Sam Fuller’s background as a newspaper reporter is always evident in his films visual style. They always jump off the screen like the morning headlines. Fuller’s 1957 western begins exactly in that same fashion sucking you in right from its opening shot. A buckboard with three men, Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) and his two brothers, suddenly hear the sound of a thundering herd of horses. Before they know it they are surrounded by the film title’s forty guns, led by Barbara Stanwyck’s Jessica Drummond, all dressed in blackm riding a white stallion. One of Fuller’s visually unique shots puts the camera’s POV under the buckboard as the horses thundering hooves pound on by. Continue reading
Pickup on South Street is one of Sam Fuller’s few big studio films, and more importantly, one of his finest. Pickpocket pro Richard Widmark inadvertently becomes involved in stolen government secrets when he pickpockets the wrong woman, a tough talking Jean Peters. This is hard core noir mixed in with cold war paranoia. The film is filled with tough smart aleck talking guys and dames, no matter what side of the law they are on. Widmark is very good, but Thelma Ritter as Mo, the snitch, steals every scene she is in. Not a perfect film but damn near close. Continue reading
House of Bamboo (1955) Sam Fuller
The film is set in post war Japan, a time when there is still a strong American military presence. Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack) arrives in Tokyo looking to connect with his old army buddy Webber (Biff Elliot) who he learns from his Japanese wife has been killed. Upset over his friend’s death, though it seems more because he came all the way over from the states and his friend’s death has inconveniently left him twisting in the wind. To get by he attempts to muscle in on some protection rackets at a couple of pachinko parlors which only brings Eddie to the attention of Tokyo’s American crime-boss, Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan). After checking Eddie out with some inside sources Dawson invites the determined newcomer to join the gang (all made up of former G.I’s), soon becoming his right hand man much to the discontent of Griff (Cameron Mitchell). Dawson runs the gang and their heist like a military operation, though unlike the Marines whose motto is no man left behind, Dawson’s rule is if you’re wounded during a heist you are killed and then left behind. Continue reading
The first time I saw “Underworld U.S.A.” was back in 1961 at the Loew’s Oriental in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. I lived about six blocks away and Saturday afternoons I was a regular there, if not at the Loew’s I would be at one of the other two theaters that were close by. The film opened on the lower half of a twin bill, the top feature was “Mad Dog Coll”, another low budget cheapie released by Columbia. Continue reading
Censorship always seems to rear its ugly head. In 1982, Sam Fuller’s film “White Dog” was unjustifiably dumped from Paramount’s distribution after rumors spread that the film had a racist theme. In addition, pressure from special interest groups with threats of boycotts only confirmed the studio’s fears. Since that time, the film had only a few rare showings on cable stations. In 1991, “White Dog” at last had its New York premiere at the Film Forum.
The irony of it all is that the film’s theme is anti racism, though in typical Fuller fashion Sam is straight talking and blunt in his story line. The fear of corporations, in this case Paramount and the ignorance of pressure groups to blindly attack and suppress works that they have not even seen is as viciously discriminatory as that of what they supposedly are fighting against. Similar ignorance was in force against Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” when special interest groups protested and boycotted the film without even seeing it. With the release of the Criterion disc in 2008, “White Dog” finally had its day.
The genesis of the film is as interesting as the film itself. Originally, a magazine story in the late 1960’s written by author Romain Gary about a group of white supremists who trained dogs to attack black people. Later on, Gary would expand the story into an autobiographical novel called “Chien Blanc” which translates to “White Dog.” The novel focused on his life with his wife the actress activist Jean Seberg. In the novel, Gary and Seberg find a dog that is seemingly lovable but later they discover was trained to attack black people. The book’s under lying theme was one that examines racism and whether it is a learned response and if it is learned can it be unlearned. This also became the basis Fuller’s 1982 film.
At one point in time Roman Polanski was going to direct and later on Arthur Penn was even mentioned as possibly trying to bring the story to the screen. Still controversy raged, cold feet prevailed and the film continued to be delayed. Eventually, Sam Fuller was offered the job, and along with Curtis Hanson created a finished screenplay. To Fuller, “White Dog” was a real life horror story unlike some made up thriller with a giant shark that eats people.
As a filmmaker with a history of making anti-racist films (The Crimson Kimono, Shock Corridor, and The Steel Helmet) Fuller was one of the least likely artists to make a racist work. Paramount’s chicken livered fears along with special interest buried the film. In looking at “White Dog”, you see the work of a vibrant filmmaker (Fuller was about 68 at the time) in control of his art. It is a bold adventurous, disturbing film, a metaphor on how humans are trained to hate.
Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol) is driving down a dark highway one night in Los Angles and accidentally hits a stray dog who was crossing the highway. She takes the dog to a vet (the nurse is played by Fuller’s wife Christa Lang) and then takes the stray home putting up signs in her neighborhood in an attempt to find the owner. The dog is loveable and affectionate with Julie. With no owner coming forward, Julie keeps the dog.
One night an intruder breaks into Julie’s home and attempts to rape her, the dog viciously attacks the man freeing Julie to call the police. Soon after, Julie brings the dog to the studio where she is working, when the dog suddenly attacks a black female actress seriously injuring her. It gets worst as the dog’s rampage continues when he chases a well-dressed black man into a church, and though hidden from the camera by the pews, viciously attacks the man. We see the dog walk away with blood all over his white fur. Julie takes the dog to an animal camp call Noah’s Ark, run by two men, Carruthers (Burl Ives) and a black anthropologist named Keys (Paul Winfield). Keys is challenged to deprogram the dog from this learned behavior. The dog becomes fully dependent on Keys for food and all else. Slowly Keys begins to reprogram the dog, he exposes more and more of his black skin to the dog a little at a time. Meanwhile, the dog’s former owner has appeared at Julie’s place to claim the dog back. He is a grandfatherly type, seemingly a gentle man with two young grandchildren. Julie realizes this elderly outward looking mild man is a racist and responsible for the dog’s training. Julie verbally lashes out at him, telling the grandchildren not to listen to their grandfather who is full of vile thoughts and lies. She drives away leaving them with the grandfather screaming back at her. At the animal training center, Keys’ begins to make a break through as the white dog has come to depend on him. In the beginning Keys did his training all from behind the safety net of a cage but eventually as the dog responded, without protection. Has Keys been able to recondition the dog’s psyche, unleash his racist training? The ending, which I will not reveal is a pessimistic unsettling twist.
The film’s appeal, like in most Fuller films, is due to his visual style and his blunt seriousness in attacking a story. While the film starts with Julie and her new found dog as the storyline, Julie practically becomes a secondary character after about a third of the way into the film as Fuller’s focus turns to Keys determination to turn this dog around.
Paul Winfield’s performance is the acting highlight in the film, he gives Keys character depth and understanding. The cinematography of Bruce Surtee’s provides a lurid view of the dog’s world with Fuller’s camera focusing in extreme close ups at significant times in the story. Finally, the music soundtrack is by the well-known film composer Ennio Morricone and contributes to the sinister eccentricity of the film.
This is a revised version of a review originally written for Halo-17
He has been called guerrilla filmmaker, a primitive filmmaker and a tabloid filmmaker. Whatever title you want to label him with, Sam Fuller’s “The Steel Helmet” is a low budget masterpiece made for $100,000 in 10 days, and it may just be the most honest and brutal look at war ever put on film. Produced, directed and written (he used his own diaries as source material) by Fuller, “The Steel Helmet” is the story of a battle weary Sergeant known only as Zack the sole survivor in his unit massacred by the North Koreans. As portrayed by Gene Evans, a World War II veteran himself, Zack is cynical, bad-tempered and unemotional. The film opens with Fuller’s camera focusing in an extreme close-up of a bullet-ridden helmet. As the camera pulls back, we see the dirt filled face of an American soldier underneath. We not sure at first if he is alive or dead. He starts to crawl hoping to avoid any potential lingering enemies. Suddenly, we see a pair of legs in peasant pants with a rifle hanging down by his side. Like us, Zack is at first unsure who the legs and the gun belong to. Fortunately, they belong to a sympathetic young Korean orphan who will tag along with Zack as he tries to make his way back to safe territory. The kid is soon nicknamed Short –Round (Guess where Spielberg and Lucas borrowed the name for the young kid in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”).
The two make there way through the foggy terrain soon meeting up with a black American soldier, Corporal Thompson (James Edward), a medic, and escaped POW. Together they move on, eventually meeting up with a rag tag squad of American soldiers led by an arrogant, by the book, Second Lieutenant named Driscoll (Steve Brodie). Zack takes an instant dislike to the shake and bake officer. As a harden World War II veteran he resents Driscoll whose only credentials for being an officer are six months of training and an Act of Congress. When Driscoll ask Zack to lead his unit to a deserted Buddhist Temple, Zack refuses, telling them they’ll have to make it on their own. Zack does have his Achilles heel though, cigars. Offered a box of cigars, he reluctantly agrees to lead them. Once at the Temple, they set up an observation post, which they use to direct artillery attacks on the enemy. The North Koreans eventually zero in on where the American firepower is directed from and a vicious deadly battle takes place.
Fuller has filled the screen with brutal battle scenes presenting one of the harshest views of the realities of war. Bloody, horrific and deadly. The men are dirty and scared. There are no heroes and no cowards, just men trying to survive and survival is precarious. Fullers Americans are multi-cultural, from different backgrounds, filled with misfits and offbeat characters. From John Wayne’s patriotic war films to Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”, we have seen the unit composed of the misfit, the hotheaded kid, the kid from Brooklyn, the kid from the mid-west, the pacifist and so on. What makes “The Steel Helmet” unique is a coarse quality that filters throughout separating it from the others. This coarseness is apparent in most of Fuller’s works and probably due to his tabloid newspaper background.
Released while the Korean War was still going on, Fuller’s film, a financial hit, was no flag-waving piece of propaganda. The film pulls no punches in dealing with racial issues. In one scene, a captured North Korean Major tries to undermine Corporal Thompson, the black soldier, telling him he is fighting for America, yet back home he is forced to ride in the back of the bus. Later the major attempts similar type bait with a Japanese-American soldier who he tells is a fool fighting for America since during World War II many Japanese-American citizens were placed in internment camps. This stark honesty in dealing with racial issues was rare and shocking for its time, likewise was Fuller’s vision on the treatment of prisoners of war. When an enemy sniper kills Short Round, the young orphan, and the North Korean Major ridicules the boy’s death, Zack shoots and mortally wounds the POW. When Lieutenant Driscoll threatens Zack with a court-martial after the shooting, Zack grabs the dying North Korean being treated for his wounds by Corporal Thompson and yells at him “If you die, I’ll kill ya!”
Fuller’s tackling of sensitive issues like racial relations and the treatment of POW’s upset the U.S. Government to such a point the he was put under investigation, even though he served in the First Infantry Division (The Big Red One) during World War II seeing action in North Africa, Sicily and Omaha Beach on D-Day. Politically, Fuller’s film upset both the left and the right each side accusing him of favoring the other. Despite all this, “The Steel Helmet” was a big hit at the box office.
Gene Evans, in his first starring role, gives an extraordinary performance as the tough, cold, cynical loner who does not let his emotions cloud his survivor instincts. He survives because he shows no mercy and his only interest is in killing as many “gooks” as he can. Zack displays no political motivation, no discussion about whether war is right or wrong. This was Evans first role under Fuller’s direction. He would go on to make four more films with Sam, including “Park Row”, “Fixed Bayonets”, “Hell and High Water” and “Shock Corridor.” Also noteworthy is James Edwards who gives a great performance as the war fatigued black medic. “The Steel Helmet” was only Fuller’s third film as a director. This independent production, filmed partially in Los Angles Griffith Park was a financial success with film audiences making over two million dollars and bringing Fuller to the attention of Twentieth Century Fox.
In 1998, soon after the American Film Institute announced their Top 100 American films, “The Steel Helmet” was included in noted critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Alternate Top 100 American Films list. Rosenbaum compiled his list as an alternative to the “lackluster” listing provided by the staid and corporate minded AFI. If you are interested in Sam Fuller and his work, a wonderful documentary called “The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera” is certainly worth seeking out.
Sam Fuller’s first directorial effort was “I Shot Jesse James”, a fictional account of the outlaw life of Robert Ford. The film insinuates that Ford and Jesse were good friends for a long time, which they were not. Bob’s brother Charley was a member of the gang prior to Bob joining. As a young man, Bob admired Jesse and his criminal exploits, however by the end of 1881, the James gang had disintegrated, Frank James retired from a life of crime and many other members’ were dead, in prison, or they just took off fearing the law was closing in on them. Jessie had planned to retire from the life himself but wanted to do one more robbery. He was living in St Joseph Mo. with his wife and family under the name of Robert Howard. The Ford Brothers were also living in St Joseph under the assumed name of Johnson, posing as relatives of the Howard’s. Jesse’s last robbery was to be of the Platte City Bank. Unknown to Jesse, the Ford Brothers had agreed to accept a $10,000 reward for killing Jesse that was being offered by the Missouri Governor Thomas T. Crittenden. Ford was given ten days to kill Jesse and, in addition, would receive a full pardon. As portrayed in most films on Jesse James, Ford shot Jesse while he had his back turned standing on a stool straightening out a wall hanging. “I Shot Jesse James” uses some real life characters but pretty much fictionalizes how things really were. Preston Foster portrays a character named Kelley who becomes a sheriff and eventually shoots and kill Bob Ford. In real life, Kelley’s name was O’Kelley, and was an unsavory character and certainly never held a sheriff’s badge though he did kill Bob Ford. One day, using a shotgun he walked up to Ford and said “Hello Bob”, as Ford turned, he shot him. No one is sure why exactly he killed Ford though it has been said that Soapy Smith, another criminal may have convinced him he would be famous for killing Ford. In the film, Smith is portrayed as an old silver miner who takes Ford in with him and they strike it rich together. This is all pure fiction. Soapy was an organized gangster, a confidence man who ran saloons and built his own criminal empire.
All that said, Fuller gives us an alternate view of the Jesse James legend focusing on the “dirty little coward” Robert Ford. Fuller’s dark vision of Ford’s life is that of a man haunted by demons after the assassination. He is hunted by gunslingers who want be the man who kills the man who killed Jesse James. He fines himself haunted for his cowardly deed and is even unable to reenact the assassination on stage for money. He loses the girl that he loves who is repulsed by him since he killed Jesse in such a cowardly way. One of the most interesting scenes takes place in a bar when a troubadour enters singing “The Ballad of Jesse James” which includes the words “but that dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard has laid poor Jesse in his grave.” Unbeknown to him, Robert Ford is standing at the bar. When he recognizes Ford, he stops singing but Ford demands that he continues, listening to the words describing him as a traitor and a coward.
John Ireland, at thirty-five is a bit old to have played Robert Ford who was only twenty when he killed Jesse and thirty when he was murdered himself. The character of Kelley, portrayed by Preston Foster, is not clearly defined, and seems to appear wherever Ford travels. As mentioned, the film takes a different slant on the Jesse James legend. Where most films focus on Jesse, here the focus is on the aftermath of the shooting. Definitely, worth a look as long as you are not looking for a history lesson.