“For Sam Fuller, the world condensed into stories. That’s what he saw wherever he looked. Whatever reality, incident, fact or event presented itself, he saw it as narrative material. In the beginning was the Word, sure, but what are words good for, if not for telling stories?”
–Wim Wenders, Written in 2007 as an introduction to Fuller’s novel The Dark Page
In the early years of Hollywood, the path to the director’s chair often started in the writing room. Prominent screenwriters capable of writing compelling stories to dazzle audiences were left to take the helm on film projects in Hollywood’s Golden Age. Ernst Lubitsch was perhaps the pioneer of this model, transitioning from German cinema to the States in the silent era and carving out his place in film history with the sharp, witty dialogue that would define the early talkies and have a massive influence on other writers-turned-directors like Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder. While Wilder and Sturges thrived on this model through the 40s and 50s, a new brand of director emerged who introduced a more pronounced edge to the films coming out of Hollywood.
Filmmakers like Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray reshaped the language of American cinema as the oppressive Hays Code began to wear thin and filmmakers became more clever about hiding taboo themes in their films. Otto Preminger outwardly pushed back on the limitations of the production code while Hollywood’s most prominent directors like Alfred Hitchcock became more and more bold in their open defiance to Hays’ stringent moralistic view toward filmmaking. This story of Hollywood through the first decades of sound is complex and rich in stories that ultimately add up to the evolution of American cinema. Samuel Fuller is a fascinating case study in this history, as his story both displays and deeply impacts the modernization of American cinema.
Samuel Fuller started out as a crime journalist in New York City. There is perhaps no role that could greater prepare someone for the incoming pulpiness of American film in the 40s and 50s. When he published his most famous novel, The Dark Page, in 1944 it clearly displayed his journalistic bonafides as well as the imagination that his time reporting on inner city crime afforded him. However, it also reads like a classic and thrilling film noir. It would eventually take this form when it was adapted into the 1952 Phil Karlson film Scandal Sheet. His experience fighting in World War II would both give him his earliest encounters behind the camera shooting footage of liberated concentration camps and would heavily influence his later films.
When Fuller was handed a director’s chair, he created I Shot Jesse James, a perfectly fine if not ultimately boilerplate Western based more in audience-pleasing genre tropes than in any effort to craft a historical document of the death of Jesse James. The film is most notable in that it is Fuller’s first directorial effort. He followed this film up with another Western: The Baron of Arizona. However, it was 1951’s The Steel Helmet that would be the first true standout film from Fuller as a director. Drawing heavily from Fuller’s own military experience, the film lobbies against the otherism generated by war, and being set during the Korean war it spoke loudly to contemporary issues.
The middle decade in Fuller’s career was truly fascinating. Emulating early Hollywood directors like Howard Hawks, Michael Curtiz, and William Wyler, Fuller jumped into several different genres and subjects. However, there was always an element to his films that felt like a rejection of the studio system that built up these directors, and regardless of genre his films always maintained an edgy Fuller style.
It’d be easy to think of this period as Fuller’s noir period. 1952’s Park Row is one of his most overlooked films and kicked off a heavy dose of crime in his filmography. It was the first of his directorial efforts which would draw from his experience as a New York beat writer. Fuller followed Park Row up with perhaps his most well known noir: Pickup on South Street. Like a number of other iconic films noir of the period, Pickup on South Street addressed fears in Hollywood brought on by the Red Scare and the rise of McCarthyism. It also included the sharp, cutting dialogue that remains one of the most impressive and influential elements of Fuller’s pronounced style.
That said, the period wasn’t dominated by crime. Fuller returned to the war genre with 1957’s China Gate and then circled back to Westerns with Run of the Arrow and Forty Guns in the same year. While three films in a single year seems like an impossible balancing act, these efforts showed Fuller’s dedication to his craft and highlighted his growth as a director as he returned to and improved on genres he had some experience with. Forty Guns is a particularly interesting effort, and is the most memorable Western in Fuller’s oeuvre, featuring a wonderful performance by Barbara Stanwyck.
Fuller closed out this period in his career with a few more noir films. The Crimson Kimono is an interesting entry, showing Fuller’s continued willingness to broach controversial topics. However, Fuller’s next film remains one of his most fascinating. Underworld U.S.A. tells the story of a young man played by Cliff Robertson who infiltrates the crime family that murdered his father in order to seek revenge. It is probably the most interesting film to watch in gauging Fuller’s development, as it still has the sharp and clever dialogue of his novels and his early features, but also shows a mature and insightful visual language that helped launch Fuller out of traditional Hollywood filmmaking. Visual motifs and experimental camera angles, like the memorable murder scene which depicts only the shadows of the murderers against a brick wall, revealed an eye too great for low budget B-noirs.
Perhaps Fuller’s two most recognized films came in 1963 and 1964. 1963’s Shock Corridor maintain’s Fuller’s formula of protagonists with a background in crime journalism, as he follows a journalist who submits himself to an insane asylum seeking a scoop on a murder. However, instead of merely chasing a thrilling crime story, Fuller all but abandons the murder narrative and instead chooses to focus his story on the depravities of the mental institution system and the inhumanity with which patients are treated. The movie descends into a dark surrealism uncharacteristic of mainstream Hollywood directors of Fuller’s time and it sends a powerful social message that still loudly resonates today.
Fuller followed this up with The Naked Kiss in 1964. This remains arguably the most shocking film in Fuller’s filmography. The film bucks any pretense of submitting to the Hays Code and Hollywood sensibilities from the outset, as the protagonist is a prostitute named Kelly, played wonderfully by Constance Towers, who opens the film with a burst of violent rage and a bald head, looking nothing like the typical beautiful, blonde female protagonist of early Hollywood. When Kelly is on the run from her former life, she takes the job of a teacher in a small town and ends up engaged to a wealthy and reputable man. When she catches him molesting his young niece, nobody in the town will believe her. When she is finally proven truthful, she is still forced to leave town, vindicated but forever an outcast. It is one of the most troubling social films in the history of Hollywood, and a spectacular piece of Sam Fuller’s filmography which truly displays his wealth of talents as a filmmaker and storyteller.
After The Naked Kiss, Fuller became significantly less active as a director. The Big Red One is his next notable film: a solid, semi-autobiographical war flick. However, his final truly memorable film was 1982’s White Dog. A horror film missing many of the characteristics of classic Fuller, White Dog is most memorable for its terrifying inhuman antagonist and its stark denunciation of racism.
It is impossible to correctly tell the story of Hollywood without a sizeable entry titled “Samuel Fuller”. The director’s career spanned Hollywood’s most formative decades, and he showed time and time again that he was willing to subvert expectations in favor of his art maintaining its truth. He made powerful works and was never afraid to use his films as a platform. Social commentary did not overshadow the excitement, but merely added subtely to the adventures of his protagonists whether they be newspapermen, gun fighters, soldiers, or prostitutes.
“A film is like a battleground. It’s love, hate, action, violence, death—In one word, emotions.”