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A towering figure in the history of independent film, director Samuel Fuller unleashed his deeply personal, highly stylized vision of society teetering between greatness and disaster in such polarizing films as "The Steel Helmet" (1951), "Pickup on South Street" (1953), "Shock Corridor" (1963), "The Naked Kiss" (1964) and "The Big Red One" (1980). A former crime reporter who later endured some of the most brutal combat during World War II, Fuller served as a screenwriter before emerging as a director in 1950. His films challenged accepted notions of liberty, honor and patriotism through furiously paced, visually assaultive genre pictures informed by his experiences in the newsroom and on the battlefield. Fuller's heroes were flawed but clung to a code of ethics that clashed with political and social organizations, a status that Fuller himself embodied in his frequent battles with producers to deliver his films as he saw them to the screen. He fell out of fashion after "Shock Corridor" and "The Naked Kiss," a pair of savage indictments of the hypocrisy he felt was at the core of American society, and spent the next three decades fighting to complete films while funding his efforts through acting...
A towering figure in the history of independent film, director Samuel Fuller unleashed his deeply personal, highly stylized vision of society teetering between greatness and disaster in such polarizing films as "The Steel Helmet" (1951), "Pickup on South Street" (1953), "Shock Corridor" (1963), "The Naked Kiss" (1964) and "The Big Red One" (1980). A former crime reporter who later endured some of the most brutal combat during World War II, Fuller served as a screenwriter before emerging as a director in 1950. His films challenged accepted notions of liberty, honor and patriotism through furiously paced, visually assaultive genre pictures informed by his experiences in the newsroom and on the battlefield. Fuller's heroes were flawed but clung to a code of ethics that clashed with political and social organizations, a status that Fuller himself embodied in his frequent battles with producers to deliver his films as he saw them to the screen. He fell out of fashion after "Shock Corridor" and "The Naked Kiss," a pair of savage indictments of the hypocrisy he felt was at the core of American society, and spent the next three decades fighting to complete films while funding his efforts through acting roles. In the years preceding his death in 1997, Fuller was transformed from industry pariah to patron saint of the independent film movement. A host of likeminded directors, including Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, would acknowledge the debt he paid throughout his career to allow their unique perspectives to take root on screen.
Born Samuel Michael Fuller in Worcester, MA on Aug. 12, 1912, he was the son of Russian immigrant Benjamin Rabinovitch, who changed the family surname to "Fuller" after arriving in America, and his Polish wife, Rebecca Baum. After his family moved to New York, Fuller began working as a copy boy for the New York Journal and soon became consumed by newspaper reporting. He left school at 13 and followed the Journal's famed editor, Arthur Brisbane, to the New York Evening Graphic, where he began penning his first stories by the age of 17. Fuller hewed closely to Brisbane's dictum of "hitting the reader between the eyes with the first sentence" of his articles, and soon gained a reputation as a no-nonsense crime reporter. He was widely credited as the first news source to break the story of Twenties film star Jeanne Eagles' death by possible drug overdose.
During the Depression, Fuller crisscrossed the American South by rail, where he saw firsthand the deep social and racial divide that separated the region. In 1935, he balanced his career as a pulp novelist under a variety of pseudonyms - resulting in such titles as Burn, Baby, Burn! and Test Tube Baby - and as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Working frequently as a ghostwriter, he earned his first shared screen credit on "Hats Off" (1936), a low-budget, oddball musical about rival publicists for a pair of towns hoping to host a large exposition. He would continue contributing to overripe dramas and crime pictures, including 1938's "Gangs of New York," which counted Day of the Locust author Nathanael West among its writers, until he joined the Army in 1941. His last screen credit before leaving for Europe was "Confirm or Deny," in which the seeds of his later work could be found in its story of a crusading reporter (Don Ameche) battling stateside censorship as he struggled to report on the London blitz.
Fuller served as a corporal and combat reporter with the 16th Infantry Regiment in the 1st Infantry Division, known throughout the military as "The Big Red One." He was present for some of the heaviest fighting of World War II, including the landing at Normandy, and was twice wounded in battle, which earned him a Purple Heart, Silver Star and Bronze Star for bravery. Fuller also filmed 16mm footage of the liberation of the Faulkenau concentration camp, which was later incorporated into the documentary "Falkenau, The Impossible" (1998). These and other wartime experiences had a profound effect on Fuller and his work as writer and director, shaping his worldview as a complex blend of extreme violence and exceptional compassion.
Following his discharge, he returned to Hollywood, where he resumed his scriptwriting career at Warner Bros. However, Fuller soon grew disenchanted with the way his work was being treated; few, if any of his scripts were made into films, and those that did make it to the screen were, in his opinion, handled poorly. He was particularly dismissive of Douglas Sirk's take on "Shockproof" (1949), which replaced his original ending with a neat but implausible conclusion. When low-budget producer Robert Lippert approached him with a deal to pen several Westerns, Fuller accepted the offer, but on the condition that he be allowed to direct them at no additional cost. The budget-conscious Lippert agreed, and Fuller made his directorial debut with 1949's "I Shot Jesse James," which examined the psychological underpinnings of the notorious outlaw's killer, Robert Ford (John Ireland).
"Jesse James" made little impact at the box office, as did its follow-up, the florid "Baron of Arizona" (1950), with Vincent Price as a 19th century forger's attempt to lay claim to the Arizona territory. However, his third Lippert project, 1950's "The Steel Helmet," established him as force to reckon with, both as a filmmaker and a firebrand. Shot in 10 days for less than $150,000, "Helmet" was the first film to address both the Korean War, which was ongoing at the time of its release, and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Critics were wowed by its uncompromising story of the mental trauma suffered by soldiers in combat, but hawkish critics and the U.S. military alike took umbrage with scenes in which a North Korean captive baits black and Japanese-American soldiers into betraying their superiors, as well as a scene in which the film's lead executes a POW.
"Helmet" netted $6 million at the box office, which brought Fuller to the attention of the major studios. At each meeting, he questioned how the studios used the profits from their hit films. Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck's answer - "We make better movies" - spurred Fuller to sign a seven-picture deal with the company. His first release for Fox was "Fixed Bayonets!" (1951), another Korean War film, this time about a platoon faced with an indefensible position and an ineffectual leader (Richard Basehart). It failed to match the sizable returns of "Steel Helmet," and Zanuck was ambivalent about its follow-up, a lavish, highly patriotic paean to the newspaper industry called "Park Row" (1952). Fuller rejected Zanuck's compromise to make it a musical, and funded the film through his own production company. Though Fuller would cite "Park Row," it proved to be a sizable flop, which wiped out Fuller's finances.
He returned to Fox for "Pickup on South Street" (1953), an idiosyncratic noir about a pickpocket (Richard Widmark) who stole a wallet containing valuable government secrets. A supercharged blend of noir style and anti-Communist jingoism, "Pickup" netted the Bronze Lion at the Venice Film Festival and an Oscar nod for co-star Thelma Ritter as Widmark's sympathetic friend, but again drew criticism for its extreme violence and perceived anti-American sentiments, most notably from FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. "Pickup" marked the beginning of a love-hate relationship between Fuller and the American critical community, which viewed him as either a crude, heavy-handed propagandist or an independent-minded filmmaker who could accomplish extraordinary visual flair on a miniscule budget.
Fuller scored hits with the submarine drama "Hell or High Water" (1954), which was made largely to honor Zanuck's request to experiment with the CinemaScope process in an enclosed space, and "House of Bamboo" (1955), a hard-boiled noir about American gangsters in a postwar Japan struggling to find the balance between ancient traditions and modern attitudes. Moreover, its balance of intimate human drama with genre conventions set the tone for Fuller's efforts throughout the decade. In "China Gate" (1957), Fuller addresses issues of racism against a backdrop of corruption and greed in France's conflict in Vietnam, while the Western "Run of the Arrow" (1957), the first feature for his second production company, Globe Enterprises, took a harsh view of the American military's involvement with Native Americans in its story of a Confederate veteran (Rod Steiger) who rejected his country to live with the Sioux.
"Forty Guns" (1958) deconstructed the Hollywood Western by reversing its established dictums: the lone gunman (Barry Sullivan), symbol of America's lawless past, is the film's force for good, while Manifest Destinty, as embodied by landowner Barbara Stanwyck and her violent siblings, are a corrupting influence. Fuller also began to experiment with his visual style; 1958's "Verboten!," with James Best as a GI in post-war Germany contending with neo-Nazis, was constructed from less than 100 lengthy, claustrophobic takes, some clocking at over five minutes, while "The Crimson Kimono" (1959) heightened the taboo aspects of its central love triangle between a white cop (Glenn Corbett), his Japanese-American partner (James Shigeta) and a white crime witness through shock cuts, elliptical framing and explosive exchanges. His singular approach to genre filmmaking drew considerable praise from the French New Wave, who hailed Fuller as a quintessentially American visionary.
Flush with international support for his efforts, Fuller launched into a series of films in the 1960s that aimed at nothing less than the fabric of American society itself, which he hoped to expose as a thin veneer over a bedrock of lies, corruption and venality. "Underworld U.S.A." (1961) depicted the justice system as essentially bankrupt, with lawmen and criminals alike operating under the same moral code. He followed this with the World War II drama "Merrill's Marauders" (1962), which he hoped would pave the way for the long-gestating project "The Big Red One," about his experiences with the 1st Infantry. Interference by Warner Bros. over content led to the studio axing the follow-up project, and he soon returned to the independent world for his most galvanizing films to date.
He returned to his assault on the American way of life with "Shock Corridor" (1963), a phantasmagorical thriller about an ambitious reporter who committed himself to an asylum in order to catch a killer and wound up its most disturbed patient. Fuller depicted the asylum's inmates - a Southerner deranged by racism and Communist brainwashing into believing himself a Civil War general; an atomic war scientist reduced to a six-year-old child by the horrors of his research; and a black student who adopted the persona of a Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard to combat the relentless prejudice of his life - as a microcosm of American society, a notion which was rejected wholesale by critics. Undaunted, he returned with "The Naked Kiss" (1964), a disturbing story of a prostitute (Constance Towers) who found redemption and romance in small town America, only to find a mass of perversion beneath its gilded veneer. Though it came to be cited as one of Fuller's most accomplished films, "The Naked Kiss" generated such critical venom over its suggestion of sexual deviancy that it rendered him persona non grata in Hollywood for nearly a decade. He retreated to France, where he was embraced by its filmmaking community. Jean-Luc Godard afforded him a cameo in "Pierrot le Fou" (1965) where he espoused his cinematic dogma: "Film is a battleground." Fuller kept himself financially afloat by working as a gun for hire on the short-lived Western series "The Iron Horse" (ABC, 1966-1968) and uncredited script revisions on Peter Bogdanovich's "Targets" (1968), among other films.
Fuller returned to directing that same year, but found it nearly impossible to complete a feature film. He quit his first post-exile film, 1968's "Shark!" after production lapses allowed a stunt man to be killed by a supposedly sedated shark. When the producers attempted to use the tragedy to promote the film, he vigorously lobbied to have his name removed from the picture. Fuller headed for Peru to appear in "The Last Movie" (1971) for fellow maverick Dennis Hopper before traveling to Germany for "Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street" (1972), a feature-length episode of the long-running German TV detective series "Tatort" (NDR, 1969- ) that received limited theatrical distribution in the United States. Fuller would spent much of the 1970s as an actor for directors who admired his work, appearing as a gangster in Wim Wenders' "The American Friend" (1977) and a military commander in Steven Spielberg's "1941 (1979). In 1973, he began shooting a Western in Spain called "Riata," but was fired by the producers and replaced by Barry Shear, who completed the picture, a violent revenge story starring Richard Harris, as "The Deadly Trackers" (1974). The following year, he abandoned "The Klansman" (1974), an action-thriller of questionable taste with Richard Burton, Lee Marvin and O.J. Simpson fighting the Klan in the rural South.
By 1980, Fuller was largely considered a museum piece, but to the surprise of many, he announced the launch of "The Big Red One." Filmed in Israel and Ireland, its story of a quartet of World War II infantrymen, including a cigar-chomping, pulp-writing stand-in for Fuller (Robert Carradine) and their world-weary sergeant (Lee Marvin), was delivered to United Artists as a four-hour epic. The studio trimmed the picture down to a lean 90 minutes that, while dissatisfying Fuller, earned modest box office returns and widespread critical praise. After languishing in obscurity for nearly two decades, Fuller found himself in demand at the studios again.
Unfortunately, his comeback was short-lived. Fuller chose for his next project an adaptation of Romain Gary's novel White Dog, about a black dog trainer who attempted to rehabilitate a dog programmed to attack African-Americans. Fuller saw the film as a forum for discussing whether racism could be addressed in humans, but in the midst of shooting the film, Paramount Pictures grew concerned that the film would be offensive to African-American viewers. Consultants from the NAACP gave dire warnings about a possible boycott, prompting Paramount to push for substantial changes to the completed film. Enraged, Fuller refused to make most of the changes, which Paramount countered by refusing to release the film. It remained out of circulation until a cable airing in a drastically edited form in 1983. A disgusted Fuller left the United States for France, where he would live for the remainder of his life, save for visits to American film festivals. Fuller supported himself largely through acting roles in European features, including "Helsinki Napoli All Night Long" (1987) for Finnish director Mika Kaurismaki, and the occasional stateside film like Larry Cohen's offbeat "Return to 'Salem's Lot" (1987), which cast him as a Holocaust survivor-turned-vampire hunter. Fuller would direct two features in his adopted country, the minor thrillers "Thieves After Dark" (1984) and "Street of No Return" (1989). His final turn in the director's chair came with the TV movie "Tinikling ou 'La Madonne et le dragonne'" ("The Day of Reckoning") (Canal +, 1990).
Fuller then settled into his well-deserved status as one of the pioneers of independent filmmaking, with such modern-day acolytes as Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino paying homage to him in print and in documentaries like "The Typewriter, The Rife and the Movie Camera" (IFC, 1996). In 1994, Fuller and Jarmusch traveled to Brazil with Kaurismaki for "Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made," a documentary which revisited the jungle locations for "Tigrero" (1954), an aborted adventure film that would have fulfilled his seven-picture contract with Fox. After suffering a stroke, he made his final screen appearance in Wenders' "The End of Violence" (1997) before passing away from natural causes on October 30th of that year. Director Curtis Hanson, who co-wrote "White Dog" with Fuller, hosted a memorial service for Fuller at the Directors Guild of America the following month. In 2002, his autobiography, A Third Face, co-written by his wife Christa Fuller and writer Jerry Rudes, was published.
By Paul Gaita
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