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Shock Treatment

Emulated by Scorsese and worshipped by Spielberg, Samuel Fuller’s B movies still have the power to stun

Chris Dumas
July 09, 2008

Samuel Fuller, the greatest iconoclast ever to take a paycheck from 20th Century-Fox, was born in 1912, in the sleepy middle-class burb of Worcester, Massachusetts (to a Baum from Poland and a Rabinovitch from Russia—the family changed its name to “Fuller” before he was born). He covered crime for the New York Evening Graphic at seventeen, rode the rails across the land as a hobo and freelance reporter during the waning years of the Great Depression, and—as a corporal in the First Infantry Division, the legendary “Big Red One”—landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day and helped liberate the death camp at Falkenau. By the end of the war, he was a thrice-published novelist. With ten lifetimes’ worth of experience under his belt (and with an old friend on the staff at RKO), he hit Hollywood as a screenwriter-for-hire and in 1948 directed his first feature, the auspiciously oneiric anti-Western I Shot Jesse James.

By the time he died, in 1997, Fuller had married twice and fathered once, directed twenty-three features, begun a fifth or sixth career as a film actor (starting in 1965 with an indelible cameo as himself in Godard’s Pierrot le fou), and written a dozen books, including his wonderfully grizzled autobiography, A Third Face (published posthumously, in 2002). As a director, Fuller delighted in rubbing America’s face in its social and political failures, but he judiciously refused to align himself with any Utopian political movement. He particularly loved journalists, soldiers, and children, but he found a way to empathize with everybody—from stoolies to Nazis, from battle-scarred call girls to William Randolph Hearst. And he made some of the loudest, crassest, most bizarre motion pictures ever, from the crazily didactic Park Row (1952), about battling good-and-evil nineteenth-century newspaper editors, to the astounding The Naked Kiss (1964), the story of a prostitute who falls in love with a child molester.

Every appreciation of Fuller’s work begins with the information that he often called “action” by firing a pistol into the air, and not without good reason. Fuller’s was a cinema of violence, of tumult, of wayward motivation and perpetual reversal. He saw no virtue in understatement; he had seen too much sorrow and horror to allow himself to conform to anyone else’s sense of propriety. Even before his experiences as an infantry grunt in the European theater of war, Fuller had known death and looked into its face: As the youngest licensed reporter on the rape-and-murder beat in lower Manhattan, he broke the story of the death-by-overdose of the now-forgotten Hollywood star Jeanne Eagels by sneaking into a funeral parlor and opening her casket. (He was eighteen.) If he ever had any illusions, he lost them by the time he was shooting 16mm footage of mass burials in the woods outside Falkenau. Fuller’s films are typified by a sense of moral urgency, the feeling that the stakes are too high to be polite. This is how he was the opposite of a director like Ernst Lubitsch: elegance of structure and fluidity of style were never his concern.

This insolence, this brashness, is perhaps why Fuller has always been more popular with other directors than he has been with critics or film historians, and more celebrated by the French than by us. It has taken many years for a properly researched, in-depth account of Fuller’s work to appear in this country (Lisa Dombrowski’s The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You!, a workmanlike historical monograph published this year by Wesleyan University Press), but the power of Fuller’s legacy has been evident for nearly half a century, since the first salvos of the French new wave hit our shores. Classics like Breathless and The 400 Blows—and even Hiroshima, Mon Amour—are all directly and profoundly marked by Fuller’s abrupt way of cutting through a scene, his disinterest in naturalistic acting, his continuity-shattering sense of outrage. Similarly, there would have been no New Hollywood—no DePalma, no Coppola, no Spielberg or Scorsese or even Robert Altman—without The Steel Helmet or Verboten! or Shock Corridor, whose self-propelled production and freedom from constraint were mighty precedents for the film-school generation. (Spielberg, who gave Fuller a cigar-chomping cameo in his underappreciated 1941, apparently used to keep a print of Fuller’s 1954 Cold War submarine drama Hell and High Water in the trunk of his car—for late-night roadside emergencies, no doubt.)

Fuller is sometimes described as a “primitive” or a “sensationalist,” terms that explain the peculiarities of his style by drawing together his lack of formal education (he dropped out of high school) and his bam-kapow narrative training in the copy rooms of the New York gutter press. The implication is that Fuller didn’t “know what he was doing,” that he lacked restraint, that he was tone-deaf, that his sincerity was actually naïveté. Perhaps that’s all true. But as Dombrowski points out, Fuller was perfectly capable of following standard Hollywood film grammar—or at least he had acquired those skills by 1951, when he signed with 20th Century-Fox—and from the start he was also trying to achieve odd, atonal effects that old pros like his friends Howard Hawks and John Ford could never have imagined. There was no match cut too incorrect, no reaction shot too unmotivated, no line of dialogue too hard boiled for Fuller, who at his best was aggressively, even sublimely dissonant, a politicized combination of Michael Powell and Ed Wood. Many of his most startling gestures, like the abrupt cut to the smiling face of a beautiful woman seen through a gun barrel in 1957’s Forty Guns, or the endlessly-cited shock opening of The Naked Kiss, blur the line between “good” and “bad” filmmaking in a way that continues to flummox the uninitiated. (Fuller certainly racked up some bad movies, but no one can agree on which ones they are.)

Fuller’s view of the human character was no less unorthodox than his command of film style. He always deified children—it remains one of his most charmingly bewildering traits—but any grown character in any Sam Fuller picture is capable of shocking ruthlessness, of noble sacrifice as well as bestial selfishness. This is part of what makes movies like Shock Corridor (his 1963 story about a reporter who feigns insanity to investigate a murder in an asylum) so unpredictable: any hero can turn into a villain (and vice-versa), sometimes in the space of a single cut. And yet those moments of pure sadism are invariably balanced by scenes of such maudlin treacle that it’s difficult for a viewer to keep his balance: what is Fuller trying to do?

The question becomes especially urgent when one looks at those films in which Fuller confronts American racism. Starting with his 1951 breakthrough, The Steel Helmet (a Korean War tale that was denounced by the right wing for its attention to the Japanese internment camps and other dubious American actions), and continuing through pictures like the outrageous White Dog (his 1982 movie about a dog trained to attack black people), Fuller excoriated racial prejudice with an insistence and an intensity that Hollywood films almost never achieved. However, his racists—snarling figures, held in the grip of irrational hatred—were always among his most striking and electric characters, while the objects of their scorn, such as the Asian children in China Gate (1957) and The Steel Helmet, are pure and innocent and noble: sacrificial lambs for Fuller’s allegorical tendencies. (This tension is at its peak in Shock Corridor, in which a black mental patient imagines himself to be a white-sheeted rider for the Ku Klux Klan; it turns out that the emotional stress of his participation in the civil rights movement drove him mad.) If it weren’t for Fuller’s utter sincerity and his obvious disinclination to think commercially, these films might be accused of being opportunistic—racist documents about racism—and indeed this is what Paramount feared White Dog to be. (In the face of protests they shelved the film, and to this day it has never had a proper theatrical release in the United States.)

Strangely, Fuller effaced his own Jewishness; in A Third Face, he mentions it only obliquely, and he wasn’t known to mention it in interviews. (While researching this piece I took an informal poll of my cinephile friends, and not one of them knew that Fuller was Jewish.) This erasure (or denial) may have been part of Fuller’s attempt to keep his own world free of ethnic difference; he evidently wanted to live in a color-blind America, and certainly in his own eyes he was an American before he was anything else. Other than the hollow-eyed children Lee Marvin helps to liberate from a death camp in The Big Red One (1980), his films are almost completely free of Jewish characters, and this, in turn, becomes a kind of structuring absence in his work—although the horror of the camps, in one way or another, undergirds every movie he made.

There are many critics who consider his primary achievements to be his war pictures, and indeed Fuller introduced into films like Fixed Bayonets (1951) and The Big Red One a sense of the insanity and moral ambiguity of combat that had rarely appeared in American cinema. But Fuller’s greatest moments, his most baroque set pieces, all occur in other genres, the crime picture or the Western or the topical melodrama: the climax of Underworld U.S.A., with the mortally wounded Cliff Robertson careening up an impossibly wide city street, or the savage Wild West gunfight that perforates Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns, or (perhaps especially) the entirety of Shock Corridor and Park Row—both of which really seem as if each take commenced with Fuller firing a gun into the ceiling.

And then there’s The Naked Kiss, Fuller’s masterpiece and an utterly lunatic document of his private moral universe—his Vertigo. Built around a recurring musical number of rare tastelessness (hesitatingly performed by a clutch of disabled children) and featuring a Fassbinder-worthy gallery of hysteric, discordant performances, The Naked Kiss confronts patriarchy with the delicacy of a Peterbilt smashing through an art gallery. The heroically overwrought Constance Towers—one of John Ford’s preferred actresses and a featured scenery-chewer in Shock Corridor—plays a call girl who decides to get out of the game by wrapping herself in anonymity and moving to a small town;

naturally she lands in a hotbed of sexual hypocrisy and moral blindness. The film is relentlessly cringe-inducing, but for those with strong constitutions, the history of cinema offers few pleasures quite as rarefied—and few sequences as forcefully edited—as the murder-by-telephone-receiver that upends the heroine’s world and closes the film’s second act, a real stunner that begins with a tape playback of that musical number and ends with an ice-cold, Antonioni-inflected spatial montage: a stairwell, an empty foyer, a dead man on the carpet.

No one who sees The Naked Kiss can ever forget that scene, or the speech that follows it (in which our heroine explains the significance of the movie’s title). It’s one of the greatest traps any filmmaker has ever sprung on an audience—a brilliant use of the viewer’s expectations as a weapon that has decisively influenced generations of filmmakers. (The brutal shift of gears in the last scene of There Will Be Blood is only the most recent example of a director speaking in Fullerese.) Like the rest of Fuller’s work, The Naked Kiss defies criticism—no canon can comfortably contain it—and in its strange power it stands alongside Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies Man as a definitive rumination on the psychosexual politics of postwar American life.

Fuller may have made more controversial pictures, but he never made a stronger one than The Naked Kiss. The weird sense of uplift, of redemptive possibility, that closes the film is pure Fuller; he believed that everyone deserves a second chance, even if that chance is always doomed to failure. That must be what “democracy” meant to him. Right up to his very last film, the garishly plotted 1989 Euro-potboiler Street of No Return, he yoked his (and our) sympathies to the waylaid, the misled, the abandoned; he knew them to be the real core of any honest society. Perhaps this is what some critics mean when they call Fuller a primitive: he was without irony—and without condescension. “I come from a generation for whom telling the truth meant everything,” Fuller wrote in his autobiography. “See, I still believe what James Cagney said in one of his movies: ‘You shake a man’s hand and look him straight in the eyes and everything will be all right.’” If only we were all so primitive.