On our fourth day, this journey through who we believe to be the 100 Essential Film Directors continues to twist and turn in unexpected ways. From bold, opinionated Hollywood voices to those who essentially created the language of cinema, today will shed light on kings of genre like Samuel Fuller, through lions like the legendary John Huston.
(1912 - 1977)
Three Key Films: The Steel Helmet (1951), Pickup on South Street (1953), The Big Red One (1980)
Underrated: Park Row (1952). Frank Capra called It’s a Wonderful Life his best film for decades before anyone would listen. Sam Fuller felt the same way about his newspaper epic Park Row, which has finally become available on DVD this year. Inspired by his years working in the cutthroat New York newspaper business—a copyboy at 12, crime reporter at 17—Fuller’s fondness for the industry is apparent. The plot and themes are basically the same as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Loveable underdogs take on corrupt institution, only here it’s a startup newspaper taking on a corrupt institution personified in Charity Hackett (Mary Welch), a classic Fuller brunette and coldhearted, greedy publisher whom the loveable underdog is more than happy to sleep with. Long-admired for his explosive camera movement, Park Row features one of Fuller’s most exciting fight scenes and plenty of sardonic wit, with just the right amount of heart planted firmly on its sleeve.
Unforgettable: From The Steel Helmet. The titles scroll, the camera resting on the dome of a helmet, smooth except for a single bullet hole piercing the right side. A grave, familiar image of wartime sacrifice. Only this isn’t WWII. This is Korea. And as the titles fade, the seemingly abandoned helmet suddenly rises to reveal the squinting, shifty eyes of an American soldier, hiding from the enemy. Stephen Frears would open The Queen (2006) similarly, humanizing our iconography by bringing what seemed to be a royal portrait to life.
The Big Red One (1980)
The Legend: Martin Scorsese said, “If you don’t like the films of Sam Fuller, then you just don’t like cinema.” Samuel Fuller was told to cast John Wayne in the role of platoon leader in his epic and autobiographical war film, The Big Red One, he said he’d rather not make the movie at all. One need watch only a couple of Fuller’s pictures to understand why his response is no surprise. Though his scope was broad—he made war films, melodramas, westerns, crime noir, and odd things in between—Fuller’s trademark punchy dialog, exuberant violence and inventive camera work unifies the disparate settings and characters. Whether we’re shaking down a Japanese pachinko parlor in House of Bamboo (1955), or confined within a submarine in Hell and High Water (1954), the integrity of his vision is clear. We’re clearly operating in the same mental space. No, what is surprising about the story of making The Big Red One is that anyone would ask him to cast John Wayne to begin with. Trying to imagine The Duke in any of Fuller’s war films is like picturing Darth Vader in 2001. That’s not a knock on Wayne (or Vader), but they’re fictional characters, operating on the level of myth. Somehow, the surrealistic world of Sam Fuller manages to feel emphatically real.
His films didn’t always feel real though. Critics at the time complained that his tawdry subjects stretched credulity and disliked his left-of-center aesthetics. Similarly, viewers accustomed to a different kind of war film found many aspects of Fuller’s breakthrough The Steel Helmet quite unreal. An integrated platoon? An American shooting a POW? An intelligent commie? Many were outraged. They said the film was funded by Reds, and accused the real-life war hero of being anti-American. (Fuller’s WWII platoon landed in Africa, Sicily, and Normandy, earning him Bronze and Silver Stars.) Unfortunately, this sort of controversy plagued Fuller’s career. Several decades later, his film White Dog would be shelved by Paramount, who feared a threatened boycott by the NAACP. Never mind that the film was actually a sobering contemplation on the roots and results of racism, made by a director whose progressive record on race was abundantly evident in both his themes and his integrationist casting choices. Paramount would not release it. Angry, Fuller moved to France and did not make another American film.
Despite these battles, Fuller was not a provocateur. Instead he strove to capture a sense of reality that only he could see and, in doing so, redefined our expectations of cinema. What once seemed pulpy (The Crimson Kimono 1959), surreal (The Naked Kiss 1964), and outrageous (Shock Corridor 1963), now seems simply ahead of its time. As a result, his greatest legacy might be his influence. The French New Wavers, Spielberg, Jarmusch, Tarantino (and on and on) have acknowledged Sam Fuller’s direct impact on their work. In fact, you can hardly imagine their films without him. His idiosyncratic vision normalized what we value in cinema today. Joshua Ewing Weber