Street of No Return (1989)

“Film is a like a battlefield. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word, emotion.” This assessment may sound like a tabloid headline, but it’s dialogue spoken by cinematic iconoclast and former New York City newspaper reporter Samuel Fuller (1912-1997) in Jean-Luc Goddard’s Pierrot Le Fou (1963).

His equation of movies with warfare is more than bravado. Fuller knew of what he spoke, having served in the front lines during WWII as part of the celebrated “Big Red One.” He conceived of the films he wrote and directed as he did the life he led: bold, energetic, full of brazen posturing that would seem so much hot air if they were not delivered with such unmediated brio and love of the medium.

The recent publication of Fuller’s posthumous autobiography, A Third Face, has brought the indefatigable director to the attention of a contemporary audience. As the book recounts, for much of his later life, Fuller was offered more opportunities to talk about his work than add to it. Like many directors who earned their stripes within the studio system, he was cast adrift in the 1960s when studio tycoons who once supported his efforts, like Daryl Zanuck, went the way of Cinemascope and double features. He was forced to scramble for resources to create Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964), his blistering exposes of social corruption. Thereafter, he endeavored with only limited success to market his reputation in Europe and only worked once again in the United States, after a 15-year exile.

Sad to say, the two works that resulted, The Big Red One (1980) and White Dog (1982), were brutally edited or censored. Fuller’s tribute to his WWII unit was cut in half, and his courageous adaptation of Romain Gary’s novel about a pet raised to kill black people was inappropriately deemed racist by the NAACP and yanked from release. Justifiably incensed, Fuller left for Europe once again and was able to complete only two more pictures during the remainder of his life.

The last, Street of No Return, was a French-financed project shot in 1987 during seven weeks in Lisbon, Portugal with a multi-national cast. It opened two years later to moderate success in Europe and disappeared virtually without a trace in the States. It’s adapted from the novel of the same name by David Goodis, one of the noir scribes of the ’40s and ’50s best known for the source material of Francois Truffaut’s Don’t Shoot the Piano Player (1960). A friend of Fuller’s when he wrote screenplays in Hollywood, Goodis created some of the most heart-wrenching work in the noir genre, featuring aggressively devouring women who psychologically decimate weak and often sadomasochistic men.

Street of No Return, the novel, is constructed as a prolonged flashback wherein an alcoholic revisits his past while in search of refreshment for himself and his stumblebum cohorts. In the film, Michael (Keith Carradine), a crowd-pleasing singer meets a flashy young woman, Celia (Valentina Vargas), whom he forgets was featured in a video for one of his songs (the film’s title track, co-written by Carradine and Fuller). Their passionate affair is truncated by Celia’s lover, Eddie (Marc de Jonge), a drug dealer who foments racial antagonism as part of a scheme to buy up valuable real estate. Eddie slits Michael’s throat, thereby ending his career and initiating his descent into vagrancy and alcoholism. Arrested for the murder of a policeman, Michael eventually convinces the irate chief of police (Bill Duke) of Eddie’s involvement. Violent retribution follows.

While Fuller retains the excesses of Goodis’ plot, and even interpolates some of the novel’s convoluted time scheme, he permits his protagonist resolution, rather than condemn him to an endless cycle of regret, recrimination, and rotgut alcohol. As Fuller sweetens the dyspeptic themes of Goodis’ work, he also vitiates the forceful visual dynamics of his earlier films, so the characterizations rarely exceed a kind of hyper-theatrical, stilted posturing. On the DVD’s commentary track, Carradine recalls the difficulty of delivering the dialogue convincingly: “It was almost like we were shooting a period film with period dialogue.”

Admittedly, Fuller was 75 at the time of production and the emotional universe he had constructed over the previous 40 years may have seemed dated to a new audience (and cast). It was also fashionable at the time to exaggerate noir dynamics, ironically or as homage (as was the case, for instance, with Wim Wenders’ The American Friend [1979], in which Fuller played a small role.) Fuller engaged in neither. He wanted his characters to be larger than life, driven by strong emotions. The parameters of Goodis’ universe were to him neither of another time nor in need of self-conscious alteration.

One wishes, however, that Fuller had been able to commit his visual resources to the film to the same degree that he incorporated the worldview of noir. Typically, his films draw on adept and often audacious visual imagery. The very first shot of Street of No Return appears to continue this pattern: a fist is struck into the lens that quickly is shown to be the point of view of someone trapped in the midst of a riot. Fuller covers the mayhem with a sequence of jerky handheld shots intercut with overhand angles that reveal a maelstrom of struggling “humanity.”

But little else in the film takes a similarly inventive approach to the material. The music video sequence that occasions Celia’s first encounter with Michael incorporates the quick cutting and oddball imagery associated with the form so broadly as to seem almost a parody. On other occasions, Fuller allows shadows of figures to appear on the screen before they do themselves, an effect that hints at “atmosphere,” but becomes only window dressing in the end.

If Street of No Return remains a minor work of this masterful director, the attention to detail on the Fantoma DVD illustrates the kind of dedication to quality this company has exhibited in its other releases, including films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Fritz Lang, and Mario Bava. The print is in impeccable shape. More impressive, however, is a 33-minute documentary shot on the film’s set, dominated by the cigar-chomping and compulsively chatty director. Fuller never gave a bad interview, remaining throughout his career grandiose, garrulous, and gung-ho about moviemaking. Even when he was not working at the top of his form, he never failed to put his emotions on screen and offer his audience a remarkable experience of moving pictures.