Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die I’ll Kill You! (Lisa Dombrowski, 2008)

This review was originally published in Film International's web edition but has since disappeared..

The Films of Sam Fuller: If You Die I’ll Kill You!, Lisa Dombrowski, (2008)
Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 246pp., ISBN-10: 081956866X; ISBN-13: 978-0819568663 (hbk), $27.95

Samuel Fuller was a gun-toting, cigar-chomping indie maverick, a former newspaper reporter and US army infantryman who made movies like he was making war, with a non-classical, vulgar aesthetic that championed the “gutter people”, criminals and misfits; a tabloid film-maker, an outsider artist, an intelligent primitive.

As Fuller’s posthumous autobiography and now Lisa Dombrowski’s useful The Films of Sam Fuller: If You Die I’ll Kill You illustrate, much of the above is true. Fuller was such a colorful character that many critics and those with even a casual interest get caught up in the drama of his biographical legend when considering his films. Dombrowski begins her book, however, warning against such romanticism and in particular, against following the traditional line of accepted reason that Fuller was a “primitive” artist.

Fuller’s critical star began to rise in the 1960s, when Cahiers du cinéma, as it did with many other B movie directors, discerned in his work the hand of a true American artist. The myth of Fuller as an intelligent primitive whose films were simply thrown together was first propagated Luc Moullet, taken up in the States by such notables as Andrew Sarris and Manny Farber, and has remained largely unchallenged. Dombrowski enlists Paul Klee, who declared his “primitiveness” could be a calculated effect explained by his discipline, as an example of how the simple appearance of a work of art can in fact belie the more complex technique and intention of the artist who created it. She proceeds with a close analysis of Fuller’s career, film by film, backed up with impeccable research into the mountains of paperwork comprising scripts, production, payroll and legal notes, regulatory files, the trade and popular press and interviews, coupled with close textual analysis of the films of the first half of his career. The picture she draws is of a film-maker who, despite eschewing the stylistic invisibility of a Cukor or a Hawks, was perfectly aware, and to varying degrees made skillful use, of classical forms of Hollywood film-making.

The result of Dombrowski’s laborious paper-trail is that she is able vividly to describe and place much of Fuller’s career firmly in the context of the Hollywood film-making business. Her grasp of the structure of distribution, the place of B pictures within the Hollywood system, shooting conditions and what was expected/required of the sorts of films that Fuller was making is excellent, and the section on each film typically ends with a close examination of how that particular picture’s pattern of distribution, reception by press and public, and financial success (or not) affected the immediately subsequent course that Fuller’s career was to take. It cannot be underestimated – although it is all too often overlooked – how the economics and accepted practices of the business shaped the path of many film-making careers, and to some extent, shaped even the films themselves. Thus, following the financial disappointment of Baron of Arizona (1950), intended as a prestige picture (almost an ‘A’), Fuller and low-rent Lippert Productions retrenched for the smaller-scale, far more personal, and rather less conventional Korean War picture Steel Helmet (1951) in which Sergeant Gene Evans, in typically hyperbolic Fuller style, provides Domobrowski with her subtitle. When this proved a huge popular and critical success, and showed that Fuller could shoot fast, cheap and effectively, he was courted by the majors.

Fuller reportedly chose 20th Century Fox over the other studios because he got on particularly well with production head Darryl Zanuck, and Dombrowski depicts his time there as a happy one. His contract allowed him a certain amount of independence, giving rise to his cherished project on the early days of American journalism, Park Row (1952). But its commercial failure sent him back to the fold where his pictures were amongst the most “normal” and least personal of his career. Thus Dombrowski shows how Fixed Bayonets (1951) is to some extent a more orthodox retread of Steel Helmet, and struggles to find excitement in the muted Hell and High Water (1954) in much the same way that Fuller struggled to shoot submarine interiors in Cinemascope, even if it involved one of his favourite themes, that of the misfits on a mission. But the Fox years were also the time that Fuller had at his disposal the best technical resources and support and where he proved himself eminently capable of using the techniques of ‘classical’ Hollywood film-making to superb effect, most successfully in Pick-Up On South Street (1953), his finest film, and House of Bamboo (1955). As Dombrowski points out, simple comparison of Park Row with the other four films of this period show that Fuller was quite capable of more conventional film-making, and that if his work sometimes looks thrown together and rough around the edges, it is because with no less tightly-controlled technique, that is precisely the effect he preferred when left to his own devices.

The end of Fuller’s contract with Fox coincided with general unease within the industry in the changing climate of the mid-fifties, and he accompanied such other late-period B directors as Mann, Boetticher, de Toth, Lewis, Aldrich and Tourneur into the wilderness of independent production. Fuller set up his own company, Globe Pictures, and self-financed his next six pictures, which show a marked increase in wildness and inconsistency of tone, freed from the guiding hand and ruling thumb of a major studio. Globe folded in 1961, but after the unremarkable war picture Merrill’s Marauders (1961) for independent Milton Sperling (despite covering familiar, war-torn ground, the picture was largely devoid of the personal, political or simply weird touches that characterised his most interesting work) Fuller went to work for Allied Artists whose eye on the adult exploitation market allowed Fuller finally to disregard all notions of good taste and homogeneity of tone and to make the two best-loved films of his career, Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964), the one set in a lunatic asylum, the other concerned with an ex-prostitute finding moral corruption in a small town.

The great strength of this book, in parallel with close attention to the industrial mechanics of production and distribution, is Dombrowski’s close analysis of the aesthetic effect created by the structures and techniques of Fuller’s film-making. Thus we are treated to excellent shot-by-shot examinations of scenes from most of his films, from the violence of Pick-Up on South Street, The Crimson Kimono (1959) and Underworld USA (1961), to the classically invisible structure of House of Bamboo, the undermining of classical conventions in the first showdown in Forty Guns (1957) and the merging of dream and reality in the “Moonlight Sonata” sequence of The Naked Kiss, firmly putting the lie to the notion of Fuller as primitive. He butted heads with the Production Code Administration on more than one occasion, and through this same close analysis Dombrowski deftly illustrates how in getting around objections to Underworld USA, for example, he creates scenes of far more startling power than the more explicit depiction of suicide or death by burning gasoline would have produced. She is also excellent at tracing the thread of Fuller’s favourite themes throughout his work – racism and identity, sexual neuroses, moral ambiguity and the paradox of the unfulfilled ideals of the American dream – and in untangling the webs of these specific themes in such jumbled films as Run of the Arrow (1957) and Forty Guns, as well as analysing the moments of “weirdness” (most notably in Shock Corridor) that Fuller considered a technical term and used for emotional effect throughout his career.

Although steering carefully clear of biographical detail, Dombrowski is explicit in emphasising that Fuller never lost the ideals of the tabloid newspaperman: to educate and to produce an emotional response, and always to keep in mind the journalist’s mantra, that ‘the story is God’. Indeed, he considered that ‘one day the greatest educational medium will be film’ (12), explicitly demonstrated with footage of Nuremberg in Verboten! (1959) and its effect on the central character. In tandem, Fuller’s pronouncement in Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965) – ‘Film is a battleground: love, hate, action, violence, in a word emotion’ – seems like the ultimate word on cinema, and one he followed to the letter. His preference for shooting little coverage was both symptomatic of impatience to get the moment on film as quickly as possible and of his faith in the tension of the long-take (ironically, some of his “weirdness” was produced by desperate editors resorting to optical zooms to break up these lengthy shots); together with tightly constructed scripts, rhythmic editing strategies, lurid stories and the increasingly chaotic variances in tone that Dombrowski so deftly elucidates, this throat-grabbing style was designed to create exactly the effect Fuller wanted: ‘hammer blows of emotion’ (10).

From a changing American climate where his opportunity to make pictures was on the wane, Fuller left for Europe, where the 1960s saw his reputation steadily increasing. He started to hang out with Truffaut (there’s a nice picture of them together), Polanski and Buñuel, and would appear over the next three decades in films by Godard, Hopper, Wenders, Spielberg, Chabrol, Kaurismaki, Gitai and Alexandre Rockwell; the sadness is that he would make so few himself. Dombrowski provides fascinating information on the unproduced work of this time, notably a sci-fi Les fleurs du mal, from Aristophenes’ Lystistrata, with a secret society, a female motorcycle gang and an ending that has the protagonist spiraling endlessly through outer space; and The Eccentrics, set in a hippy commune with a narrative driven largely by the protagonist’s subconscious. That the subsequent films, made in France, Germany, the US and Mexico, receive less of her attention than those of the first half of his career, is a shame however. This is in part presumably because the paper-trail dries up at this stage, and in part because the output was so terribly patchy: Shark (1969) was re-edited and disowned; of Dead Pigeon on Beethovenstraße (1972) Dombrowski writes that ‘the tone confounds many viewers’ (181), herself (and myself) included, despite the enthusiastic contemporary reaction; she seeks valiantly for something of value in Thieves After Dark (1984); and must admit to the incoherence of Fuller’s final cinema feature Street of No Return (1989). But the greatest shame is in her treatment of two of the most important pictures in Fuller’s oeuvre: she is extremely useful on the backstage controversy that surrounded the inception, making and suppression of the superb White Dog (1982), but as it represents an extraordinary culmination of Fuller’s righteous anger on the subject of racism, a closer look at the film itself would have been welcome. Similarly, Dombrowski’s coverage of his return to Hollywood, the long-cherished account of his formative war-time exploits The Big Red One (1982) consists mainly of approving comparison of the eight-minute D-Day landing sequence with the same event in the three-hour The Longest Day (1962), and a cheerful anecdote of Fuller shooting at extras from behind the camera to indicate when they were to die. Admittedly, this film too was taken from Fuller and re-edited, but given that the 2004 reconstruction used the original shooting script as its blueprint, it would seem to merit more than a paragraph’s run-down of additions to the original version. It is a further shame that Dombrowski omits Fuller’s last two films entirely, The Day of Reckoning (1990) and The Madonna and the Dragon (Tinikling,1990); both made for French television, they are not without interest, and were certainly undertaken by Fuller with no difference in mind from his cinema work.

Another odd omission is any close attention to the effect of the wildly-varied acting work in Fuller’s pictures throughout his career. He paid scant attention to it while shooting, although always conducted full rehearsals; his films are raised by such stars as Roberts Ryan and Stack, Richard Widmark, Barbara Stanwyck and Lee Marvin, or by oddballs like Constance Towers and Michael Dante, and even the presence of such second-raters as Jeff Chandler, Cliff Robertson or Gene Evans cannot dim the power of the film-making. But complaints about Dombrowski’s book are limited to these complaints of omission. Her writing is lucid, intelligent and to the point, backed up by exemplary research, contextualisation and superb close analysis of the films themselves, and so appealing a writer is she on the emotional effect of the film-making itself that one could tolerate even more of the occasionally personal interjections. In the barren desert of Fuller scholarship it is a welcome and overdue draught, an antidote to the dismissive consensus, and an ample justification of her final description of Fuller as a two-fisted provocateur who was able to adapt his technique to all manner of production circumstances but with always one goal: to reveal the truth and to arouse emotion.
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