Tabloid Noir: Samuel Fuller’s Films and Fiction
“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.”