I SHOT JESSE JAMES: TRIGGER EFFECT
Instead of calling “Action!” Samuel Fuller discharged a Colt .45 in the air. It was the first scene he had ever directed, on the set of I Shot Jesse James (1949), and he knew the importance of a good opening—“If a story doesn’t give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes, throw it in the goddamn garbage,” he would later say. Ever the performer, Fuller was already constructing his own warrior-director legend.
Fuller knew how to handle a gun from his army days, and this experience colored all of his filmmaking, which he began at the age of thirty-six. He had dropped out of high school at seventeen, to become a crime reporter for the New York Evening Graphic, then wandered Depression-era America as a freelance reporter, wrote pulp novels, and was working as a screenwriter when World War II called him away. Once he was a civilian again, Fuller returned to his screenwriting and was shopping scripts around Hollywood when he was contacted by independent producer Robert L. Lippert, who had admired Fuller’s novel The Dark Page and hired him as a writer-director.
Lippert had spent his whole career in the movie business: after building up a chain of West Coast theaters, he had started producing films of his own in 1946, joining the ranks of the Poverty Row studios. When he met Fuller, he was still producing his first cheapie westerns, but he would go on to make hundreds of B features. Fuller’s three films for Lippert would be his training ground: the budgets were minuscule, and the shooting schedules punishing, but he was given a good deal of independence, and his personality showed through immediately. Lippert nurtured the kind of passionate, dangerous moviemaking that Fuller reveled in and would build his reputation on; his rude political and racial provocations, sucker-punch cut-ins, reckless camera work, mercenary characterizations, surreally lurid dialogue—the very sort of idiosyncrasies that major studios would have rooted out while reviewing the dailies—were borne here.
I Shot Jesse James offers a sympathetic portrait of Robert Ford, the James gang member who earned American boyhood’s eternal enmity by shooting the folk hero in the back. John Ireland, whom Fuller had admired in Red River (1948), plays a slow-witted if likable Ford, nursing a broken heart in the wake of his fateful shot. Marinating in self-loathing, he’s sentenced to relive the moment that defined him in the public eye, taking a stage job in which he reenacts his already mythologized assassination.
This skewed take on a legendary tale broke from the traditional moral clarity of the genre and anticipated the postwar procession of brooding “psychological” westerns (Shane, High Noon). Constant close-ups of Ford create an atmosphere of smothering anxiety; the story line hinges as much on the suppression of violence as on its release. Perhaps the most commented-upon aspect of the film is the unusual intensity of the relationship between Ford and James—in particular, in the domesticity of an eyebrow-raising bathtub scene. All of which may have been lost on Lippert, who Fuller claimed was “too uptight to even pronounce the word homosexual.” But despite this unconventionality, I Shot Jesse James was a small critical success and launched Fuller on his latest career path.
THE BARON OF ARIZONA: THIS LAND IS MY LAND
Samuel Fuller’s second project for Lippert Pictures, The Baron of Arizona (1950), took him back to his days as an itinerant reporter. It was while traveling the Southwest that he had first heard the story of “Baron” James Addison Reavis, a Missouri realtor who had fought for both sides in the Civil War, then arrived in the Arizona Territory, in 1880, with the intention of pulling off the greatest land-grant swindle in history. Reavis prepared an extravagant trail of falsified deeds to indicate that the young woman he had taken for his wife was the rightful inheritor of a land grant from Spain’s King Ferdinand?VI, giving her the entirety of Arizona; if Reavis’s documents weren’t refuted, he would be established as nobility, and the current population would suddenly be trespassers on private property. Viewing the American past through off-kilter perspectives was already crystallizing as a favorite preoccupation of Fuller’s; his portrait of Reavis is just one in a rogues’ gallery of men unsuitable for straightforward textbook histories, who would include the brawling newspapermen of Park Row (1952), Richard Widmark’s pickpocket called into patriotic service in Pickup on South Street (1953), and Rod Steiger’s Southern rebel turned Sioux in Run of the Arrow (1957).
Despite its low budget, The Baron of Arizona saw a fortuitous confluence of talent. Legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe, whose career had been languishing, shot the film for a fraction of his normal fee, bringing somber chiaroscuro to a frontier backdrop more often mined for big-sky monumentality. Because of this, the film sometimes feels uncharacteristic of Fuller; those looking for his signature reckless, emphatic camera gestures may be disappointed, though roiling sequences of mob violence among incensed salt-of-the-earth Arizonans do provide ample Fullerian hysteria. And Fuller, whose eagerness to prod at race issues would come to the fore in the following year’s The Steel Helmet, also shines through in his subtle allusions to the larger bamboozlements of U.S. history; as settlers rally to decry the barony—“My father was the first white American to pitch a tent in Phoenix!”—note the disenfranchised Native Americans dotting the crowd.
Reavis is played by Vincent Price, who had been in Hollywood for more than a decade by 1950, without ever quite breaking into the higher ranks. Released to middling reviews and box office, The Baron of Arizona didn’t provide him with the starmaking part that he found three years later, in House of Wax, but Reavis remained among the actor’s favorite roles, providing a showcase for the quality that would eventually define him in the popular imagination: his lip-smacking delectation of all things devious. The on-set chemistry seems to have been harmonious, with Price appreciating Fuller as only one ham can another, describing his director as “a very flamboyant character [with] puttees and a megaphone and everything.”
The real-life Reavis didn’t end under such happy circumstances as his fictionalized counterpart, but Fuller maintained that, “in the movie business, a good ending must sometimes hold sway over the truth.” And though Price plays the bastard almost too well for his eventual redemption to resonate, the delight the film takes in collaborating with him is infectious.
THE STEEL HELMET: BATTLE CRY
Though Samuel Fuller immediately distinguished himself from the crowd of clock-in, clock-out Poverty Row hacks, the accomplishment of his third and final film for Robert Lippert represented a much bigger kind of arrival. The shoot was no more forgiving than on his previous projects: The Steel Helmet (1951), a story from the front lines of the Korean War, was to be made on a ten-day schedule, exteriors on the slopes of Los Angeles’s Griffith Park, for around $100,000 (the average big-studio production at that time cost $1?million). The lead role, a sorehead, battle-tested sergeant named Zack, went to Gene Evans, a burly actor with a mean, myopic squint, whose career up until then had been confined to bit parts; Evans, a World War II veteran, had impressed Fuller in their first meeting by instinctively catching and racking an M1 carbine that the director suddenly tossed to him. (A major studio had apparently shown interest in the script but wanted John Wayne as Zack—an idea, Fuller later wrote, that he promptly nixed.)
Fuller’s tale of soldiers under siege on a foreign battlefield was by no means new—there’s a superficial resemblance to John Ford’s The Lost Patrol (1934)—but the filmmaker’s still-fresh combat experience, and Evans’s gritty presence, gave The Steel Helmet an unusual veracity. The incident where a green soldier runs into a booby trap while trying to retrieve a dead GI’s dog tags is straight out of Fuller’s war diary. From the opening scene, in which Zack, wrists and legs bound, torturously wriggles after the camera on his belly, the film displays a heightened attention to the sheer hump-busting physicality of war.
The Steel Helmet is also the first film in which Fuller tackles hot-button race issues head-on. A patchwork patrol assembles around Zack, including a Korean war orphan nicknamed Short Round, an African American medic, and a Japanese American sergeant, “Buddha-Head” Tanaka. Fuller, raised amid the multicultural tumult of New York City, had a passionate commitment to racial understanding, and in The Steel Helmet, he confronts racism in his characteristically blunt, politically incorrect way (“Eat rice!” commands Zack when he wants Short Round to hit the deck). And so race questions jostle alongside violence, choked-back sentimentality, and truly bizarre subplots (will Baldy’s hair grow?), all making The Steel Helmet a testament to the anything-goes spirit of independent production.
Fuller hadn’t lost his newspaperman’s instinct for the scoop. The Steel Helmet was released on February 2, 1951, scarcely six months after fighting began between United States and North Korean forces, making it the first American movie to address that conflict (it was also the first to broach the subject of the U.S. government’s internment of Japanese Americans during World War II). The film was a massive success—even prompting queries from the FBI about Fuller’s political sympathies. But Fuller’s ardent patriotism could not be indicted, and not only did the film make him a very wealthy man, it also attracted the attention of Darryl F. Zanuck, at Twentieth Century Fox, who recruited Fuller to the big leagues (Lippert would go to Fox himself in 1956). His first project? Another Gene Evans Korean War movie, Fixed Bayonets! (1951).
Nick Pinkerton is a regular contributor to the Village Voice and Sight & Sound.