May 22, 2008


The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You! By Lisa Dombrowski. Wesleyan University Press. $27.95.

      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 Hollywood biography, including work as a writer, producer, actor, cinematographer and production supervisor as well as director. He wrote an autobiography (A Third Face, 2002), was the subject of half a dozen biographies, and had four biographical or semi-autobiographical movies made about him: The Typewriter, the Rifle & the Movie Camera (1996); Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made (1994); Sam Fuller and the Big Red One (1979); and The Real Glory: Reconstructing 'The Big Red One' (2005). War movies were his specialty – The Big Red One (1980) earned Fuller a Golden Palm nomination, and was one of several Fuller films that included a couple of events that happened to the director himself during military service.

      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), Hollywood’s first film shot in Japan, even though, as Dombrowski says, it “represents the most nuanced blending of Fuller’s visual aesthetic with the classical stylistic conventions that governed the high-quality, A-picture output of the major studios.” Nor does Dombrowski simply make sweeping statements about the films – she backs her comments up with close analysis of scripts and individual scenes. She gives short shrift only to “The Final Battles, 1965-1997,” compressing 32 years of Fuller’s life into 32 pages. The problem for Fuller was that most of his projects remained unproduced during this time, since they tended to “ignore Hollywood’s emerging focus on the youth market and hew toward war, thriller, and biopic stories.” Still, Hollywood made quite a few war films and thrillers in this period, and Dombrowski’s failure to analyze the reasons for Fuller’s inability to get movies made is one of her few oversights. Yet he did make some movies even during this late-career period, and Dombrowski dissects them skillfully, especially when it comes to the intricacies and unusual visuals of Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (1970), made for a German TV series called Scene of the Crime. Dombrowski believes that Fuller still had it, whatever “it” was, although she is honest enough to say that the tone of Dead Pigeon confused many people, and it got only limited U.S. release. It is as hard to sum up Fuller’s career and contributions as it is to sum up Dombrowski’s book without reading the whole thing – which, for students of the art of filmmaking, seems like a very good thing to do.

No comments:

Post a Comment