.” Commissioned by 20th Century Fox, who wanted a low-budget black & white Western (the film was shot, incredibly, in a week) to demonstrate the wide-ranging possibilities of their new CinemaScope format, the plot centers on one of the great female Western heroines, Barbara Stanwyck‘s Arizona rancher Jessica Drummond, who rules over the town with her 40 hired guns, enabling her drunken brother Brockie (John Ericson) to run riot. But things change when former killer Griff (Barry Sullivan) arrives in town to become lawmen with his two brothers, Wes and Chico. Jessica falls for him, but they become stuck in a Romeo & Juliet-style clash between their two families that doesn’t end well for either side. Like many Fuller movies, it’s a B-picture on the surface, but acted (especially by the excellent Stanwyck) and shot like an A. Not merely in its widescreen images (Fuller making full use of the new widescreen format when he shoots the landscape), but in the invention he displays in his framing: lensing down gun barrels, blurring the camera when shooting from an old man’s POV, and essentially shaking up the Western genre, paving the way for Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. It’s got a sense of humor, but steers just clear of camp for the most part, and as ever, there’s an emotional depth that belies the set up. One of the director’s most undervalued pictures.“Shock Corridor” (1963)
The closest thing to a horror film that Fuller ever made, and an example of the American exploitation film at its finest, if “Shock Corridor” isn’t the best thing the director did, it’s only the film that came after that beats it out. With ambitions to win a Pulitzer Prize, journalist Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) infiltrates a mental hospital to solve a murder that took place there. But the three witnesses have all lost their minds (one is a Nobel Prize winner whose work on the A-bomb has caused him to regress to childhood, one is a Korea vet who’s become a Communist, and one is a black college student who now thinks he’s a white supremacist), and Johnny soon follows them, electro-shock therapy and being essentially raped by a group of nymphomaniac women on the ward soon convincing him that his stripper girlfriend is actually his sister. Fuller uses his shock-value, almost tabloid-y subject matter to indict the wrongs of America past and present, while pairing glorious, chiaroscuro-filled black & white cinematography by the great Stanley Cortez (“The Magnificent Ambersons,” “Night Of The Hunter“) with lurid 16mm color dream sequences that he lensed himself, with the effect that you too feel yourself unraveling a little bit. Falling somewhere between “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Freaks,” it’s the strangest, saddest and most singular picture that Fuller ever made.

The Naked Kiss” (1964)
Reuniting almost immediately with some of his key collaborators from “Shock Corridor” (among them DoP Stanley Cortez and lead actress Constance Towers), Fuller went back to his neo-noir roots for a film that arguably sees the peak of his career. “The Naked Kiss” stars Towers as a prostitute on the run who arrives in the small town of Grantville and tries to start anew, becoming a nurse and falling for the heir to the town’s wealthiest family (Michael Dante). But the town sheriff (Anthony Eisley), who knows of her past, doesn’t trust her, and when she kills her fiance on discovering that he’s a child molester, she has to face all her enemies down at once. In its depiction of the rotten core beneath a perfect Americana town, the film forges the path for all kinds of films to come (“Blue Velvet” being one of the most obvious descendants), but Fuller’s sense of good and evil has never been stronger, even if his heroine’s morals are more flexible — the helmer being, as ever, a great director of women). Indeed, it’s many ways the purest of all the Fuller films; his journalistic eye for detail married with an ever-bolder approach to filmmaking, bold POVs joined by fractured jump cuts influenced, presumably, by the French Nouvelle Vague. The kind of film you feel you need to shower after seeing, it just might have been Fuller’s finest hour.

White Dog” (1982)
Vilified, maligned and pilloried upon the time of its release,  Sam Fuller’s controversial 1982 drama “White Dog” died a slow painful death once it limped into theaters (if you can call it a release at all — it had a few preview screenings in various cities, but Paramount essentially didn’t release the film in the U.S.). Written by Fuller and a very young Curtis Hanson, and based on Romain Gary‘s 1970 novel of the same name, the film centers on a black dog trainer (Paul Winfield) trying to untrain the “white dog” tendencies out of the canine (i.e. it’s been bred to be racist and it viciously attacks all African-Americans on sight). Hounded by the NAACP and the Black Anti-Defamation Coalition (BADC) before the film could even see release, the pressure was enough for Paramount to delay and then eventually give up on the film. Fuller was so dumbfounded and hurt, he moved to France (where the director was already beloved) and never made a movie on American soil again. Starring ubiquitous ’80s teen actress Kristy McNichol as the young girl who adopts this mutt, unaware of its dangerously biased tendencies, there’s no doubt “White Dog” is provocative and sometimes so outrageous in concept it can be seen initially as unintentionally funny. But dubious politics aside (whether it’s “misunderstood” may be in the eye of the beholder), “White Dog” is actually a super engaging piece of work that also has some fantastically thriller-ish and creepy overtones thanks to both its sinister score by the great Ennio Morricone, and Fuller’s deft camera work. Featuring some ominous low-level tracking shots of the animal, “White Dog” is Hitchockian and even “Jaws“-like in its tension and suspense. While politically correct humanists (and dog lovers too) will find lots to be offended by, there’s no denying “White Dog” is actually a trenchant and even heartbreaking cautionary tale about the teachings of hate (and one that hadn’t been available for ages other than in bad bootlegs until Criterion finally released it in 2008). Not to mention it’s a fascinating and absorbing piece of cinema, and easily Fuller’s last great film.

“Honorable Mention” or simply great films we left on the cutting room floor…
We fully realize that these five picks are a subjective five and we do realize that this list could start some serious fisticuffs. But we made ourselves stick to five choices so five choices we made, for better or worse. Personally, the film that just fell outside the cut for us was the awesome 1951 Korean War film, “The Steel Helmet.” It’s cigar-chomping tough guy performance by Gene Evans as the gruff Sergeant Zack is indelible. Another “missing” picture from this list, probably the one considered his biggest to the general film populace, is the WWII film “The Big Red One,” starring Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill and Robert Carradine, and it’s as solid as any picture he ever made, but if we’re picking war films, we’ll take “The Steel Helmet” over it by a hair. Then of course there’s “Park Row,” which Gene Evans also starred in. Tarantino is a noted fan of that salient riff on the sleazy business of trying to sell newspapers. Other important works include his other Korean war picture “Fixed Bayonets” (which features James Dean‘s brief debut film role), the color film noir “House of Bamboo” (which starred the great Robert Ryan and Robert Stack), the Cinemascope-shot “Hell And High Water” (starring Richard Widmark again), 1962’s Cinemascope war film “Merrill’s Marauders,” and the previously mentioned Westerns “I Shot Jesse James” and “The Baron of Arizona,” starring the great Vincent Price. There’s a lot to love and admire with Samuel Fuller. Seven of his films are in the Criterion Collection and that’s a good place to start.

– Oliver Lyttelton and Rodrigo Perez

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