Samuel Fuller, “The Poet of Potboilers”

[20 July 2008]

By Rodger Jacobs

When F. Scott Fitzgerald sat down to compose a letter to aspiring writer Frances Turnbull on 9 November 1938, the world was in an uneasy place. Kristallnacht – “the night of broken glass” – had begun in Germany on that very eve. Nazi troops and sympathizers looted and burned 7,500 Jewish businesses and 267 synagogues in one horrific event that announced the commencement of the Holocaust.

Fitzgerald, feeling “prematurely passed by and forgotten” by the gods that govern the world of arts and letters, was living in Encino, California, as the terror unfolded in Germany, and about to lose his $1,250 a week contract as a screenwriter for movie giant MGM in Culver City. Columbia Pictures, not exactly an MGM rival but a powerhouse studio nonetheless, was seven days away from releasing Adventure in Sahara, a B-grade French Foreign Legion action flick with a screenplay co-authored by a 26-year-old pulp novelist and former tabloid journalist named Samuel Fuller. (That same year Republic Pictures produced Gangs of New York from a screenplay adaptation by Fuller with uncredited dialogue assistance by Fitzgerald’s friend Nathanael West, author of The Day of the Locust). 

Fitzgerald was not impressed with an original composition that Turnbull had sent for the great writer’s appraisal, although he did find the writing “smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming.”

“I’m afraid the price for doing professional work is a good deal higher than you are prepared to pay at present,” Fitzgerald advised the young woman in the opening sentence of his letter. “You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly, the little experiences that you might tell at dinner. This is especially true when you begin to write, when you have not yet developed the tricks of interesting people on paper, when you have none of the technique which it takes time to learn. When, in short, you have only your emotions to sell.”

This, Fitzgerald didactically underscored to Miss Turnbull, is the collective experience of all good writers. Dickens, he noted, was compelled to put into Oliver Twist “the child’s passionate resentment at being abused and starved that had haunted his entire childhood.” Hemingway’s first collection of short stories, In Our Time, “went right down to the bottom of all that he had ever felt and known.” Fitzgerald’s own This Side of Paradise, the author wrote, was “about a love affair that was still bleeding as fresh as the skin wound on a haemophile (sic)” at the time of its creation.

Fitzgerald scholars – and there are legions of them – do not record how Radcliffe sophomore Frances Turnbull reacted to the less-than-encouraging letter. One can readily imagine that the young lady tearfully surrendered any pretense of a future as a writer when Fitzgerald offered that “it doesn’t seem worthwhile to analyze why this story isn’t saleable.”

In the long run, however, what did Fitzgerald’s harsh criticism of Miss Turbull’s talent (or lack thereof) really matter? Worlds were in transition. Economic ruin was global, having spread like a virus, fanning the flames of chaos in Germany and the expansion of Japanese imperialism. War in Europe and the Pacific was most certainly inevitable. Slightly over two years after writing the Turnbull letter, on 21 December 1940, Scott Fitzgerald, laboring under the strain of a faltering career and mounting personal problems, would succumb to a fatal heart attack at gossip columnist Sheilah Graham’s apartment in Hollywood. He died clinging to the bitter belief that he had been a failure in life and literature. In a sad bit of kismet, Fitzgerald’s colleague, Nathanael West, died the same weekend, on December 22, 1940, in a two-car accident in El Centro, California, while returning from a hunting trip in Mexico with his wife, Eileen, who also perished in the collision.

One year after the passing of West and Fitzgerald, in December 1941, while writing a new potboiler novel, The Dark Page, Sam Fuller enlisted in the army. At the age of 30, the native of Worcester, Massachusetts, left behind lucrative careers in journalism and Hollywood for the blood-scarred battlefields of World War II. Fuller served with the Twenty-Sixth and Sixteenth Infantry regiments, First Infantry Division in North Africa and Europe, landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day and participating in the liberation of the Falkenau concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.

Fuller maintained a diary during the war and would later incorporate many of his infantry experiences into the screenplays of his combat films such as The Steel Helmet and Fixed Bayonets (both released by 20th Century-Fox in 1951), culminating in his autobiographical triumph, The Big Red One (1980). As noted by author Lisa Dombrowski in The Films of Samuel Fuller, the first scholarly volume on the hard-hitting and idiosyncratic writer and director, Fuller’s years as a soldier “fueled his subsequent reputation as an action-oriented director who made authentic, real-life movies.” Fuller himself suggested the impact of his war years on his cinematic worldview in an oft-quoted quip delivered during his cameo appearance in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 film Pierrot le fou: “Film is like a battleground: Love. Hate. Action. Violence. In a word: Emotion.”

The Steel Helmet

The Steel Helmet

War – Stephen Crane aptly dubbed it “the red animal”— taught Fuller something else, a life philosophy that the self-pitying F. Scott Fitzgerald never understood, echoed in a line of dialogue from The Big Red One: “The ultimate triumph is merely survival.”

In The Films of Samuel Fuller, Lisa Dombrowski, associate professor of film studies at Wesleyan University, reveals a filmmaker who was first and foremost a writer. Fuller aggressively ignored film school conventions and classical rules of narrative, relying instead on his own instincts rooted in his years in the newspaper business.

Fuller worked in journalism throughout the 1930s, but his stint at the New York Evening Graphic arguably had the greatest impact on his brand of storytelling. Dombrowski describes the Graphic – often referred to in its day as the Evening Pornographic – as a cross between the New York Post and the National Enquirer.

The Graphic mixed an impassioned defense of the common man with tawdry stories of sex and violence. There, Fuller learned the art of “creative exaggeration” and the power of a compelling lead, two storytelling techniques that characterize his self-written films. As a journalist on the crime beat, Fuller witnessed and then wrote about murderers’ confessions, suicides, executions, and race riots. “Every newspaperman has such a Hellbox to draw from,” he later wrote. “Every newspaperman is a potential filmmaker. All he or she has to do is transfer real emotion to reel emotion and sprinkle with imagination.” Fuller’s journalistic career thus provided him not only with strong copy that he could transform into screenplays, but also with an approach to storytelling that de-emphasized exposition and analysis in favor of blunt “truth” and bold-faced revelatory thrills.

Fuller’s stated intent was to “use the screen as a newspaper.” In an interview late in his life, the cigar-chomping darling of French cinema fetishists declared: “The power of the camera is bold-face type … I learned it’s not the headline that counts, but how hard you shout it.”

Upon his passing from natural causes in November 1997 at the age of 85, the London Independent hailed Fuller as “the poet of potboilers” and respectfully observed that he “retained the newspaperman’s snooping instinct for a scoop, a banner headline.” Indeed, a random sampling of Samuel Fuller film titles reads like a newspaperman’s wet dream: Verboten!, Underworld U.S.A., Shock Corridor, Pickup on South Street, Shark!, Merrill’s Marauders, Hell and High Water, The Naked Kiss, The Crimson Kimono, Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street.

“For Sam Fuller, the world condensed into stories,” acclaimed filmmaker Wim Wenders wrote in an introduction to a 2007 reprint of Fuller’s novel The Dark Page (Kingly Books) “That’s what he saw wherever he looked. Whatever reality, incident, fact or event presented itself, he saw it as narrative material.”

Between the blood-swollen god of war and the blood-stained pages of tabloid newspaper reporting, the writer that emerged from within Samuel Michael Fuller was a playful but hard-bitten cynic who imposed his sometimes weary, whistling-past-the-graveyard worldview on all those people sitting in the dark. Fuller’s films were rarely subtle (“The recurring narrative and stylistic tendencies in Fuller’s films are so readily apparent,” Dombrowski correctly notes) and his entire body of work sought to challenge the norms by which Hollywood put stories on the big screen, except for a brief five-year run, 1951-1956, at 20th Century-Fox under mogul Darryl Zanuck where Fuller was expected to adhere to classical norms in storytelling.

Dombrowski’s exhaustively researched scholarly study of Fuller’s cinematic output questions common assumptions regarding his work and, perhaps for the first time ever in the field of Fuller-mania, clearly defines a personal aesthetic at play. She draws on previously untapped production and regulatory files, script notes, and scores of interviews with Fuller himself to shed new light on a director whose “working process was detailed and deliberate … he was constantly disposed toward narrative and stylistic strategies that provoked and aroused the viewer.”

The hallmarks of a Sam Fuller film are blood, sex, violence, warfare, and fatal misunderstandings; his stories are populated by assassins, gangsters, spies, prostitutes and drunks, and “average Joe” foot soldiers, characters that Fuller himself described as “gutter people … outcasts who lived by their own code in a shadowy world he found inherently more dramatic than that occupied by clean-cut, well-behaved Americans.” Between war and the tabloid jungle, this is the world that Samuel Fuller knew – as F. Scott Fitzgerald said to Frances Turnbull in that 1938 letter: You cannot separate who you are from what you write— and there are few filmmakers working today who can match Fuller for the visceral experience he brought to the screen.

“In the old days,” Charles Bukowski wrote in his swan song, Pulp, “writers’ lives were more interesting than their writing. Now-a-days neither the lives nor the writing is interesting.”

Fixed Bayonets

Fixed Bayonets

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