October 29, 2009
Samuel Fuller Collection
Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): *****
In his autobiography, filmmaker Samuel Fuller wrote that he did not speak a word for the first several years of his life, and then suddenly, at age 4 or 5, he blurted out the word "hammer!" The abruptness of this word, and its punchy imagery, practically defines Fuller's work.
He was a hard crime reporter as a teenager, and then a dogface soldier in World War II. He wrote books and stories and screenplays -- he called them all "yarns" -- filled with hammer-like dialogue and phrases and ideas. Due to the lurid subject matter and low budgets of his films, he rarely earned the respect and admiration he deserved (he never received a single Oscar nomination). Many of his films are still AWOL on DVD, but Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has taken a major step toward righting that wrong with The Samuel Fuller Collection, their extraordinary new seven-disc DVD box set.
It contains two major films, both directed by Fuller, and two minor films, which were largely written or created by Fuller. The other three are very, very minor films, which feature "stories" by Fuller, written early in his career and fleshed out into screenplays by others. But even in these, the style of Fuller's "yarns" can be seen. (It would have been nice to see some of Fuller's other directorial efforts here, but the box set is understandably limited to the work Fuller did with Columbia Pictures.)
The first major film is The Crimson Kimono (1959), which is mostly a hard-boiled cop thriller, but also manages to make a defiant anti-racist statement without ever getting on a soapbox. Detectives Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta) and Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett) are old war buddies and partners; their friendship runs deep and is seemingly invulnerable to racial tensions. (They share an apartment, and Charlie even carries a pint of Joe's blood around in his veins.) When they begin investigating the murder of a stripper, they meet Christine Downs (Victoria Shaw), who painted the stripper's portrait. Both men fall in love with her, but she only has eyes for Joe. Tensions rise between the trio, and Joe can't help seeing race as part of the issue. Aside from playing out these powerful emotions, Fuller keeps up equally with the tricky murder case, never faltering or failing to provide a gut-punch of a scene. (Martin Scorsese, in an extra feature on this disc, describes each of Fuller's scenes as big headlines.)
The next Fuller-helmed feature is Underworld U.S.A. (1961), which Fuller crafted as a kind of anti-gangster film; his logic was that if the hero was a loner, then by definition, he could not be a gangster. As a kid, Tolly Devlin sees his father murdered by four thugs and identifies one of them. But before he can get his revenge, he learns that the murderer has gone to jail for life. Tolly gets himself thrown in jail and spends years trying to get to him and finally does; he also gets the names of the other three men. Released decades later (and played by Cliff Robertson), he learns that his three remaining targets have become powerful crime lords and will not be easy to get to. He begins working for one of them, and teams up with the District Attorney on the side, making plans to take down the others by playing them against one another. The character names in this film are priceless: Tolly meets a girl called Cuddles (Dolores Dorn), and the three crime lords are named Gela (Paul Dubov), Gunther (Gerald Milton) and Smith (Allan Gruener) -- no first names. Even more so than its plot, the film is notable for its very stark, sharp black-and-white look; each shot almost feels like a paper cut. It's closer in spirit to the films of the French New Wave than anything that was going on in Hollywood at the time.
Another notable film is Shockproof (1949), on which Fuller gets a full "screenplay" credit (alongside Helen Deutsch). Oddly, the director was Douglas Sirk, who would go on to a renowned career as a masterful maker of full-color "women's pictures" or "weepies" (pretty much the exact opposite of Fuller's career). In the black-and-white Shockproof, a beautiful murderess, Jenny Marsh (Patricia Knight) is released on parole. Her parole officer Griff Marat (Cornel Wilde) tries his best to turn her life around, which includes getting her to stop seeing her no-good boyfriend and benefactor Harry (John Baragrey). To keep her safe, he brings her to his own home and hires her to look after his blind mother (Esther Minciotti, Marty's mother). Of course, they fall in love and begin a downward spiral that threatens them both. In his own way, Sirk emphasizes the complex, intense emotions of the lead characters, which helps guide the film over some of its plot hurdles.
Fuller had very little good to say about Scandal SheetPhil Karlson, Scandal Sheet is actually quite good. Broderick Crawford stars as Mark Chapman, a crusty newspaper editor who has turned a New York newspaper into a vulgar, popular tabloid rag. His star reporter, Steve McCleary (John Derek) worships him; together they hope to buy out the paper and get rid of the namby-pamby board members who complain about the paper's new direction. Steve's gal pal Julie Allison (Donna Reed) more or less agrees with the board and doesn't like writing exploitation stories just to sell papers. Things take a turn when an unwanted piece of Chapman's past turns up and he becomes a murderer; then McCleary starts investigating the case! Karlson's work isn't as hard or as explosive as Fuller's, but it's still pretty tense and entertaining. Fuller actually directed his own newspaper movie the same year, the superior Park Row, which is still not available on video in the U.S.A.
The other three films are fairly inconsequential, though they may provide some low-key distraction. Fuller is credited as a "story" writer or a co-writer on all three of these low-budget items, each running around 60 minutes. It Happened in Hollywood (1937) is perhaps the most notable for the casting of King Kong star Fay Wray, and for tackling a story that Billy Wilder would take on years later in Sunset Boulevard. In it, a cowboy movie star (Richard Dix) of the silent era faces a difficult change when the talkies come in and he has trouble making the transition; he must decide between keeping his career going and staying true to his legion of good-hearted fans. Adventure in Sahara (1938) tells the story of a mutiny in a French Legion outpost, and Power of the Press (1943) is about another corrupt newspaper editor. Sony could probably have squeezed these three onto one or two discs, but it says something about their dedication to quality that they awarded each little film its own disc.
As for DVD extras, several Hollywood filmmakers and Samuel Fuller fans -- Scorsese, Curtis Hanson, Tim Robbins and Wim Wenders -- as well as Fuller's widow Christa turn up on a short documentary as well as other short featurettes to discuss Fuller's work. Even if this were only a two-disc set that included The Crimson Kimono and Underworld U.S.A., I'd say it was one of the year's most essential video releases, but the five other discs and films put it right over the top.
Posted by cphillips at October 29, 2009 2:27 PM