Film noir? A forceful, primitive directing style? A big, smelly cigar?
It certainly wouldn’t be sensitivity, feminism or ha-ha funny.
But according to Christa Lang Fuller, married to the legendary writer, producer and director from 1967 to his death in 1997, he was a man sensitive to many issues, and a true feminist who was quite funny and harbored a strong desire to make a comedy.
“Sam always asks questions in his movies,” says Lang, an actress who was 30 years his junior, from her Los Angeles base. “He was as American as apple pie and (director) Curtis Hansen (L.A. Confidential) says Sam wrote about characters with a great appetite. He wanted to know: Do these men become criminals? Do they live their dreams? He was a very ethical man. I could see why Europeans liked him. This was all so interesting from a man who talked rough and tough.
“And in almost every one of his movies, a woman saves a man…in Run of the Arrow, Pickup on South Street, even Forty Guns.”
Evidence of Fuller’s thrilling and surprisingly complex work can be found in The Samuel Fuller Collection, a new seven-disc set from Sony. Here one can trace Fuller’s career from his earliest days breaking into the film business as a screenwriter to his work as a contract director for Columbia Studios. It’s a wide-ranging compendium that mixes more well-known efforts like the knockout revenge drama Underworld USA (1961), in which Cliff Robertson turns into a criminal hot-shot to seek revenge for his father’s death, with obscurities like the foreign legion saga Adventure in Sahara (1938), based on an early screen story, and Shockproof (1949), a nifty noir that teamed the burgeoning screenwriter Fuller with helmer Douglas Sirk before the latter’s melodramatic heyday at Universal. Sprinkled in for good measure are such goodies as the dandy Fuller-penned newspaper saga Scandal Sheet (1952), helmed by Phil Karlson, and 1959’s The Crimson Kimono, examining previously verboten interracial issues amidst seedy noirish surroundings in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo.
His movies—as well as some of the featurettes on the set which showcase the likes of Fullerphiles Hansen, Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders and Tim Robbins—offer glimpses into Samuel Fuller soul as well as Fuller the filmmaker.
“All of his films are like mosaics of Sam’s personality, his beliefs and his spirit,” says Lang, who helped fashion the filmmaker’s acclaimed 2002 autobiography A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Frighting and Filmmaking after his death five years before it was published. “He could project himself into his characters. His movies always talk about the quest for the truth and that is what Sam was always looking for. And he and his friend John Huston always loved a good story and could always tell one. He was like Mark Twain. If he had lived to be 100, he would not have run out of stories.”
And it seems there are no shortages of stories about the diverse facets of Fuller’s fabled life either, whether they concern his coming-of-age at a New York City tabloid newspaper, his pulp fiction writing, his daring WWII Adventures (chronicled in the book and movie The Big Red One); or his directing and occasional acting career in and out of Hollywood.
And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Of course, there are the movies. Along with the works from Columbia offered in The Samuel Fuller Collection, Fuller worked for Fox, where he had a seven picture deal with producer Daryl F. Zanuck. There he delivered Pickup on South Street, a 1953 Cold War noir masterpiece with Richard Widmark as a pickpocket who accidentally swipes top-secret microfilm from the wallet of a woman (Jean Peters). Other movies like The Naked Kiss (1964), about a prostitute who tries to go straight in a small town, and Shock Corridor (1963), in which a reporter goes undercover in a mental hospital, were controversial indies, dealing with issues of race, sex, social conditions and discrimination while the studios often looked the other way. Meanwhile, war pictures like China Gate (1957) and The Steel Helmet (1951) surveyed human behavior at wartime while posing the questions “Why (Should) We Fight?” in Korea and Vietnam?
Wrote Foster Hirsch, in his acclaimed 1981 book about film noir The Dark Side of the Screen: Everything that Fuller touched, whether it was a war story or a western or a deep-sea adventure, he stamped with his own unmistakable signature, with a raw energy that animates his crude reactionary themes. It is not possible to talk of Fuller’s career in terms of progression or decline because his cranky, kinetic style is as apparent in his first film, I Shot Jesse James (1949), as in one of his most recent, the vividly-titled Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (1975). Fuller is a law unto himself, Hollywood’s great primitive, whose film noirs, true to form, are not quite the same as anyone else’s.”
Then there is White Dog, Fuller’s 1982 drama based on Romain Gary’s novel and starring Kristy McNichol and Paul Winfield in which a dog taught to attack black people. The film’s distributor Paramount pulled the plug on it and kept it on the shelf for years for fear of racism charges. It recently surfaced on DVD as a deluxe Criterion Collection release as did a collection of early efforts in a set called The First Films of Samuel Fuller.
The White Dog saga is well chronicled on the DVD release, to which Christa Lang Fuller contributed.
“If Steven Spielberg would have done White Dog they he would have done it as Paws and it would have been a big release,” she jokes. “He was 30 years ahead of his time. In 1981, he received a Brandeis Award with I.M. Pei and Edward Albee. In 1982, White Dog is judged inappropriate. He said this is ridiculous. His career was on the upswing with The Big Red One.”
“He was deeply hurt when he would do a film like White Dog which was so blatantly against racism. Paramount was going to do it with Roman Polanski and Arthur Penn at first. Sam thought racism was one of the worse things in humanity. Like In The Steel Helmet—which in 1951 would have dialogue with a black doctor who talks intelligently and a character asks him ‘How come you are fighting for a country that won’t let you ride on a bus?’– Sam ended up on the s**t list of J. Edgar Hoover. And he was a war hero!”
After the White Dog debacle, the Fullers moved to Europe, a homecoming for Christa, who met Sam in France when she was an aspiring actress.
“He told me ‘It is against my religion to touch actresses,’ Fuller recalls. “Bette Davis was crazy about him. He had a sincerity, a certain honesty that I never met in anybody. I was 22, he was 54 and he told me ‘Ten years from now, I will be an old fart’ instead of selling himself. I was doing a play and I had just seen Shock Corridor but I wasn’t aware of his work. I couldn’t believe the picture and called a girlfriend who had been Miss South America. She was from Ecuador.
“She said I just met Samuel Fuller but I don’t speak English so do you want to come along? He was so genuine and was such a great storyteller. And I spoke English and I was reading a book by Ring Lardner. Sam had these twinkling golden eyes. He was very funny and something so genuine and there was something truthful about him even though he was intense and so original. He offered to get me to get me the Ring Lardner book in English. Then he invited me to dinner and we had a big connection.”
One thing Christa Lang Fuller discovered upon meeting her future husband was his uniqueness and view of America, which never waned even after he and Christa found themselves back in Europe after the rocky patch in the film business in the States.
“Sam was always ahead of his time,” she says. “The way he structured films and length of his takes and the power he brought to characters. The French really picked up on that. But he also loved America and even when we met in the 1960s saw it as an ethnically diverse country which presented big challenges.
“Sam thought that what makes America special is its diversity.”