• Me and Sam Fuller

    By Lisa Dombrowski

    It is a good time to belong to the cult of Fuller.

    Those of us who consider ourselves members never forget our moment of induction. Some enlisted when his films first hit the screen—lucky enough to catch The Steel Helmet in a shabby downtown theater, or Forty Guns at a local drive-in. For others it was years later, sitting on a rickety chair at a college film society gathering as Pickup on South Street socked them into consciousness. For a fortunate few, it happened when they witnessed the man himself regaling a film festival audience late in his career, a cigar in one hand and a drink in the other. As he jabbed the air to underline an important point, or jumped from his seat to act out a scene, he seemed to embody what we thought a Hollywood director should be.

    I signed up late one night in a musty basement screening room at Wesleyan University, in the middle of Connecticut, where I received my BA and now teach. Two undergraduate comrades and I had loaded an old 16 mm print of Shock Corridor onto a pair of trusty Eikis and sat back for what friends told us would be “insanity.” A logical description, I thought at the time—the film was about a psychiatric institution, right? But I soon realized the true meaning of our friends’ warning. As the film progressed, one explosive scene after the other, I found myself unconsciously curling up tighter and tighter in my seat, until I was literally in a fetal position. Finally protagonist Johnny Barrett—a reporter who has himself committed so he can solve a murder and win the Pulitzer Prize—snaps into a scream-filled mental breakdown, no longer simply pretending to be insane. His hallucination takes over the screen: a thunderstorm erupts inside the hospital corridor, lightning strikes, Barrett writhes, the film stock changes, and a shot of him screaming appears upside down. My mouth dropped open in astonishment. “Oh my God! OH MY GOD!” I was in a state of disbelief. After over an hour of watching a boa-clad stripper who name-drops Freud, a black man who wears white pillowcases and thinks he’s a Klan leader, crazed nymphomaniacs, erotic nightmares, electroshock therapy—now Fuller shows me this? How could anything so audacious have been made? And in 1963! I was hooked.

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    Peter Breck as Johnny in Sam Fuller’s 1963 film Shock Corridor

    What is it about Fuller that inspires such excitement, such devotion? It’s this: Fuller told stories on film the same way he did in life, with guts, energy, and honesty. He spun incendiary tales about impassioned, contradictory characters—grifters and soldiers and rebels—and their raw struggle for survival. What made his films unique was their willingness—indeed their eagerness—to show what others did not dare. Fuller’s desire to provoke, even at the risk of appearing unpolished, tasteless, or cartoonish, is what differentiates his pictures from those of other expressive stylists. But though Fuller’s films can be blunt, they are rarely ever bleak. For even at his most unsparing, Fuller crafts moments that testify to the indomitability of the human spirit. When Tolly dies in the gutter at the end of Underworld U.S.A., he dies with his hand clenched in a fist. When Sergeant Zack loses the child who taught him to love in The Steel Helmet, he continues to slog ahead. And when a soldier has one ball blown off in The Big Red One, his sergeant cheerfully reminds him he still has another! Fuller’s movies aim for your gut, but they don’t forget your heart—a big reason why they continue to resonate.

    The memory of my response to Shock Corridor stayed with me after I left Wesleyan, and I pulled friend after friend into the Fuller cult each time his movies played in New York. (“Did you see The Naked Kiss at Film Forum? The opening assault! The pedophile millionaire! The pirate kids singing!”) Eight years later, when my Ph.D. adviser at the University of Wisconsin–Madison told me to pick a dissertation topic that would excite me enough to write even when it was so dark and cold I didn’t want to get out of bed, I knew what I had to do: Fuller. His films clearly thrilled me, but they also left me with questions. Why did I respond so strongly to them? What marked his aesthetic? And why did he have such difficulty getting films produced late in his career? My passion for Fuller fueled a ten-year journey of discovery that took me through screening rooms, archives, and interviews, finally resulting in my book The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You! And still the journey is not over.

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    Constance Towers plays Cathy, the stripper with a heart of gold, in Shock Corridor.

    Little did I know when I started it all how fortunate I would be in my choice of study. Certainly there were challenges—big ones. Decent prints of a number of Fuller’s films were tough to find, few were then out legally on video or DVD, and archived production materials for all but a handful were nonexistent. Just as significantly, I missed the opportunity to talk with Fuller himself—he passed a year before I started my work. But he left behind a tremendous gift: a generous and supportive family—his wife, Christa, his daughter, Samantha, and his granddaughter, Samira—who opened their home and their hearts, and shared Sam’s photos, letters, and memorabilia with me. Their friendship and candor has spoiled me, and I’m afraid I’ll never find their equal in my career again.

    As my research progressed, I managed to track down all of Fuller’s films, and unearthed more archival treasure than I anticipated: in the Production Code Administration files at the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library, which detailed Fuller’s frequent battles with industry regulators; in Twentieth Century Fox’s legal files, where I found Fuller’s studio contract and one of his independent production deals; in Fox’s story files and detailed script notes from famed studio head Darryl Zanuck; and in the Warner Bros. archive at USC, which holds Fuller’s original 1958 draft of his autobiographical combat pic The Big Red One—quite a different script than the film released in 1980. And late in my research, new material on White Dog landed at the Academy, thanks to producer Jon Davison, including hot-button memos regarding the film’s depiction of racism.

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    Hari Rhodes as Trent in Shock Corridor

    Just as informative as all the paper materials I found were the memories of the people who knew Fuller best—his family, friends, and colleagues—as well as the recollections of the man himself, from his writings and interviews. Little by little, they helped me fill in the blanks. So Gene Fowler Jr., one of Fuller’s frequent film editors, explained in one account how Fuller’s penchant for completing scenes in a single take inspired hair-pulling creativity in the editing room, while Kelly Ward’s description of Fuller cuing actors during battle scenes in The Big Red One—by firing a blank-filled gun at them and shouting “You’re dead!”—provided a vivid picture of the director’s process. And then of course there was Fuller—widely interviewed from the 1960s on, the author of a rollicking and revealing autobiography, and a frequent contributor to newspapers and film journals. (Check out his fantastic “interview” with the canine star of White Dog, included with the Criterion DVD.)

    At the end of it all, I can tell you this: the cult of Fuller isn’t just about the films, it’s also about the man. There is a reason that anyone who ever worked with him or knew him or simply heard him speak feels compelled to tell you what he was like—and to impersonate him too. The man inspired. As a reporter, a soldier, and a storyteller trying to survive in Hollywood, he had seen the best and the worst of America—and of humanity. And yet he never lost his conviction, his courage, his creativity, and his hope. He was a rabid truth teller, but he was also an optimist until the end—and, as Christa likes to note, a kind of innocent. It’s one of the reasons we’re so loyal, we members of the cult.

    And it’s a good time for us now, as our man and his films are more accessible than ever. A couple of books have come out recently, with one or two more expected down the pike. I Shot Jesse James, The Baron of Arizona, The Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets!, and Merrill’s Marauders have been released stateside on DVD in the last year; Verboten! is out in France, and Run of the Arrow in Italy. And now we’ve finally got White Dog. (Please, please, can one of us figure out how to get Fox to release China Gate? Columbia, what about The Crimson Kimono and Underworld U.S.A.?) And, as the interest I’ve seen from younger generations attests, the cult of Fuller continues to grow.

    It’s a good time.


    Lisa Dombrowski is an associate professor in the Film Studies Department at Wesleyan University and the author of The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You!

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    Fuller and Towers on the set of The Naked Kiss, 1963

14 comments

  • By Craig J. Clark
    January 02, 2009
    11:24 AM

    I, too, have spent many years tracking down Fuller's films on TV and DVD. The sooner the rest of his work from the '50s is available, the better off we'll all be.
    Reply
  • By Jeremy R. Slate
    January 03, 2009
    12:50 AM

    Thank you, Criterion. Your Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss DVDs were my introduction by fire to this cult to which I am a happy member. Viva Fuller!
    Reply
  • By fake_username
    January 05, 2009
    10:59 PM

    Hey, that was an amazing article! I've only seen three Fuller films so far — I Shot Jesse James, The Naked Kiss, White Dog — but all three almost instantly became among my favorite movies. I'm ready to watch Shock Corridor and Pickup on South Street sometime soon, and I have no doubts that they are amazing as well. Few directors are as audacious as Fuller, or are able to pack such a visceral punch; he's slowly becoming one of my favorite directors. Thanks Criterion for the DVDs, and I'll remember to check this book on Fuller sometime.
    Reply
  • By Brian
    January 07, 2009
    01:48 PM

    I too am a member of this of so-called cult of Fuller. My love and appreciation for him and his films began with the recollections of Martin Scorsese who credits Fuller as one of his primary influences on the types of films he has made, and the visual style by which he has told his fascinating narratives. The other really fascinating thing about Fuller is that he understood the complexities and contradictions that are involved with living in America and trying to become an American. Fuller never shies away from the fact that racism and the values of conspicuous consumption are what hold the nation together. Yet, as a result these forces have created massive inequalities and problems that we are still struggling to deal with as a nation today. The final point about Fuller that I would like to note is his fascination with the way the media can construct public perception and historical knowledge as he displays in films like I Shot Jesse James, The Baron of Arizona, and The Big Red One. For Fuller, history was always complicated because it is written by those who possess the time and wealth to be removed from it. However, in Fuller's cinematic world, history is the realm of the little men and the units who are involved in creating it.
    Reply
  • By George Swaney
    January 14, 2009
    06:36 PM

    This is a wonderful article. I believe it can rouse the interest of anyone unfamiliar with Fuller. While I am happy with Critierion bringing out Fuller's films, I'm still bothered by the fact that most television stations, or channels, do not show Fuller at all. I have only seen Fuller on video or DVD (not counting "The Big Red One")--I have never seen a film of his shown on television. Of course, maybe I missed it. My wife insists she saw "White Dog" years ago.
    Reply
  • By Craig J. Clark
    January 14, 2009
    07:03 PM

    Turner Classic Movies has been known to show the occasional Fuller film. In fact, they aired "The Crimson Kimono" not too long ago. (Too bad I got the time mixed up, otherwise I would have captured it on tape.) I also saw "Hell and High Water" on AMC, but it wasn't letterboxed, so that doesn't really count.
    Reply
  • By Soumik Datta
    February 09, 2009
    11:55 AM

    Fuller continues to inspire. In every way possible.
    Reply
  • By Santos R. Vásquez
    November 10, 2010
    05:01 PM

    On a bored Los Angeles Sunday afternoon in 1997, I talked a group of friends, who most were at the time still in grad Art School at UCLA, into coming to a matinee screening of the 25th anniversary of The Godfather. In the somewhat dim aisle lights of the Grauman's Chinese theater we scrambled quietly to our seats minutes before they fired up the projectors and opened the curtains... We had to go past this older man sitting by himself almost at the end and as we passed him, I took a good look for some odd reason, inches away... Hmmm, I said to myself. First I thought it was just some old guy - like the characters I would see in the old Los Angeles Central Public Library when I was kid. Those men of an older generation like my grandfather's. But it kept bugging me, that face... " I know that face " but who, where? So through the whole movie it bothered me... At one point I got another good glimpse.... Yes, I know that face... Finally, towards the end of the movie, I realize -- It's freakin' Sam Fuller! It was confirmed because they had been playing a doc on him on the Independent Movie cable station. He passed away some months after that....
    Reply
  • By Noir It All
    May 01, 2011
    12:38 PM

    Pickup on South Street has certainly been shown on TV over the years. But, few of these others have been shown as often. I look forward to watching these other films. Certainly "Pickup on South Street" has an optimistic ending, capping a rather Sado-masochistic romance during the 48 hour time span.
    Reply
  • By Noir It All
    May 01, 2011
    12:39 PM

    Correction: I have seen “The Big Red One” on TV.
    Reply
  • By Gillian Horvat
    August 16, 2012
    07:16 PM

    Read more of Lisa Dombrowski's excellent writing on Sam Fuller AND help support a new Fuller movie. Lisa has generously donated 10 of her books for the Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for A FULLER LIFE! Check out this new documentary on Fuller directed by his daughter, Samantha. Cast members include Wim Wenders, the boys from THE BIG RED ONE, Bill Duke (STREET OF NO RETURN) and Fuller fans and friends like Tim Roth, James Franco, Buck Henry, James Toback and Monte Hellman. The film also includes never-before-seen footage shot by Sam on the front lines during World War II. But the production needs your support to get this newly discovered treasure preserved and transferred to HD. Check out our link: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1209470946/a-fuller-life Thanks for taking the time to read this post. :) Best, Gillian Horvat Producer, A FULLER LIFE
    Reply
  • By oz-rob
    August 21, 2012
    07:47 PM

    " When art can dramatize and hypnotize, entertain, educate, inspire and reveal, grip imagination and convey a sense of reality, play sacred emotions and interplay blinding colors,,that is art in its purest form and that form is the Film "...S.Fuller.1964..
    Reply
    • By oz-rob
      August 21, 2012
      07:58 PM

      PS,, I have heard that, China Gate ,will be released by the end of this year and Dead Pigeon On Beethoven Street is also coming out soon !!
  • By Dean Kuehn
    December 04, 2012
    12:47 PM

    I look forward to reading your book my enthusiasm for Fuller is grounded in an early 70s film society screening of Shock Corridor at the Green Lantern Eating Coop in Madison, WI. Further along I inherited the Wisconsin Film Society from the same person who programmed the GL - Wis Film was previously run by a uber B-film maven who is rumored to have gotten up on a chair at the back of B-10 Commerce during a Fuller double feature and announced "You're gonna get Sam Fuller.....and you're gonna get Sam Fuller.....until you like Sam Fuller!" I enjoyed Fuller as much for the poster for the film (it was all about the postering for us) as there was usually a good still for most of his pictures except the earIy programmers - the double feature poster had mirror images of Fuller chomping a cigar in stark black & white on an 8 1/2 x 14 landscape-style orientation. I am curious as to who at UW-Madison was your thesis prof (Bordwell?) and whether you were there at the tail end of the film society scene.
    Reply