Pierrot le fou

Why Samuel Fuller?

Many people will associate Samuel Fuller less for any of his films than for his “guest appearance” in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou in 1965. Ferdinand Griffon (Jean-Paul Belmondo) runs into him at a Paris party and asks, “I’ve always wanted to know, what is cinema, exactly?”, and is told, in English, that, “A film is like a battleground. It’s love, hate, action, violence, death. In one word: emotion.”

The reply was quadrupally appropriate. First, because Fuller was a warrior. Fuller had fought World War II as a private in the US Army, in a division known as The Big Red One, in Algeria, Sicily, Omaha Beach, the battle of the Bulge and the Falkenau death camp.

Second, because Fuller was famous for talking in headlines. He had started selling newspapers in New York when he was 11 and, by 17, was a full-fledged crime reporter and cartoonist. And his films have the feel of tabloid journalism: a bizarre story; violence; and a terse, hard-hitting approach that emphasizes action and conflict.

Third, because no one better than Fuller epitomized the sort of unsung filmmaker that critics like Godard and François Truffaut had been championing in the 1950s, at the moment that the ‘heresies’ of the politique des auteurs and Hollywood-as-art were making their biggest impact. Fuller’s films were cheap. They exploited commercial genres. They made money and were despised – when they were noticed at all. But Fuller’s success gave him independence. He not only directed, he wrote and produced. He was the complete auteur. And his movies shouted out powerful emotions of pain and despair, of the absurdity of a world without God, of looking into the heart of darkness of the wreck of post-war civilization. Fuller was thus in many ways an inspiration behind the first films of the Nouvelle Vague.

Fourth, because Fuller’s public persona, with his gigantic cigar and in-your-face style, seemed deliberately provocative. His own image, together with the exploitative nature of his movies, deceived critics into overlooking the subtleties, the parodies, the riches, the art. Instead, Fuller has been famously denounced for crudity and illiteracy, and even advocates like Andrew Sarris retreated to trying to defend him as an “American primitive”.

Samuel Fuller (1912-97) was born Samuel Rabinovitch, in Worcester, Massachusetts. His parents were Jews from Russia and Poland. He was 11 when his father died and his mother moved with her seven children to New York. Fuller’s work as a crime reporter introduced him to the underworld, prisons and executions. And it taught him to write without adjectives. During the worst years of the Depression, he hit the rails, wandering around America like a vagabond, sleeping with bums, but with a typewriter tied to him and sending back stories all the while.

By 1936, he was in Hollywood writing scripts, but when war broke out he chose to fight as a simple infantryman, the lowest position in the Army, rather than one of the comfortable non-combatant positions available to a journalist. In 1980, he made The Big Red One as a six-hour chronicle of his war years, climaxing at Falkenau. The death camps were evoked frequently in his films, but as a crime against humanity, rather than a Jewish Holocaust. “The hypocrisy in these questions about Semitism and anti-Semitism is to talk about it as though it were a race”, he declared.

He made his first films for Robert Lippert, an independent producer of cheap fodder, by offering to direct his scripts for free. The films cost practically nothing as well, and The Steel Helmet (1951), a war film shot in two weeks for $100,000 grossed $6,000,000, and Fuller was swamped with offers from all the big studios. He put his own money into Park Row (1952), a story about New York newspapers in the 19th century, and lost it all. But for the next ten years he alternated successfully between projects for Fox and his own company, Globe Enterprises, and made two masterpieces that are almost recognized as such: Pickup on South Street (1953) and Run of the Arrow (1957).

A disastrous first marriage (parodied in Forty Guns, 1957) left him broke. Two of his weirdest films, Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964), on an insane asylum and a prostitute trying to be respectable, made money but somehow Fuller got almost none of it. For a time, his second wife supported them by working as a doctor’s receptionist. After Lorimar butchered The Big Red One and Paramount refused to release White Dog for fear of controversy, Fuller was obliged to seek work abroad.

* * *

For both Samuel Fuller and Roberto Rossellini, the defining experience was the Second World War. Their movies are about war and the problem of living after it. But Rossellini was a civilian victim, whereas Fuller was a soldier killing people.

So, Fuller called his first movie I Shot Jesse James (1949). Jesse James was a “cancer” that needed killing, like a Nazi, but the shooter cannot endure his own violent karma.

What excited me was having a murderer relive his crime. Then you could see that he wasn’t just sick, but conscious. He knew he was sick. […] It’s a psychological story.(1)

Whereas Rossellini’s movies see the post-war period as an opportunity to reconstruct a “new reality”, Fuller’s fixate on violent collisions in which self and world dissolve into emotions. Where is reality? “I really believe that it’s the world that make you what you are. It’s not you who make the world.”

We are programmed, but try to be heroes nevertheless, and Fuller’s camera looks up at us, isolated unhappily against the sky. There is pretence, too, that Truth is in front of us, that film shows it (“This is History!”, Fuller announces, often with dates written on the screen), and that Truth only needs good intentions (“The press is good or evil according to those who direct it”, Park Row tells us). “I saw film!”, a German boy exclaims, saying how he learned of the death camps, and Fuller, like Rossellini, dreamed of saving the world by filming the encyclopædia.

But history gives way to “the really real”, to timelessness, chiaroscuro, jutting angles and angular movements, Eisenstein-like montage and characters trapped as icons in incessant close-ups or, magically, in dream worlds that cut across time. The affliction of Kelly (Constance Towers) affliction in The Naked Kiss recalls that of Karin (Ingrid Bergman) in Rossellini’s Stromboli, terra di Dio (Stromboli, 1950).

Lights and shadows, walls and bars drown them in their own emotions, and a child’s voice saves them – a miracle in Rossellini, an accident in Fuller, where we slaughter each other while giant Buddhas look on. “Reality” is pain, textures, and fragments of awareness. A gunfight in Forty Guns is parsed into isolated body parts, which Robert Bresson will copy in Lancelot du lac (1974), having already modelled Pickpocket (1959) on Pickup on South Street, not only for its pickpocket who works the subways using a newspaper, but in the Dostoevsk1an fantasies of a would-be hero compulsively clever and self-deceiving, wherein fragmenting montage alternates with long-take claustrophobia in a desperation to escape consciousness and light and other people, or to embrace them.

Every Fuller movie is a crisis of energy – pacing, trekking, running – that confronts people with their death or, worse, their fate. Cowards blame circumstances, braves charge onward, yet the odysseys inspire few moral choices. Passions decide, not reason. People change when circumstances (or sex fantasies) change. Pleasure, desire, rage and fear belong to no morality but their own. Jekyll and Hyde are the same person. In Forty Guns, Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) cracks her whip, exploding across the plains, fucking her forty mounted guns; she gives up boots and spurs and crime and power simply because it feels good to submit to a strong man. She changes not by act of will, but by emotional release.

One thing I love about Freud. The idea of a man who experiments, who plays with the emotion of a mind. With something invisible.

Fuller makes it visible. The “cancer” in many “heroes” shows in popping eyes, arched brows, twisted mouths and clenched fists, as they assert their will, defy insecurity and stand against the sky. “Most of my characters are [anarchists]. At heart they’re against any system.” None of them will surrender – except Moe Williams (Thelma Ritter) in Pickup, who has lived enough to feel tired. The others never doubt. “I ran her down”, boasts a hero in Underworld U.S.A. (1961), reporting his murder of a little girl.

Yet, the few who survive discover it wasn’t their will at all, but something else pushing them. “It was all in my mind”, a detective marvels. They’re “sick”, says Fuller. They lose their minds just by living. The journalist in Shock Corridor is infected less by the “sick” in the asylum as by his own hubris. “I wanted to recall that the brain has its point of non-return.”

But if identity is fiction, where is character? If Fuller’s pictures tell us we have to write the end, is it because reason leads to insanity in a vicious circle?

There is almost no ordinary life in Fuller, just violence on the outskirts of society – except for White Dog, which has people like those I know. (2) But don’t underestimate a newspaperman: White Dog is not “dog bites man”, it’s “man bites dog” – three people who project onto a dog their deepest passions, like mad scientists oblivious to hubris.

Granddaddy oozes kindness, proud to have programmed a dog to kill blacks, whom he considers “sick”.

Keys (Paul Winfield), to the contrary, is a black anthropologist whose crusade to de-program the sick is so obstinate that he protects the dog from police after he lets it escape and kill a man. But Fuller’s colliding close-ups of eyes tell us Keys’ deeper motivation is power. “If I don’t break him, I’ll shoot him”, he swears, and he does break him, but then the dog attacks a white man who looks like Granddaddy, and Keys shoots it, because it is not violence he seeks to de-program, just racism. Like Granddaddy, Keys cannot recognize the Hyde in his Jekyll.

Julie Sawyer (Kristy McNichol), thirdly, is a 20-year-old actress. Apparently an irrelevance added to the movie as a frill, her erotic presence is at the core of Fuller’s world. Women are a source of violence in his neurotically male-centred cinema, because women seduce and reject. Usually they are amazons or sluts, amorally turned on by strength, and in a dozen films men slug them down hard. The beauty who inspires the shooting of Jesse James is disgusted not by the killer but by his guilt. The beauty in Forty Guns (a parody of Fuller’s first wife) also inspires a lover to kill, then, in Fuller’s words,

one day, she doesn’t want him any more. And you hear the sound of the pen. She’s making him out a check. She’s had fun with him in bed, now she has forgotten. He was only a prostitute for her. And he hangs himself.

Fuller’s women are white dogs. Like the beauty in The Naked Kiss, they change in a flash from nurse to murderer.

Julie, however, has no criminal mentality. Her love leads to disaster and death simply because she is a woman (like most Fuller women). She lives alone on a mountain, afraid of involvements (like most Fuller people), and the dog becomes a surrogate for her boyfriend, strong and savage. Her nipples erect, her long legs bare, Fuller’s cross-cutting shows her seducing dog and guy simultaneously,

White Dog

innocently awakening and denying desire (tussling with the dog for her underpants) both in herself and her rival suitors, until she nearly gets raped (by a stranger, surrogate for all males).

White Dog

From then on, she is clothed, protecting her killer dog, denying desire, until the end, when, hearing the dog is cured, she releases at last her life force and rushes fatally to it at her barest.

White Dog

But Granddaddy appears and Julie damns him as a “sick son of a bitch”. Like Keys and Granddaddy, Julie cannot recognize the mad scientist, the Hyde, in herself. How can we distinguish reason from desire?

The only sane thing, Fuller says, is to kill white dogs.

If I’d been alone with [Calley, the lieutenant commanding the My Lai massacre], I’d have killed him, and I would have gone to jail. That man is an example of what I call Evil, and the sole way to get rid of Evil is to eliminate it. No trial, no psychiatric exam.

But after we kill everyone, who’ll put us in prison? Fuller himself is part of a squad of white dogs in The Big Red One who kill as trained in seven countries, until the death camps, when they kill with rage. In The Naked Kiss, Kelly is another white dog, who goes from prison to pedestal for no other reason than that the victim of her rage was “sick”. We live in fantasies: how can we escape the vicious circle?

Fuller’s last four films, all French productions, no longer look for solutions. They flee into cynicism and indulgence. Always his Hollywood movies had profited from avant-garde techniques, but toward telling a story. And if some of his projects began as theses, they had ended up, like Shock Corridor, centred on individual personalities, as did the abstract montage during the gunfight in Forty Guns. In the last films, in contrast, experiment is for its own sake, characters are mannequins and all is farce, pedantically reflexive. Perhaps Fuller was influenced by Godard, who adored him for his silliest tricks, like sighting through a rifle barrel.

Perhaps his best movie is Run of the Arrow (1957): a story of longing, epic scenery and romantic music. Desire and violence are incarnated in some of the most beautiful erotic male nudes since the Renaissance – Indians, savage, strong and free. It starts “April 9, 1865” with the South’s surrender at Appomattox. The Civil War has ended. Lee (Frank Baker) tips his hat to Grant (Emile Avery), who returns the courtesy, and Lee’s horse shies slightly.

This we see from a distance, in fragments cut across time, too much detail, too much feeling to take in. It’s the defining moment in American mythology, its post-war solution. The killers’ gesture takes wing, projecting itself across a continent in one long release.

Run of the Arrow

Samuel Fuller filmography with author’s star ratings

1949   I Shot Jesse James ***
1950   The Baron of Arizona **
1951   The Steel Helmet ***
1951   Fixed Bayonets! **
1952   Park Row ***
1952   Pickup on South Street ****
1954   Hell and High Water *
1955   House of Bamboo **
1956   Run of the Arrow ****
1957   China Gate *
1957   Forty Guns ***
1959   Verboten! **
1959   The Crimson Kimono ***
1960   Underworld U.S.A. ***+
1962   Merrill’s Marauders **
1962   The Virginian: “It Tolls for Thee” *
1962   The Dick Powell Reynolds Aluminum Show: “330 Independence S.W.” -
1963   Shock Corridor ***
1964   The Naked Kiss ****
1966   The Iron Horse: “The Red Tornado” -
1966   The Iron Horse: “The Man from New Chicago” -
1966   The Iron Horse: “High Devil” -
1966   The Iron Horse: “Volcano Wagon” -
1966   The Iron Horse: “Hellcat” -
1966   The Iron Horse: “Banner with a Strange Device” -
1968   Shark! (Mexico°) *
1973   Tatort: Tote Taube in der Beethovenstraße (Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, Germany°) **
1980   The Big Red One (restored) **
1982   White Dog ****
1984   Les Voleurs de la nuit (Thieves after Dark, France°) *
1989   Street of No Return (France°)
1990   The Day of Reckoning (France°) *
1990   Tinikling ou ‘La madonne et le dragon’ (Tinikling or ‘The Madonna and the Dragon’, France°) *+

° Fuller, who spoke neither French, German or Spanish, shot in English and was responsible for only the English-language editions of these titles (although Thieves and Day are atrociously dubbed, post-synch).

Endnotes

  1. Citations from Jean Narboni and Noël Simsolo, Il était une fois…Samuel Fuller (Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma, 1986), pp. 136, 137, 137, 240, 250, 222, 241. I have retranslated back into English.
  2. Released finally on DVD in December 2008 by The Criterion Collection.