The contents of The Samuel Fuller Film Collection, a presentation of early work from the director most noted for his gritty war films like The Steel Helmet, feel the weight of their many years acutely. Replete with jive talking African-American stereotypes, square-chinned, stoic good guys, damsels in distress, and dastardly villains straight out of central casting, the characters unfortunately embody the lowest of the collector’s edition mentality.
The films presented here (It Happened in Hollywood, Adventure in the Sahara, Shockproof, Power of the Press, Scandal Sheet, The Crimson Kimono and Underworld U.S.A.) represent lesser works by a talented filmmaker, pieces of cinematic history that have been salvaged from the dustbin of history for no discernable reason. They are, by and large, films of no lasting merit.
The Collector’s Choice set sees the films lovingly restored, but fails to address the more fundamental issue of exactly why these films needed to be given a new lease on life. There is commentary full of high praise for Fuller from artists like Tim Robbins included, but even this stops short of explaining just why audiences should enjoy these movies, or find anything new about Fuller as a writer and director in them. Ultimately, this collection presents little of interest to any viewer, save the most ardent Fuller buff or historically inclined cinephile.
It Happened in Hollywood, a melodrama about silent film stars left behind as the talkies conquer tinsel town that represents one of Fuller’s earliest screenwriting credits, feels especially like a relic. One can understand that it’s historically important as one of Fuller’s first film credits, but it’s profoundly dated to the point of being downright difficult to watch. Whatever happened in Hollywood, one comes to believe it happened quite ponderously and was probably not worth watching. And sadly, any enjoyment of the climatic party scene will require a knowledge of silent film stars that is probably beyond that of but the most educated contemporary audiences.
Adventure in the Sahara, meanwhile, feels more like a Samuel Fuller film, in it’s obvious fascination with the capacity for human cruelty, especially in a military environment. Playing like a grown up Lord of the Flies taking place in the French foreign legion, it will provide long time Fuller buffs some insight into the early work of the man who would write some of the greatest war films of all time: the The Steel Helmet and The Big Red One.
Unfortunately, for the great majority of folks who don’t fall into this category, there’s not a ton to distinguish the film. It’s not without value, but it’s not terribly notable either, and will probably prove yawn inducing to those not inclined to watch a film for it’s educational value in relation to a second tier American filmmaker.
There are hints of what could have been greatness, or at least competence in Shockproof, helmed by Douglas Sirk. It’s a beautifully put together piece that noses around the edges of being a well done, noir tale of double crosses, broken promises and lost chances for redemption. Sadly, this is all before it completely falls apart under a third act that plays like a terribly drawn out getaway scene that borders on the frankly incomprehensible. The film’s promise quickly withers beneath the weight of writing that’s heavy handed, unpleasantly moralistic, and most unforgivably, boring, though there is something distinctly charming about hearing a character in a Sirk film warn a colleague “Don’t be so melodramatic!”
The intent of this collection was, one assumes, to argue a more prominent placement for Samuel Fuller in the Pantheon of America directors. What’s most unfortunate, then, is that in practice, it demonstrates why reasonably few pieces of Fuller’s body of work are as critically lauded as they are today.
Take a film like The Crismon Kimono, for example. A crime thriller with a subtext exploring race relations that would have been fairly controversial on it’s release in 1959, it seems like it would be right in Fuller’s wheelhouse. But in practice, the film is poorly paced and clumsily handled, with some well-done sequences left flailing amidst muddled camerawork and a meandering plot. The result is a thoroughly mediocre film that shows just how high Fuller’s whiff ratio was, and the troubling fact that, for as good Fuller was at his best, he was at least that bad at his worst.
There are some bright spots in this collection, but they’re ultimately rare enough that it is hard to recommend this boxed set to anyone but the biggest of Fuller fans. And even then one has to be something of a completist for anything included here to qualify as required watching. For those who don’t already know Fuller’s work, this collection of obscure films offers fairly little, leaving Fuller’s small but worthy body of acknowledged classics – The Steel Helmet, White Dog, or Shock Corridor - more promising avenues for introduction to the director’s work.