The opening scene of Samuel Fuller’s 1949 film, I Shot Jesse James, is a common Western tableau rendered in still life. Men stand around in role-playing poses, the terror and the terrified, as a bank robbery quietly unfolds. Guns are drawn, nerves are frayed, cash is hastily placed into a bag as the teller stretches for the alarm, and Fuller’s cameras swallow up the white-knuckled silence in a series of extreme close-ups. When violence does, inevitably, explode, the tension is severed. The most arresting moments of the scene are when the action itself is arrested.
Frozen in those brief moments of filmmaking cliché are the toughed-up Fullerisms that characterize his pragmatic style: opportunity, necessity, and the fogginess of moral dilemma, none of which mean a damn thing when the hammer drops. Fuller’s early films are scrappy and sovereign takes on genre exercises. They are rife with these motifs while cowboys, con artists, and soldiers alike muss them up in the process of negotiating their own self-preservation. Exactly what makes a man a man? Whatever it takes, Fuller’s films seem to say, though consequences can be unforgiving.
Fuller didn’t start making films until he was in his mid-30s. Before going behind the camera for I Shot Jesse James, his first feature, he worked as a crime reporter, a pulp novelist, and a screenwriter. He had also served in the military during World War II. Hollywood producer Robert J. Lippert, a fan of Fuller’s novels, recruited him to crank out B movies for his Poverty Row studio, Lippert Pictures.
Although the three films Fuller made for Lippert—I Shot Jesse James, The Baron of Arizona, and The Steel Helmet—were shot on shoestring budgets and had unforgiving production schedules, they’re accomplished little feats of maverick filmmaking. Each is flawed but fiercely autonomous. All three films are now available on DVD, courtesy of Criterion’s Eclipse series, (finally, DVD reissues that are thankfully devoid of meaningless extras!), and while they’re far from masterpieces, they all offer glimpses into the cynical genius that Fuller would infect into the Hollywood mainstream.
I Shot Jesse James is not only Fuller’s first film, but his first Western, a genre he’d frequent throughout his career. Robert Ford (John Ireland), a member of Jesse James’s bank-robbing gang, aims to hang up his outlaw hat and settle down on a farm with Cynthy, the showgirl he loves. When a $10,000 dead-or-alive reward is put on James’s head, Ford sees an opportunity to procure a comfortable future, even if it means double-crossing a friend. He shoots James in the back, but his plan backfires: he’s briefly put in jail, only collects $500 of the reward, and, perhaps worst of all, Cynthy is repulsed by his actions. “There’s nothin’ I wouldn’t do to have you,” Ford implores, but the appeals of a murderer aren’t so warmly welcomed.
Ford is soon reduced to the “special added attraction” of a nightclub show, in which he humiliates himself further by reenacting the shooting for a paying crowd. He’s Fuller’s folk anti-hero, immortalized by popular song as a “dirty little coward”. The song crops up so much that it turns into a manifestation of Ford’s nagging conscience. Meanwhile Ford is sought out by would-be assassins looking to become the guy-who-shot-the-guy-who-shot-Jesse-James.
Fuller loads I Shot Jesse James with an abundance of claustrophobic close-ups, an extreme visual strategy that suggests the psychological turmoil of its characters, especially Ford. The economic favoritism of character over environment, while a direct result of budgetary means, is a deliberate inversion of the language of Western filmmakers like John Ford, whose She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, released the same year, is awash in the picturesque topography of Monument Valley. That Fuller’s film is a Western is practically an afterthought since its titular betrayal happens in the first reel, subjecting Ford to a fate not of heroic gun slinging and horse wrangling, but of self-destructive opportunism.
Fuller hired the groundbreaking cinematographer James Wong Howe to shoot his second film, The Baron of Arizona (1950), which, in comparison to the conservative I Shot Jesse James, sports a highly stylized look. Painted in the shadows and light of film noir, the film tells the tale of swindler James Addison Reavis, played with devilish fortitude by a pre-fame Vincent Price. Reavis hatches an outlandish plot to gain control of Arizona through forging land grants and deceiving a number of people, including Sophia de Peralta, (Ellen Drew), a young girl he convinces is the rightful heir to Arizona and who he later marries. Sophia is his counterfeit “Baroness”, his ticket to an equally counterfeit existence that he attempts to manufacture.
Reavis’s fraudulent scheme is hard to believe and easy to dismiss as cinematic fantasy as he goes to elaborate lengths to see it through, traveling the world and disguising himself as a monk and a gypsy in the process. Though the setup seems far-fetched, the film is actually based on a true story Fuller heard about while traveling as a reporter in the American Southwest. Price relishes the duplicitous role and Fuller proves himself to be a chameleon of style, but the film itself is something of an interesting failure. The emphasis on a convoluted plot overshadows the exploration of a man’s dark-cornered heart and offers little to latch onto beyond the expressionist lighting and mise en scène.
Better is The Steel Helmet (1951), a brief, low-budget film set during the Korean War. Shot on a ten-day schedule for a measly $100,000, its exteriors were filmed on the hillsides of Griffith Park in Los Angeles and the echoing sound stages of Hollywood. Despite the lacking production aesthetic, The Steel Helmet was a huge success, grossing $6 million and catapulting Fuller to the big-league studio system. It was also the first film to address the Korean War. Although his later war films would garner wider acclaim (1980’s The Big Red One, a semi-autobiographical account of World War II, is often cited as Fuller’s best), The Steel Helmet, with its subversive delivery of an otherwise standard Hollywood fare, is a highlight of Fuller’s career.
And though it uses the proverbial template to explore issues of race and futility, it’s a veritable war-film template nonetheless: the male bonding, the gallows humor, the handful of quirks that come to define each soldier more than their own names. The action scenes may be rudimentarily staged, thanks to the small budget even though Fuller’s camera is more fluid than before, tracking with the soldiers as they walk and crawl through the war, but the final showdown inside a Buddhist temple is practically a precursor to The Wild Bunch‘s bloody last hurrah. You can watch The Steel Helmet and see the black-and-white genesis of a genre lying in wait.
Sgt. Zack, (Gene Evans), and Cpl. Thompson, (James Edwards), in Steel Helment
When we first meet Sgt. Zack, (Gene Evans, who looks a bit like a cigar-chomping Joe Cocker), the sole survivor of an ambushed platoon, he’s tied up, wriggling through a mass of dead bodies. He befriends a young South Korean boy, (William Chun), who unties him, pledges his help, and defends himself when Zack’s American ignorance surfaces. “I am not gook!” he cries, “I am South Korean!”
Zack takes to calling the boy “Short Round” and instructs him to “eat rice!” each time he wants him to take cover. He never loses his ingrained racism but simply finds “kinder” ways for it to be communicated. Zack speaks Fuller’s hard-boiled language, (“Commies just waitin’ to wash you down with fish eggs and vodka!” he tells Short Round), and represents the stereotypical war-film gruff. Zack is a brusque, un-PC, cigar-chomping grunt. The catch is that black-and-white his tough-as-nails exterior is only a front for his interior humanity.
The makeshift platoon that Zack ends up forming with a number of other orphaned soldiers is purposely eclectic. The platoon includes Cpl. Thompson, a black man, (James Edwards), Sgt. Tanaka, a Japanese man, (Richard Loo), Joe, a mute, (Sid Melton), and Pvt. Baldy, (Richard Monahan), whose lack of hair is a source of much anxiety. The film’s conscience is manifest most explicitly in the guise of a captured Korean soldier, (Harold Fong), who tries to incite mutiny amongst the Americans by appealing to the injustices inflicted upon Thompson and Tanaka. “You pay for ticket, but you still have to sit at back of the bus,” he reminds Thompson. Fuller’s commentary on American racism is blatant and for a genre picture that carries so much nationalist baggage on its surface, unexpected.
The Steel Helmet doesn’t subscribe to the “war is hell” line, but it acknowledges that tragedy is tragedy. In this case, it’s merely a tragedy on a larger scale than those wrought in I Shot Jesse James and The Baron of Arizona, freights of certainty carried out by men who have no other choice but the one they’ve made. In Fuller’s world, choices cannot be reneged but their aftermath is something to simmer in.