Sam Fuller is Hollywood’s great tabloid director, a former newspaperman, pulp novelist and soldier who worked his way up from screenwriting to directing films, sometimes for the studios and sometimes independently, and brought all of his experiences and attitudes to his filmmaking. Only two of the films in The Samuel Fuller Collection (The Collector’s Choice) (Sony), co-produced by The Film Foundation (a project guided in part by Martin Scorsese), are actually directed by Fuller. The rest are either written by him or based on his novels and are of decidedly uneven quality. It Happened In Hollywood (1937), Fuller’s first script, is an indifferent B-movie about a stalwart silent film cowboy hero (Richard Dix) lost in the transition to sound. The simple (you might say simplistic) story plays out with none of Fuller’s attitude and is defined largely by Dix’s laconic warmth and stolid presence. Power of the Press (1943) is a newspaper drama based on a Fuller story with a lazily-directed murder mystery and breaks for wartime propaganda, and Adventure in the Sahara (1938) is a basic Foreign Legion B-picture adventure from a Fuller story.
Fuller had just become a director in his own right the same year that Shockproof (1949), a studio crime melodrama directed by Douglas Sirk, was released. Cornel Wilde, never the most expressive of leading men, is a cynical parole officer who falls for ex-con Patricia Knight and throws his future and hers away to run off. This handsome lovers-on-the-run thriller is a minor noir with Fuller’s tabloid sensibility and Sirk’s romantic gloss, directed with an economy that makes the most of its modest budget. What Sirk brings is a romanticism that softens the shadows of the noir atmosphere. More classically Fuller is the newspaper murder mystery Scandal Sheet (1952), a low-budget spin on The Big Clock based on the Fuller novel The Dark Page and directed by Phil Karlson with a suitably sleazy atmosphere of journalistic cynicism. John Derek is perfectly cast as a callow reporter who doesn’t blanch at anything to get a story and Broderick Crawford as his editor who kills an “old maid” and is torn between covering up a murder and encouraging his star reporter to play up the story of “the Lonelyhearts Murder” into a tabloid sensation: just the kind of contradiction that Fuller can embrace.
The jewels in the crown of this collection are the two films that receive the defining credit: “Written * Produced * Directed by Samuel Fuller.” After a time working in the studio system, Fuller stepped back out to make films more independently, working on lower budgets in return for more creative freedom. The Crimson Kimono (1959), a murder mystery and cop buddy film set in L.A.’s Chinatown and films with great moments of location atmosphere, is one of Fuller’s most striking commentaries on race. Glenn Corbett is the ostensible hero but it’s James Shigetta, as his partner and roommate, who centers the film and the budding romantic triangle with Victoria Shaw. There’s a jagged quality to the narrative, which keeps the film and the characters off-balance, and it only gets more intense in Underworld U.S.A. (1961), one of Fuller’s strongest film. Cliff Robertson is career criminal Tolly Devlin, who as a child watched thugs beat his father death and now lives to revenge his father’s murder. In this world, organized crime is merely another form of big business and Tolly is so warped by his underworld upbringing that he can’t see beyond his own emotional world. Robertson doesn’t beg for sympathy; like the gangster figures of the 1930s, he sees only himself and the world around him and treats everything/everyone else as a stepping stone or an obstacle. At least until he’s forced to confront his own moral boundaries. In both of these films, Fuller overcomes his paltry budgets with punchy filmmaking and pulp writing that explodes with blunt emotion.
The films all look superb, even the B-movies from the thirties, films that you might expect to have been neglected all this time. The seven-disc set is collected in a fold-out digipak and include featurettes with Tim Robbins, Curtis Hanson and Martin Scorsese discussing his film and the 24-minute interview featurette “Sam Fuller Storyteller,” an amiable but uninformative appreciation of the director.