Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Tabloid Noir: Samuel Fuller's Films and Fiction

Part 2

Fuller’s most forthright portrayals of this “organised lunacy” would be Steel Helmet and The Big Red One. Both are eloquent statements regarding the realities of war. The first was Fuller’s answer to Lewis Milestone’s A Walk in the Sun, which he considered little more than one long cliché. Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front, The Front Page, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers) must have particularly irritated Fuller, for this would be the second rewrite of the renown director’s work. Not only had Milestone put his stamp on prohibition gangsterism, but, worse, he had, according to Fuller, revised World War Two, glorifying and romanticising war beyond proportion. It would take Fuller more than twenty years to write and realise The Big Red One, but his perseverance would result in his most thorough investigation of the war, focusing, as it does, on the average soldier. In the novel, Fuller even resorted to a literary trick which would articulate his relationship to verisimilitude and the war novel in general. For, at the end of The Big Red One, Fuller says the following:
“A war novel’s objective, no matter how emotional, is to make the
reader feel war. But war means casualties. To take the reader into
reality, one page in the book should be booby-trapped. Since it is
against the law to kill a reader, because it makes unsound business
sense to be wounded-while-reading, it became much safer when
turning back to the combat clock to live backwards than to die

Thus Fuller pulls the rug from beneath the Hollywood-oriented illusion-machine. Realising the actual wartime sites no longer had “the feel” of reality, he substitutes Israel for North Africa, Sicily, France, Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia. Not only that, but he chose a rather subversive form of role reversal, having Jews should play Nazi soldiers. Regarding the latter, Fuller said the following:
“Israeli soldiers and civilians wore German helmets over
yamulkas...The concentration camp in Falkenau...was filmed
in the heart of Jerusalem...Jewish concentration camp
survivors played the People’s Army fighting for Hitler,
grimly holding up his picture with their their tattoo
numbers covered...To make a real war movie would be
to occasionally fire at the audience from behind the screen
during a battle scene... But word-of-mouth from casualties
wouldn’t help the film sell tickets. And again, such reaching
for reality is against the law...Anyone seeing the movie or
reading the book will survive.”

This is the same film Fuller had the chance to make in 1949 with John Wayne. But the director turned down the offer, because, in his opinion, Wayne was “a symbol of a kind of man I never saw in war. He would have given it a heroic touch that I hate in war movies. In real combat situations, everyone is scared, everyone is a nervous animal. You can’t determine the heroes from the cowards in advance.”

Though he made some great war films, it’s film noir with which Fuller is most often associated: House of Bamboo, Crimson Kimono, The Naked Kiss, Shock Corridor, Pick-up on South Street, Underworld USA, White Dog, Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Strasse and Street of No Return. A subtle remake of William Keighley’s 1948 Street With No Name, House of Bamboo was directed by Fuller, who would also receive a credit for additional dialogue, in 1955 for Twentieth Century-Fox. Set in post-war Japan, Sandy Dawson heads a criminal ring of former GI’s living in Tokyo. The army sends Kenner to infiltrate the gang. Here Fuller depicts the American occupation of Japan as nothing short of criminal. This is obviously not your usual post-war film. Cultural differences are highlighted to great, and often, surreal effect, as in his images of falling cherry blossoms, the Kabuki troupe and the giant Buddha. For someone described by misguided critics as intolerant, if not rightwing, Fuller delivers a sympathetic portrayal of both interracial romance and homosexuality. It’s another typical Fuller character study. Said Fuller, “I loathe this cliche vision of the underworld... Dark alleys and wet streets... It’s easy to set a pictorial mood, to fill an alley up with shadows and ashcans and black cats. I prefer to find or focus in on something sinister at the edge of a beautiful playground or by children playing around pagodas, to use contrast.”

Crimson Kimono (1959), directed, produced and written by Fuller for Globe Enterprises once again presents a world of extremes. In what might be his most optimistic film, Fuller offsets sensitivity and gentleness with vulgarity and violence. Like House of Bamboo, Crimson Kimono concerns interracial marriage, with the heroine opting for a Japanese-American over a Caucasian. In accordance with Fuller’s vehement belief in racial tolerance, Crimson Kimono portrays both the Japanese-American and the Caucasian as equally sympathetic- “I hate those pat, anti-racist movies of the Fifties with those long-suffering Joes who let a pal have the girl without a fight.” Never one to shun the streets, particularly when budget demands it, Fuller, in this film, again uses location shots to great effect, making Little Tokyo and metropolitan Los Angeles an integral part of the movie.

Also written, produced and directed by Fuller, The Naked Kiss concerns what, at the time, were taboo subjects: prostitution, sexual perversion and physical disabilities. Made in 1964 for Leon Fromkess-Sam Firks Productions, this is arguably Fuller’s most infamous film. Like Shock Corridor, it was photographed by Stanley Cortez, who could count amongst his credits Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter. With its unforgettable opening and bizarre imagery, The Naked Kiss depicts a world as ordinary as it is bizarre, while walking a thin line between social realism and surrealism. But it’s also an examination of class in America. Said Fuller, “What I wanted was the whole concept of a caste system- not the formal one like they have in India or Japan- but a real sense among the social outcasts that there is something so vile, so low, that even they must scorn it.” However corrupt the characters, Fuller refrains from passing judgment on them, suggesting that the ensuing anarchy constitutes an understandable and even healthy response to society’s strictures and puritanism.

This is also the case in Pickup in South Street (1953, Jules Schermer Productions), another film written and directed, by Fuller. Here, rather than Stanley Cortez, it’s Joe MacDonald (The Street With No Name, Viva Zapata, My Darling Clementine, Call Northfield 777, Warlock, Walk On the Wildside) who is behind the camera, and responsible for some exquisite high-contrast black-and-white photography. Filmed in twenty days, it portrays crime simply as a business. Said Fuller to Profirio and Ursini, “They aren’t criminals out of choice, because they always wanted to be, they do it because it’s the only way they can make a living.” Anti-communist it might be- Fuller, after all, distrusted all governments, be they communist, fascist or quasi-democratic- but it turns any notion of anti-communism on its head. After all, the sympathetic Americans portrayed in the movie are hardly respectable members of society, but are lumpen criminals: in turn, a pickpocket, a prostitute and an informer. As Martin Scorsese points out, America’s fate, in Pickup on South Street, “is in the hands of...outcasts.” When a federal agent asks the pickpocket, “Do you know what Communism is?”, the latter says, “Who cares?” Receiving no glory for their efforts, these demi-mondistes, once their mission has been accomplished, will undoubtedly return to the gutter from which they came.

In the original script, Skip, played by Richard Widmark, says to the FBI agent, “Don’t Wave the goddamn flag at me.” At Romanoff’s in Hollywood during the heat of the Cold War, J. Edgar Hoover, dining with his friend and head of Twentieth Century Fox, Daryl Zanuck, and Fuller, said he objected to the line. Zanuck turned to Fuller and said, “He’s right, we’ll leave out goddamn.” Hoover told Zanuck he knew quite well that was not what he meant. To his credit, Zanuck said, “This is his character talking and that character doesn’t give a goddamn about the flag... Any flag!... Otherwise we’re making a propaganda film and we don’t make those kinds of propaganda films.” For Zanuck was not adverse to backing writers he admired.

Underworld USA (1961, Globe Enterprises) is another film directed, produced and written by Fuller. Derived from a series of articles in Saturday Evening Post by Joseph F. Dinneen, this is a domestic war film that pits the FBI against a crime syndicate. It’s also a brutal, if not sadistic, affair, in which the protagonist, Tolly (Cliff Robertson) associates sex with gathering information. Typical of Fuller, Tolly, who simply wants revenge, stands in opposition to legal, as well as criminal, forces. In the end, violence exhausts Tolly as it does anyone touched by it. Prefiguring movies like Point Blank and The Killers, organised crime is again portrayed as an extension of America’s business ethic and at the root of corporate capitalism.

Made for West German television in 1972, Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street acknowledges the influence of French director Jean-Luc Godard on Fuller, just as Godard had acknowledged Fuller’s influence in Pierrot Le Fou. It’s one of Fuller’s more bizarre films, a complex thriller about an American agent who visits Bonn to find the person who has killed his partner only to get involved in blackmail, drugs, pornography and murder. Its humour and playfulness makes it a close cousin to French New Wave cinema. Most memorable is the climax in which the protagonist throws, quite literally, everything but the kitchen sink at his adversary. His manic behaviour and willingness to use every weapon at his disposal represent a typically American response, not altogether different from the way America was, at the time, deploying its weaponry in the jungles of Vietnam. Also noteworthy is that the femme fatale is played by Fuller’s wife, Christa Lang, who could count amongst her film credits roles in Godard’s Alphaville, Nickelodeon, What’s Up Doc?, White Dog and Street of No Return. She was also a writer, working with her husband on scripts for Kleptomania (1995), Women in Prison (1994, TV) and Day of Reckoning (1990, TV). Not only does Fuller dedicate the novel, Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, to her, but he calls the book’s heroine by her name as well. Unfortunately, wooden performances prevent Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street from realising its potential. In the end, it remains an uneven and odd film. But no more odd than the book, which, though highly visual- a quality that typifies Fuller’s fiction- reads as though it’s partly a film treatment and partly a hardboiled novel written by a cunning surrealist.

One of Fuller’s more mainstream productions, White Dog (1982, Paramount/Edgar J. Scherick), based on a Romain Gary novel, concerns an actress who unknowingly acquires a dog that has been trained to attack blacks. Here Fuller shares scriptwriting credits with the future director and writer of L.A. Confidential, Curtis Hanson. If films from The Bedroom Window (1987) to L.A. Confidential, are anything to go by, Hanson must have learned something from working with Fuller, particularly when it comes to pace and emotional impact. However, due to the film’s subject matter, Paramount, worried that the movie might spark-off race riots amongst cinema audiences in the South and Midwest, decided against releasing White Dog in the U.S.. Yet Fuller was already accustomed to such censorship. His Steel Helmet and Crimson Kimono had both been banned in the South. Regarding the former film, the U.S. Army had refused the director’s request for combat footage, their reason being that the script included the shooting of an unarmed North Korean. A few years after Steel Helmet, Great Britain would ban Shock Corridor.

Except for some TV work in France, Street of No Return (1989) would be Fuller’s swan song. Adapted from David Goodis’ novel, Fuller directed the film but teamed up with Jacques Bral on the screenplay. It was Bral, working for a French and Portuguese production company, who was in charge of the film. With Francois Guerif- noir expert and head of French publishing house Rivage- acting as artistic director, Street of No Return tries to recapture the spirit of David Goodis. It’s an uneven film and opinion is divided on how successful it is as a film. While some dislike the movie intensely others, including this writer, believe it ranks as one of the better Goodis adaptations.

Fuller had known Goodis when the latter was employed in Hollywood, and, for a time, the two occupied adjoining offices at Warners. They first met when Goodis walked into Fuller’s office and handed him an autographed copy of Dark Passage. He was also carrying with him a copy of Fuller’s The Dark Page. Goodis was the first writer Fuller had come across who had actually paid for a copy of his book. Apparently, Goodis had been attracted by Fuller’s title, thinking it a coincidence that it was similar to the title of his own 1946 novel, Dark Passage. Though other than dark- an adjective that could be used to describe the atmosphere of both novels- Dark Passage and The Dark Page have little in common.

Not long afterwards, Goodis brought Fuller a story he’d come across in the New York Evening Journal about a race riot in Harlem. The byline carried Fuller’s name. What intrigued Goodis was a particular quote regarding what had triggered the riot. Goodis wanted more information, but Fuller was unable to track the quote down. Nevertheless, Fuller’s article would become the basis for Goodis’ 1954 novel, The Street of No Return, which, in turn, would be filmed by Fuller thirty-five years later. Fuller admitted that he wrote the script with Goodis in mind: “Every word, every emotion, act of violence, touch was put in as if Goodis was sitting next to me when writing, or sitting next to me when shooting.” Not surprisingly, Fuller’s Street of No Return was dedicated to the author of the novel.

Three non-noir films were released in 1957, two of which, Forty Guns and Run of the Arrow, have since become classic westerns. The former can be compared to off-beat psycho-sexual westerns like Duel in the Sun and Johnny Guitar. It stars Barbara Stanwyck in the role of Jessica, a gutsy woman who owns the town and her hired forty guns. Stanwyck’s role was originally meant for Marilyn Monroe. Inviting as that might sound, it’s hard to imagine the film without Stanwyck presence. At her perverse best, she is able to make the movie hum with sexual frenzy, a quality that Monroe, despite her obvious talent and allure, might not have been able to carry off so effectively. At the other end of the cinematic spectrum, Run of the Arrow concerns an often-used Fuller theme, that of the individual versus society. A film of ideas, and a treatise on national allegiance, Rod Steiger plays a defeated Southerner, who fires the last shot of the Civil War, heads into Indian country, and, rather than return to the fold of the Union, joins a tribe of Sioux Indians, only to find that, for better or worse, he cannot help but be an American.

The third film released in 1957 was China Gate (Globe Enterprises, Twentieth Century-Fox). Starring Gene Barry, Nat King Cole and Angie Dickinson, it is an adventure story set in Vietnam in the days when it was under French colonial rule. It was also the first American film to mention North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh. Producer Daryl Zanuck- always appreciative of a good story and a man whom Fuller respected- purportedly asked the director who this guy Ho Chi Minh was. Ever ready with a hook, Fuller said, “He was the assistant pastry cook at a London hotel who wound up the head of a nation.” To which Zanuck, a one-time scriptwriter who penned the over-the-top ending for Ford’s Grapes of Wrath- responded, “You hear that? That’s the kind of guy I like! A pastry cook! Goddamn it!”

Wrongly accused by Peter Biskind (Seeing is Believing) and leftwing Cineaste critic Calvin Green of being rightwing, if not fascist (Green: “Fuller is a chauvinist whose jingoistic fervor goes beyond the irrational, amounting to a morbid hysteria.”), Fuller was, throughout his life, an outspoken libertarian, his perspective derived from seeing the world at ground level, whether through war or tabloid investigations into crime and corruption. Not only was Fuller a fervent supporter of individual rights but he was an vocal opponent of McCarthyism. In an essay which accompanies the Fowler-influenced New York in the 1930s, Fuller goes so far as to speak up for the benefits derived from the Norris-La Guardia act, which Fuller points out helped establish strong unions and gave strikers protection from being taken to court by their employers. In that article he also extols the gains which have resulted from anti-monopoly legislation; the Wagner Act, which gave unions the right to collectively bargain; the New Deal; the Writers’, Directors and Screen Actors’ Guilds; sit-down strikes; and the Communist Party’s involvement in creating a Popular Front against fascism. Though Fuller does add that the Party did so after supporting the Hitler-Stalin pact. These are obviously not the opinions of your average rightwing fascist. Surprisingly, Fuller had mixed feelings about 1930s cultural deity H.L. Mencken. According to Fuller, the great journalist’s wit and brilliance often obscured his anti-semitism and anti-New Dealism. Though Fuller tries to temper his critique by reminding readers that the 1930s was an “era of terrible honesty.”

As well as Goodis, Fuller also knew Jim Thompson- he met Thompson a few days after the latter arrived in Hollywood- and seemingly every other writer who passed through Hollywood between 1945 and the 1960s. Though familiar with an array of noirists, Fuller, in his writing and films, rarely resorted to hardboiled clichés, for he was more interested in presenting strong images and reflecting the world as he had seen it. A true original, Fuller, to find work as a director after the White Dog debacle, would leave Hollywood and settle for a considerable period of time in Paris, where he believed his reputation was more firmly established and financial backing was easier to obtain.

Fuller died in Hollywood on October 31, 1997. The Director’s Guild of America announced a Farewell Tribute on November 22nd- thirty-four years from the day JFK was assassinated. Connecting various literary and cinematic traditions- from the journalism of Gene Fowler to the pulp fiction of Goodis, from the poetry of Maxwell Bodenheim to the films of Quentin Tarantino- Fuller would have shrugged off any such irony and romanticism. But the announcement gave an indication of the range of Fuller’s influence and the democratic nature of his work: “Among those scheduled to speak are Peter Bogdanovich, Jonathan Demme, Angie Dickinson, Curtis Hanson, Walter Hill, Paul Mazursky, and Tim Robbins. The program will begin at 9:00 AM and is open to the public.”

Novels Burn, Baby, Burn!, Phoenix, New York, 1935; Test Tube Baby, William Godwin, New York, 1936; Make Up and Kiss, William Godwin, New York, 1938; The Dark Page, Duell, Sloan & Pearce, New York, 1944; The Naked Kiss, Belmont, New York, 1964; Crown of India, Award, New York, 1966; 144 Piccadilly, Baron, New York, New English Library, London, 1972; Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, Pyramid, New York, 1974; The Big Red One, Bantam, New York, 1980; La Grand Melee, Christian Bourgois, Paris, 1984, as Quint’s World, Worldwide, Don Mills, Ontario, 1988; Pecos Bill and the Soho Kid, Bayard, 1986.

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