The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You! By Lisa Dombrowski.
The name of Samuel Fuller is probably not the first one most people will think of when considering directors whose lifework was highly influential. But Fuller was an American original of the slam-bang sort, as the somewhat-cleaned-up subtitle of Lisa Dombrowski’s book indicates. In The Steel Helmet, the 1951 film that Fuller wrote, produced and directed and from which the quotation comes, the character Sergeant Zack, played by Gene Evans, isn’t well-spoken enough to say “you.” What he grunts is something like “yuh.”
The Films of Samuel Fuller is the first scholarly treatment of the director’s work, and even if Fuller himself might have scoffed at the notion of there being anything “scholarly” in what he did, he would surely have appreciated the care with which Dombrowski – an associate professor of film at Wesleyan University – follows and dissects his career and gives his films all they are due and perhaps a bit more.
Fuller (1912-1997) has a very extensive
But Dombrowski is less concerned with writing another Fuller biography than with analyzing his films and preoccupations through the years, seeing what changed as the studio system tightened and then came apart, and finding the kernels of opinion and worldview that made Fuller unique. One such kernel is his treatment of war, which he refused to glorify. Back to The Steel Helmet: “Fuller grafted his own war experiences onto a generic foundation provided by the WWII combat film, participating in a redirection of the genre toward darker themes.” The film’s final declaration – “there is no end to this story” – is “superimposed over a shot of the bedraggled remains of the platoon [and] lacks any triumphant or redeeming element.” Fuller never lost sight of entertainment values, but he did push his audience from time to time, even including a mention of U.S. internment camps for Japanese citizens at a time when the camps were rarely discussed. Much later, in 1982, he made a film called White Dog about a murderous stray dog programmed from birth to attack black people – and went into a self-imposed 13-year exile when the movie was widely misinterpreted.
Dombrowski traces Fuller’s visions as they emerged and solidified during times she calls “The Lippert Years, 1948-1951,” “The Fox Years, 1951-1956,” and so on. For example, the brutality of war became the brutality of the Cold War in Pickup on South Street, in which a pickpocket accidentally steals government secrets from a Communist courier. But Fuller’s harder-edged dramas were not always his biggest successes. He did especially well with Hell and High Water (1954), which Dombrowski calls “Fuller’s most conventional film.” He did less well with House of Bamboo (1955),