To mark the release of The Samuel Fuller Collection (The Collector’s Choice) (Sony), I reprint an essay I wrote for NWFF’s Samuel Fuller film series many years ago.
Samuel Fuller straddled two generations: he was the last of that breed of old Hollywood tough guy directors and, along with Orson Welles, one of the first independent mavericks like Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh and William Wellman he came from a career outside of the cinema and the arts, spending his formative years working his way up the journalism ladder from hawking papers on the street to running copy to become one of the youngest crime reporters in the US (according to him). During the depression he tramped the country and then turned back to writing, eventually publishing a handful of pulp novels and landing work writing scripts in Hollywood. Soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor he enlisted in the army, earning the Bronze Star in Italy, the Silver Star in Normandy, and the Purple Heart as member of the First Infantry Division, better known as the Big Red One (immortalized in his autobiographical 1975 film).
Fuller had lived a rough, active life before he directed his first film, I Shot Jesse James in 1949, and he brought that life into his films. Fuller’s heroes are everything from social outcasts to psychopaths, but almost all outsiders to the American dream, marginalized figures on the fringes of society. Soldiers, cops, pickpockets, prostitutes, two-bit hoods, gunmen and con men, his heroes are more ruthless than his villains because that’s what it takes two survive in this violent world. While other directors who came out of World War II made films that intently explored the grim face of battle, Fuller’s war movies were about madness and meaninglessness.
Fuller was a patriot who continually explored the poison in the so-called American melting pot in pulp movies of melodramatic excess. His love of country made him a prime cinematic cold warrior, but also one of the most perceptive critics of racism who dared discuss the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII and the Jim Crow laws in the South long before it was fashionable.
No American director brought such a pulp sensibility to his films. Visceral only begins to describe the experience. Fuller uses images as a kino-fist, assaulting the audience with jagged cuts, abrupt transitions, and increasingly outrageous cinematic shocks – all the better to shake the audience out of passivity and engage his films head on. Writers have likened the effect to lurid tabloid headlines and there are those moments that you swear the screenplay was written in 20 point bold, but the key is that Fuller has turned that style into a visual aesthetic. It’s not the dialogue one comes away with, or the images per se, but the movement, the cutting, the cinematic whole. This is exactly what Andrew Sarris meant when he wrote in 1967: “Fuller is an authentic American primitive whose works have to be seen to be understood. Seen, not heard or synopsized.”
Fuller found his footing by his third film, The Steel Helmet. Perhaps not every film since has become a masterpiece, but even his lesser efforts are marked by a palpable tension that pulls and pushes at the film until it explodes in dramatic (often intensely melodramatic) conflict and cinematic bravura. His career arc brings him from spare, austere low budget films where he turns minimal resources into bold, expressive tools (Park Row) through mastery of the Hollywood narrative (Pickup on South Street and House of Bamboo fit comfortably within the commercial mode while remaining true to Fuller stylistically and thematically) and back out to a jagged, ragged expressionist style that rejects Hollywood conventions for a cinema that looks more Godard than Goldwyn (Verboten through The Naked Kiss) – and this before the French New Wave crashed down on American shores. Like Hollywood’s most famous iconoclast Orson Welles, he made independent movies within the Hollywood system when possible, outside when necessary, but his way for better or worse: the credits of most of his films read “Written * Produced * Directed by Samuel Fuller.”
In Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, Fuller appears in a cameo and answers the question “What is cinema?” with the following line: “Film is like a battleground: love, hate, action, death… In one word, EMOTION.” I don’t know if Godard or Fuller wrote the line (I suspect it was Fuller, but regardless his gruff, cigar chomping delivery makes it his), but it serves as epitaph to a career of uncompromising films of stylistic audacity, cinematic beauty, and passionate sincerity. He put America under the microscope and found disease eating away at the bone, but he told the story in the most exciting, anarchic visual style to emerge out of the American studio system.