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