Friday, May 25, 2007

Between Hell’s Highway and The Big House: Robert Tasker and Those Who Knew Him.
Part 1

Mystery and myth surround the life and death of ex-con, essayist, novelist and Hollywood screenwriter, Robert Tasker. What one knows about him derives primarily from a handful of books. The first, Grimhaven is by Tasker himself. Though based on the author’s experiences in San Quentin where he was incarcerated on a five-to-twenty-five year sentence for armed robbery, Grimhaven barely mentions the author’s pre-prison life. For those years comprise another narrative, one that Tasker, who was born in North Dakota in 1903 and raised in Canada and Portland, Oregon, preferred to compartmentalise. Following Grimhaven’s publication and the author’s release from prison in 1929, Tasker moved to Hollywood where, for some fifteen years, he pursued a career as a moderately successful scriptwriter and sometime actor. With Grimhaven helping expose prison conditions during the 1920s, Tasker’s life should have been the stuff from which Hollywood legends are made. Yet his name and brief cinema presence has all but been erased from literary and Hollywood history.

Another book that deals with Tasker’s fascinating life is John Bright’s novel It’s Cleaner on the Inside. For better part of a decade, Bright and Tasker were not only friends, but a screenwriting team. Consequently, Bright was an appropriate person to write a novel based on Tasker’s life. Published by Neville Spearman in England in 1961- sadly, it was never to find an American publisher- it’s Cleaner on the Inside begins with Tasker’s ill-fated robbery and moves back in time, to the Tasker-like Peter Jameson’s childhood in the Pacific Northwest. While the similarities between Tasker and Jameson are plentiful, the reader should be warned against relying on Bright’s novel as purely biographical.

A third book relevant to Tasker’s life is Stealing Through Life by friend and fellow San Quentin inmate- though he could also be found at neighbouring Folsom Prison- Ernest Booth. Arguably the more literary of the three books, this account of Booth’s life of crime is of interest because Tasker writes at some length in Grimhaven about their friendship while in San Quentin. Finding themselves in similar circumstances, and with similar literary interests, they struck a bargain: Tasker promised to only write about life on the inside, while Booth would devote himself to writing about life outside their prison walls.

Dissimilar though they might be, these three books challenge the orthodoxy of American cultural and political life during the 1920s and 1930s. Moreover, they add to one’s understanding of Hollywood as a place of possibility, where renegades such as Tasker and Booth, or the politically subversive John Bright, could be co-opted and deemed important to the creation of Tinseltown’s extravagant dream machine.

One could add to these books the work of another jailbird writer, Jim Tully. Today Tully’s writing, like that of Tasker, Booth and Bright, has been largely forgotten, yet, in its day, it was widely read and influential. Such was his talent that, when it came to hardboiled prose, Charles Willeford always considered Tully the equal of Dashiell Hammett. Even though Tully did not do much writing for the screen, he certainly wrote a great deal about Hollywood. In fact, during the 1930s, his pen was considered something akin to a lethal weapon. Prior to that, Tully was known for autobiographical books about hoboes, circus life, and boxing. One of the few directors to adapt his work was William Wellman whose Beggars of Life, starring Wallace Beery with Louise Brooks playing a young girl who murders her sexually abusive guardian, was based on Tully’s 1924 book of the same time. Tully would receive a writing credit for the movie. His only other credits would be for Lew Landers’ Poe-inspired The Raven (1935) starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and for Edward L. Cahn Laughter in Hell (1933), starring Pat O’Brien, which was also based on a Tully novel of the same name.

In Grimhaven, Tasker mentions Tully’s visit to San Quentin where, besides Tasker, he interviewed Johnny the Flying Tramp, the boxer Kid McCoy, Paul Kelly, and the renown Tom Mooney. Of these latter names, we know that ex-middleweight boxing champion Kid McCoy was, at that point, serving time for murder, while Mooney was inside for allegedly throwing a bomb into a 1916 San Francisco parade in support of America’s entry into WW1. Mooney was a cause celebre amongst the Hollywood left, who launched a well-publicised campaign to free him. However, the most recognised name at the time was Paul Kelly, who, two years earlier, had been the subject of a major Hollywood scandal. An actor whose speciality was playing cops and criminals, Kelly had been convicted for killing fellow-actor Ray Raymond in a fight over actress Dorothy MacKaye. Though MacKaye had been married to Raymond, she later testified in Kelly’s favour, and even hired a doctor to claim her husband had died of natural causes. Charged with manslaughter, Kelly would spend only two years in San Quentin, subsequently appearing in such films as The File on Thelma Jordan, Springfield Rifle, and The High and the Mighty.

Tully used these interviews in his article, “A California Holiday.” However, interviewing these characters was not his main reason for travelling up the coast to San Quentin. For Tully was there to witness an execution, which would make this one of the most moving essays ever written regarding the barbarity of capital punishment. At one time Charlie Chaplin’s press agent, Tully, who, in his youth, had spent five years behind bars, describes Tasker, at the time, as “twenty-four, tall, good-looking, a sheik type for society girls and stenographers, with black hair carefully combed, doing five to twenty-five years for holding up a crowded dance hall.”

Tasker only began writing while incarcerated, contributing and editing the prison journal, the San Quentin Bulletin. It was during this time that he began corresponding with H.L. Mencken. In one of his first letters to Mencken, Tasker wrote, “I graduated from high school in Portland in 1921. One year later I'm in California, go through a bad patch, buy a gun -- there you have it. I'm now serving a five-to-life sentence in San Quentin for armed robbery… Don't hesitate to call me whatever you want: thief, hood, knockover artist. It's all the same to me. As to where I'm from, I can't really say -- except maybe from here." Mencken, in 1927, published Tasker’s “First Day,” and “A Man is Hanged” in his American Mercury. They would ultimately appear in Grimhaven, which Tasker, in that same year, and to avoid the prison authorities censoring his work, had to smuggle out of his cell. The final paragraph of this autobiographical novel gives a further clue regarding Tasker’s state of mind: “And here in the midst of it I am. I have no certain fault, and I have no certain virtue. My ignorance is neither little nor great. I am neither fortunate nor unfortunate. I would seem to be a bit of a mechanism, responding to certain mechanical impulses, reacting in a mechanical way. I have no certain knowledge at all, except that I am, and that I am here.” On Mencken’s recommendation, Knopf published the book in 1931.

As a thief, Tasker was not so much inept as hell-bent on self-destruction. He had been convicted of robbing patrons at Sauer’s Dance Parlor in Oakland, California, a crime committed less for the money than to embarrass his father, a conservative banker with a puritanical outlook on life. If one is to believe Bright’s fictional account, Tasker’s mother, a preacher’s daughter, killed herself while Robert was still a teenager. Though this might be fanciful on Bright’s part, it has a more accurate ring to it than his claim that his Tasker-like character worked as a bellboy in a San Francisco hotel, where he ran errands for the comedian Fatty Arbuckle up to, and including, the night he allegedly raped and killed Virginia Rappe.

However fanciful Bright’s portrayal, his description of Tasker’s crime is, by all accounts, accurate. On St. Valentine’s Day, 1924, a twenty-three year old Tasker walked into Sauer’s Dance Parlor and mounted the bandstand where Les Hite’s band was playing. Good-looking enough to be mistaken for the band’s master of ceremonies or recently acquired white crooner, he commandeered the microphone, reached into his jacket pocket and produced a revolver. He waved the gun from one side of the dance hall to the other, telling everyone to put whatever paper money they had into a tablecloth that he had provided for the occasion, after which he turned to the band and, in words that, according to Bright, “became astonished gossip in Pacific Coast Harlem for years,” said, “I’m skipping you folks. Coloured people get pushed around enough. Keep your money.” The police had little trouble catching Tasker, who was found sitting on the steps of the dance hall smoking a cigarette, the bulging tablecloth at his side. When a police officer grabbed the gun, he saw that Tasker hadn’t bothered to put bullets in it.

Because it was an era when an assortment of rich young men, like the notorious Leopold and Loeb, were committing “thrill” crimes of supposedly Nietzschian proportions to spite conservative father figures, Tasker was given the stiffest of sentences. The judge did not hide the fact that he was handing out a harsh sentence as a warning to other young men. While in prison, Tasker mellowed somewhat; he even asked Mencken to send the check for an article in American Mercury to his father. “I’m rather fond of the old chap,” said Tasker. Though one could interpret Tasker’s apparent generosity in various ways: perhaps it was to tell his father that literary success was just around the corner; maybe he was trying to pay back money he had stolen from him; or it could even be that he simply meant the gesture as an insult.

Whichever, it looked like Tasker might be on the road to a limited kind of literary notoriety. At the time, thanks to the likes of the crusading Mencken, jailbird writing had become a small growth industry. During Tasker’s tenure in San Quentin at least a dozen inmates were trying to publish their work in periodicals on the outside, while a prison writing competition, organised by Tasker, attracted over 400 entrants. Writing had become so popular amongst inmates that the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, in 1930, issued an edict forbidding Tasker and fellow-inmates from sending their work to magazines and newspapers outside the prison walls. “We are not literary agents,” said Judge C.E. McLaughlin, adding that prison officials did not have time to comb through each manuscript in search of objectionable material. Eight years after it was begun, the San Quentin Bulletin was terminated, said by prison authorities to be catering more to the outside world than to inmates.

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.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Tabloid Noir: Samuel Fuller’s Films and Fiction

Part 1

“A film is like a battleground. There’s love, hate, action, violence and death. In one word: emotions.” Sam Fuller in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou.

Though best known for his violent, tabloid-oriented genre films- quickly-made, low-budget affairs that he often produced, directed and wrote himself- Samuel Fuller was also a proficient, if underrated, noir novelist. He penned at least six books, of which three- The Dark Page, aka Murder Makes a Deadline, Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street and The Naked Kiss- are firmly in the tradition of pulp noir fiction. These were, for the most part, novelisations of his films; in effect, director’s cuts or films that Fuller would have made had he the freedom and resources to do so. He apparently wrote other novels as well, but did so under pseudonyms for various lending-library publishers, which means they have proved virtually untraceable.

A compulsive story-teller, and a throwback to individualist directors like “Wild Bill” Wellman and Budd Boetticher, Fuller moved from Poverty Row to the margins of mainstream studios and, finally, European companies. Flitting between film and fiction, Fuller, during the 1950s and 1960s, directed seventeen action-packed films. Along with Phil Karlson, he virtually invented the genre of tabloid-noir, a tradition that has all but disappeared in films (though early Spike Lee might once have been thought as an inheritor of Fuller’s headline-grabbing style), but is perhaps best kept alive in fiction through writers like James Ellroy and Andrew Vacchs. In connecting the tradition of pulp fiction with that of film noir, Fuller has influenced a generation of street-wise film-makers, from Jim Jarmusch to Quentin Tarantino.

Born in 1912 in Worcester, Massachusetts, Fuller grew up with ink running in his veins. Granted, in those days there was still an aura of romance surrounding the the newspaper business. So Fuller, as a boy, didn’t mind trekking to Park Row to pick up his papers and hawking them on the Brooklyn Bridge. He later celebrated that street and the early days of journalism in Park Row (1952), a film that painstakingly recreates the setting and the era, and which contains one of cinema’s most complex tracking shots, which not only changes speed and angles but integrates background and foreground, moving between history and hearsay, as the industry, at the end of the nineteenth century, prepares to be subsumed by acquisitive capitalists and their corporations.

After his father died, an eleven year old Sam landed a job as a copy boy at the New York Journal for $15 a week. By the time he was seventeen, Fuller, in the midst of the Depression, would still be working for the Journal, making $50 a week. At the time, most of young Sam’s salary went to his bohemian mother who, as well as raising seven young children, was carrying on a relationship with the notorious Greenwich Village poet Maxwell Bodenheim, who would be commemorated in Fuller’s film Shock Corridor. Not only did Fuller’s mother cavort with Bodenheim but she was known to invite visiting Bolshevik poets, whom she would meet and argue with from atop a Union Square soap-box, back to her apartment for a glass of wine or a meal.

Barely eighteen, Fuller became the police reporter for the New York Evening Graphic, which he described as “the finest newspaper I have ever known.” A veritable scandal sheet, the Graphic, during the roaring twenties, set out to imitate the New York Daily News, which is to say it specialised in sensational stories about sordid love, gangland crimes and murder. But it also attracted a number of quality journalists and future film people. Amongst those who worked alongside Fuller were Walter Winchell, Ed Sullivan, Mark Hellinger, Jerry Wald and John Huston. The Graphic also published several of Fuller’s cartoons. It was there that Fuller met and worked with John Huston’s mother, Rhea Jaure, one of the city’s most formidable crime reporters. Huston would later tease him, saying Fuller had spent more time with his mother than he, Huston, had.

In spite of Prohibition, a teenaged Fuller had already become a hard- drinking journalist, having entered his first speakeasy at the age of fifteen with Ring Lardner, Gene Fowler (Gene Fowler Jr. would become Fuller’s film editor on Run of the Arrow and Forty Guns) and Bill Farnsworth, all older and more knowledgeable concerning the ways of the world. Fuller’s first speakeasy was owned by Lew Walters, father of the well known media-journalist Barbara Walters, and, like the setting for an early gangster movie or Black Mask story, catered for reporters, publishers, stockbrokers, bootleggers, detectives and beautiful blondes.

It was while working at the Graphic that Fuller learned the art of constructing a good headline. He would later translate that knowledge to film-making, using in-your-face close-ups to serve a similar function. Never losing his passion for headlines, Fuller, in his films and his novels, was able to deliver his own cocktail of hard facts and creative exaggeration. In Adam Simon’s film about Fuller, The Typewriter, The Rifle and the Movie Camera, Fuller and actor-director Tim Robbins stroll through the Rodin Museum in Paris, stopping before Rodin’s sculpture of Balzac, whereupon Fuller launches into the hook of his never-to-be-realised film biography of the French writer, declaiming, “He was a scoundrel. He was a liar. He was a bullshit artist. He was a wrrrriterr!” Cut to a photograph of a more youthful Fuller standing beneath a Paris street sign that reads rue de Balzac.

In the company of older journalists, Fuller frequented the Alquonquin Hotel, where, in the Pergola Room, he would hold forth with such Roundtable luminaries as Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Heywood Broun and Charles MacArthur. Despite their contempt for Tinseltown philistinism, a number of those writers would eventually find themselves employed by Hollywood studios. Fuller was particularly fond of Dorothy Parker, and liked to recall the time she asked him for his name and address which she wrote on the hem of her dress. In his essay, New York in the 1930s, Fuller rues the fact that, for all her talent, Parker came to a sad end, dying in a shabby New York hotel, having sold her Picasso to pay her debtors. Yet he points out that what money she had left was bequeathed to Martin Luther King Jr.

After working for the San Diego Sun, Fuller hoboed through America, an experience that inspired him to write his first stories. By 1931, Fuller had quit journalism to become a writer, ghosting at least three novels: Burn Baby Burn, about a pregnant woman condemned to death (1935); the self-explanatory and prophetic Test Tube Baby (1936); and the nicely titled Make Up and Kiss (1938), about the world of beauty products. Novels under his own name would come later: The Dark Page (1944), The Naked Kiss (1964), Crown of India (1966), 144 Piccadilly (1971), Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (1974), The Big Red One (1980)- the latter two would be filmed by Fuller- Battle Royal (1984) and Quint’s World (1988).

After the publication of Make Up and Kiss, Fuller launched his Hollywood career with scripts for Harry Lachman’s Hat’s Off (1937) and It Happened in Hollywood (1937). The latter concerned a silent-movie cowboy star’s problems adjusting to the talkies. He is also credited with the story for James Cruze’s Gangs of New York (1938)- some fifty years before Scorsese’s film- in which the protagonist impersonates a gangster so he can infiltrate the organisation, as well as Adventures in the Sahara (1938) and Federal Man Hunt (1938). He would go on to work on scripts for Bowery Boy (1941), Confirm or Deny (1941) and Power of the Press (1942).

During World War Two, Fuller joined the armed forces and fought with the seventh regiment of the first infantry division- experiences recounted in The Big Red One- participating in the Italy, Normandy and North African campaigns, for which he received the Bronze Star, the Silver Star and the Purple Heart. It was at this time that he observed various combat cameramen, and was even able to do some war photography himself. It was enough to whet Fuller’s appetite for documentary realism, which he would later work into his films. While serving overseas Fuller discovered his novel The Dark Page had been published in the U.S.. If one is to believe The Big Red One, Fuller realised the book- which, in the film and novel is entitled The Dark Deadline- had been published only when, between skirmishes, he found another soldier reading it. In The Big Red One, Fuller gives the reader an insight into soldiering, wartime publishing- “Actually, he was surprised that the armed forces edition had come out before he had received a copy of the hard-cover”- the culture produced by the war, and Fuller’s subsequent career: “When he finished [the novel] he couldn’t help but think of his life before the war...Looking back was not pleasant. He had no interest in reliving the past or reproducing any moment of it. He was aware that nostalgia was more than homesickness: it was a cop-out. After the war the survivors would look back at those good old days in the First Division and over beer and pretzels the horrors they had lived through would be replaced by a memory. Commandos and adventure. The whole fucking war would be reduced to a myth.”

Four years after the war, Lippert Productions offered Fuller a chance to direct a low-budget western. Fuller responded with the Wellman-influenced I Shot Jesse James (“As far as noir goes, my darkest film from that era.”). He had wanted to make a movie about Cassius and the murder of Julius Caesar, but producer Robert Lippert refused to finance a film about “men in bedsheets.” Arguably the best of many films concerning Jesse James, Fuller’s movie impressed, amongst others, a young Martin Scorsese. It’s easy to see why. The film must certainly have appealed to the director’s incipient interest in gangs and male bonding that would come to the surface in films from Mean Streets to GoodFellas and Gangs of New York. Not to mention his concern, as demonstrated in films like The Last Temptation of Christ and Raging Bull, for the despised antagonist. In I Shot Jesse James, Fuller, never content with the obvious, focuses his attention on Jesse’s killer Robert Ford (leaving out what, according to Sam, was the outlaw’s most intriguing quality: his youthful transvestitism). Made in a mere ten days, this eccentric, psychological anti-western relies, for economic as much as aesthetic reasons, on close-ups. Another case of necessity being the mother of invention. For, upon seeing the film, critic Andrew Sarris wrote that Fuller’s use of such shots creates “an oppressive intensity the cinema had not experienced since Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc.”

I Shot Jesse James would be the first of twenty-nine films directed by Fuller. Exploiting his past, Fuller would devote one film and one novel to the world of newspapers; as an ex-crime reporter, at least four of his novels and four of his films would be melodramatic thrillers; and as a former soldier, he would make six war movies and write one war novel. Films as various as Pick Up on South Street, The Bamboo Curtain, Shock Corridor, Street of No Return, Park Row, Run of the Arrow, Forty Guns, Underworld USA, and White Dog all demonstrate a style, derived from the director’s nose for news, his uncompromising perspective and his long-held libertarian politics.

Fuller would also make numerous contributions to films as an actor, usually cast in the role of a seen-it-all, done-it-all, street-wise film person or underworld personality. Chomping on his famous cigar, he invariably comes across as a rough-edged John Huston, or a renaissance man imprisoned in the body of a tabloid reporter. In a scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, Fuller explains in his famous growl that his films are a battlefield: “Love, hate, action, death- in a word, emotion!” For Fuller’s films, populated with scramblers, hustlers, losers and secondrate power-brokers, offer a bleak view of the world. If they could be boiled down to one overriding theme it would be that crime and corruption are an integral part of American society. Fuller’s notion that America is a irrevocably damaged society is most forcefully articulated in Shock Corridor, in which the the madhouse becomes a microcosm of the culture. Once inside, escape is all but impossible.

Indeed, in Fuller’s world, people use whatever is at their disposal- blackmail, double-cross, intimidation, murder- to achieve their goals. No wonder that Fuller’s psychotic characters are hostile to organisations, bureaucracies and governments. This political unease is mirrored by the cinematography, in which the camera refuses to rest until the story is told. This, like the tabloid dialogue spoken by his characters, is another sign that Fuller’s weaknesses and strengths are often one and the same. Self-conscious, contrived and vulgar he may be, but Fuller is a true original, relying on images that look as though they might have been pulled from the photo morgue of any big city newspaper. Who can forget the prostitute’s fight with her pimp in the opening scene of The Naked Kiss? Or the opening page of his novel, The Big Red One, which begins with an epigram that could be mistaken for a headline: “WAR DISTURBS SEX.” Following the headline comes the first sentence, which could easily serve as a caption describing a photograph: “The shell-shocked horse ran toward the statue of Christ.”

From 1949 until the last years of his life, Fuller also contributed a number of scripts to projects other than his own. In 1951, he provided an original screenplay for John Cromwell’s The Racket for RKO, which, other than the script, was a remake of Lewis Milestone’s 1928 film of the same name. Both films were produced by Howard Hughes, who now had a favourable opinion of Cromwell, despite the latter having turned down the chance to direct I Married a Communist (Hughes’s litmus test for suspected subversives). Fuller envisioned the project- police break up the empire of powerful mobster- not simply as a prohibition period piece, which was how Cromwell and Hughes viewed it, but as a comment on post-World War Two society. After reading Fuller’s script, Cromwell and Hughes realised a film about the underworld might have commercial potential. So they quickly hired writer William Haines to make Fuller’s script more to their liking, followed by veteran W.R. Burnett- one of Hughes’s favourites and a safe bet when it came to the subject of gangsters- for the final rewrite. Ironical, when one considers the politics of the producer, that Cromwell’s film has been judged by (Silver and Ward, The Encyclopedia of Film Noir) to be politically more sophisticated than The Asphalt Jungle, which it resembles. This, to some extent, is Fuller’s doing, for he was able to give the film a modern touch, tacitly placing it in a more sensitive, time and place.

The following year, Phil Karlson adapted Fuller’s novel Dark Page for the screen, retitling it Scandal Sheet (Columbia, 1952). Fuller later admitted that he had attempted to keep too much of the book in his script. Nevertheless, he told Porfirio and Ursini that “seeing how others directed my scripts before making my first picture was a good learning experience.” Bearing a passing resemblance to Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock, which had hit the screens four years earlier, though the book had been published three years after Fuller’s novel, Dark Page concerns a managing editor who accidentally kills his mistress. The editor, partly as an act of bravado, partly as a game, and partly for reasons of professional integrity, assigns his best reporter to cover the case. As a result, the editor, to avoid discovery, must commit further murders. Naturally, circulation grows as the Lonelyheart Murders are reported with increasing cynicism in the press. The combination of Fuller and Karlson is an interesting one. For the two directors had similar, but slightly different, perspectives. While both believed the status quo was turning the American dream into a nightmare, Karlson liked to look back with nostalgia to a time when America was, as far as he was concerned, a decent country. However, Fuller, vitriolic when it came to bourgeois hypocrisy, viewed corruption as endemic and society as constantly at war with itself. And war, as Fuller would say, is just another name for “organised lunacy.”