Director Richard Fleischer had a paranoid career as a moviemaker. There was the Richard Fleischer who made all those overblown big studio special effect abominations like “Dr. Doolittle,” “Amityville 3-D,” “The Jazz Singer,” and “Fantastic Voyage.” Then there was the Richard Fleischer who made some of the tightest nifty crime thrillers like “The Boston Strangler,” “10 Rillington Street,” “Follow Me, Quietly,” “The Narrow Margin,” “The Clay Pigeon” and “Armored Car Robbery.” Fleischer was no auteur but he was a solid craftsman. Over the course of his career his output was erratic and his later years films like, “The Don is Dead” were generally poorly received and of deteriorating quality.
This review is part of the FOR THE LOVE OF FILM: THE FILM PRESERVATION BLOGATHON to benefit the film noir foundation who work for the restoration of decaying noir films. The blogathon runs from Feb. 14th through Feb. 21st. For more information on how you can help by donating please check out our blogathon hosts, The Self Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films.
Here is a link to the organization’s facebook page.
Manipulation, exploitation, opportunism, and hard-boiled vile, shaken, mixed and slammed into your guts by Billy Wilder. “Ace in the Hole” (aka The Big Carnival) is a lurid, take no prisoners portrait of the news media delivering a knock down nasty assault on journalism and the morbid character of the blood leeching public. No one is spared. A film made more than fifty years ago, yet more relevant today than ever.
From the moment journalist Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) arrives in Albuquerque in his broken down vehicle to the final shot of him falling down dead, his face inches from the camera, Wilder creates a rare work that scorches the celluloid it was made on. A disaster at the box office when first released, the film was a hit overseas in Europe where critics liked it for Wilder’s attack on American ethics, even winning the International Award at the Venice Film Festival. Wilder was stung by the bad reviews and poor box office and retreated over the next several years, sticking to adaptations of plays and novels. It was not until 1959 with “Some Like it Hot” that he would do another original screenplay. Critics in the U.S. must have taken the attack personally which may account for the hostile reviews. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Wilder has let imagination so fully take command of his yarn that it presents not only a distortion of journalistic practice but something of a dramatic grotesque.” I guess Mr. Crowther could not take a joke, especially when the morbid joke is on his profession.
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.
Reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) gets himself committed to a mental institution in Sam Fuller’s 1963 film “Shock Corridor” to solve a murder and win a Pulitzer Prize. With the backing of Swanson, his newspaper editor and convincing his stripper girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) to pose as his sister and make a complaint to the police of sexual abuse (he likes to caress her braids) Johnny finds himself a patient at a mental institution. Inside the hospital, Johnny meets a collection of patients including a Korean War veteran who deserted to the communist side and now thinks his Jeb Stuart fighting at Gettysburg; a black man who is a white supremacist; a Doctor who act as if he is six years old and a host of others.
Barrett knows there were three witnesses to the murder and as he investigates, each one gives him a piece to the puzzle until the third witness finally supplies him with the name of the murderer. Problem is the longer Johnny stays in the hospital his own sanity is slowly deteriorating.
Fuller as usual is lurid and blunt about his statement, in this case, about man’s obsession to succeed and rising to the top. There is nothing subtle with Sam. He is so over the top yet you go along for the ride… Today the movie’s views on mental health are dated but there is nothing boring about this film.
Peter Breck, probably best know as Nick Bartley in the 1960’s TV western, “The Big Valley,” does a creditable job as Barrett, a man so possessed with getting a Pulitzer Prize or best selling book out of this story that he’s willing to sacrifice his girlfriend who perjures herself, and even risk his own sanity to succeed. Constance Towers is Cathy, Johnny’s stripper girlfriend is only okay and this may be more due to Fuller’s script than Ms. Towers acting ability. The real acting standout is Hari Rhoades as Trent the black white supremacist. Rhoades is funny, off beat, and powerful as he rants on about blacks, Catholics and Jews.
I like Sam Fuller, his film are always interesting never dull even if not always successful like here where he goes over the top too much. I am especially fond of “The Steel Helmet” which is one the best war films I ever seen and Pickup on South Street. Of the two films Fuller made for Allied Artists in the early 1960’s I always preferred The Naked Kiss, which was his next film, after Shock Corridor.