Lisa Dombrowski’s The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You! is an important contribution to the growing scholarship on and broader cultural fascination with the work of the self-consciously iconoclastic filmmaker Samuel Fuller. It positions itself squarely as a novel addition to the existing critical and analytical work so far produced on and around Fuller, deploying a fairly rigorous systematic industrial/economic, neo-formalist, Bordwellian approach to all of the key films in Fuller’s 40-or-so-year directorial career (surprisingly, it fails to discuss the director’s final two films for European television, but also has little to say about his earlier American forays into this medium in the 1960s). Such a focus is in keeping with Dombrowski’s intention of steering a clear path through the films themselves and their conditions of production rather than being overly distracted – as many other writers have been over the years, including the director himself – by Fuller’s biographical legend or the pitfalls of a more fully-blown thematic reading of his work; an approach that dominates many of the early English-language discussions of Fuller’s oeuvre including the three book-length studies written by Phil Hardy (1) and Nicholas Garnham (2), and edited by David Will and Peter Wollen (3). But Dombrowski’s approach also, for some reason, results in a lack of discussion of Fuller’s early and not wildly successful career as a screenwriter (4), as well as the practice of collaboration in his work – aspects which seem to be closely matched to such an industrial, contextual focus. Dombrowski rightly argues that much Fuller criticism up to this point has been relatively inattentive to both detailed analysis of his evolving filmic style – amongst her significant contributions to this field are the ways in which she relates this modulated style to specific places and times – and the industrial and economic conditions within which his films were made. As Dombrowski provocatively and persuasively argues, Fuller’s work needs to be reconsidered as classical and non-classical, as well as coherent and schizophrenic in its thematic and narrative preoccupations and forms.
One of Dombrowski’s most significant contributions is her fine-grained analysis of the industrial and cultural conditions that Fuller worked under, allowing her to recast the director as a figure who worked as much within the decaying and dissolving Hollywood system – protected and nurtured, as well as stifled by it – as without. Also, Dombrowski does an excellent job of rethinking Fuller’s piecemeal and dispersive career in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s as less an inevitable outcome of the filmmaker’s “un-Hollywoodness” or iconoclasm – bywords for some of the existing writing on Fuller – than as a result of the rapid changes then occurring within the production, distribution and exhibition systems themselves. Thus, although Fuller’s trials, tribulations and even successes in this period are specific to the director and the zigzag path his career followed, they have much in common with the struggles of many of Fuller’s contemporaries and their fate after the withering and collapse of the old studio system: Jacques Tourneur, Budd Boetticher, Nicholas Ray, Joseph H. Lewis, and numerous others. In fact, as Dombrowski suggests, Fuller is interesting in terms of how he joins together the fates of many of these filmmakers by working independently, in Europe, in television, and intermittently. In this context, Fuller is remarkable less for his lack of productivity during this time than for his intermittent returns to the limelight and the longevity of his filmmaking career. Although Dombrowski does well to highlight and recount such a recasting of Fuller’s narrative, one that takes into account his growing popularity and regard in this period amongst various critics and filmmakers (Wim Wenders, Jean-Luc Godard, Dennis Hopper and Steven Spielberg all used him, at some stage, as a talismanic actor in their films during the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s) (5), she is less successful and attentive when she actually attempts to analyse and contextualise Fuller’s work post-The Naked Kiss (1964). Even such key later films as The Big Red One (1980) and White Dog (1982), now routinely recognised – including by Dombrowski – as amongst the most significant items in his filmography, are analysed and discussed in less detail than the earlier work. This is surprising considering that both films have been re-released and more widely discussed in the last five or six years (though the American [re]release of White Dog does post-date this book).
Although Dombrowski doesn’t fully enough account for and survey the existing writing on Fuller – where she would find a greater attention to the substance of Fuller’s style than she actually lets on – her book provides a very valuable and systematic account of Fuller’s career. Her book should be read alongside other key materials on the director, particularly his own autobiography: A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking (6). In what is becoming the crowded field of “Fuller Studies” – and which also includes a significant number of documentaries featuring Fuller that partly arose out of his longevity and relied heavily upon his entertaining abilities as a storyteller (7) – Dombrowski’s book provides an important, if a little too limited, approach and interpretation. Her extremely well-written (if sometimes a little stolid and unbending) prose and approach do seem an odd match for Fuller’s own distinctive voice and style – which was often overtly hyperbolic and always guided by his spellbinding qualities as a storyteller – but then again a more sober, formalist and contextual account of Fuller’s cinema, which this book neatly provides, is also somewhat overdue. It might be a little difficult for the novice viewer to match the no-nonsense, fixed, straight-ahead tenor of Dombrowski’s analysis to the florid, at times baroque author of such heightened entertainments as Forty Guns (1957), Underworld, U.S.A. (1961), Shock Corridor (1963) and The Dark Page – a recently republished early ’40s Fuller novel that provides further evidence of the contemporary avalanche of interest in the director’s work – but for those well-versed in “Fuller Studies” it will provide a refreshing – and cooling – alternative (and Dombrowski is very attentive to the tonal shifts in Fuller’s cinema and the reasons these came about).
The book’s two-part title is, in fact, quite revealing in terms of how it segments approaches to Fuller’s work. The more prosaic main title, The Films of Samuel Fuller, pinpoints the dogged and extremely valuable critical approach the book takes, one that systematically works through each of Fuller’s films in roughly the same fashion: plot synopsis, formal analysis, production context, popular and critical reception. Although this format can become a little relentless and wearing – much less so, I would imagine, if one only read the sections devoted to an individual film or two and didn’t read the book from cover-to-cover – it also constitutes the great achievement of Dombrowski’s book. It will come as no surprise to the reader that the author claims “tutelage” in the early drafts of this book from various staff of the University of Wisconsin; its indebtedness to the neo-formalist (David Bordwell, et al) and industrial-economic (Tino Balio, et al) approaches that flowered there, everywhere evident. This is, of course, no real criticism as such a background, and her innate abilities in fusing these approaches, provides Dombrowski with a set of tools that enable her to conceptualise and chart the stylistic development and industrial context of Fuller’s cinema, essential elements that have only been dealt with in a piecemeal fashion in many other critical studies (partly because many critics champion Fuller as an “outsider” figure who had little to do with the day-to-day workings of the system or was in conflict with it; this is only partly true). In this context, Dombrowski’s key credentials are her detailed formal and industrial knowledge of Fuller’s films and the degree of research she has done in uncovering documentation relating to the director’s career. In this respect, she seldom relies upon Fuller’s own widely circulated accounts (which is a wise move, despite the wonderful detail and surprising connections one finds in his autobiography).
Nevertheless, The Films of Samuel Fuller provides an extremely valuable companion-piece to The Third Face, helping to complete a portrait of the artist as something considerably more than the dynamic, attention-seeking “primitive” of legend. An equally complex portrait is also found in Fuller’s book, a surprisingly nuanced and literary tome that both reaffirms common critical parlance and questions it (for example, many of the acquaintances and cultural references Fuller cites not only confirm but complicate the commonly cartoon-like portrait found in other accounts and works). Dombrowski is particularly good on the ways in which Fuller adapted his style to the demands of his contract at Twentieth Century-Fox. This ability to understand the broader context of American cinema in the 1950s, in particular, allows for a highly nuanced and sophisticated account of Fuller’s work in that era. She is also able to affirm and complicate the common view of Fuller as an iconoclast who railed against the studio system and specific restrictions such as censorship. Dombrowski’s analysis is, of course, somewhat guided and channelled by the documentation she has been able to uncover. Thus, although one imagines that many of Fuller’s films would have had difficulties with censorship – particularly in their pre-production phases – she really only focuses on Pickup on South Street (1953) and Underworld, U.S.A. in relation to this factor. Her discussion of the latter is particularly fascinating, as it reveals both the wily strategies deployed by Fuller to minimise the level of censorship imposed on his films and the degree of compromise he was willing to make to produce his work. As Dombrowski argues, the resulting inability to show certain things contributed significantly to Fuller’s “constructive”, elliptical and sometimes bludgeoning editing style. But as she also rightly points out, Fuller’s cinema is marked by a consistent alternation between quick bursts of montage and the overriding dominance of the master take/long shot. Another fascinating observation Dombrowski makes relates to the high level of optically enhanced or altered shots found in Fuller’s earlier work, attempts in post-production to break up and focus his overriding master shot style (this runs counter to the common view of Fuller’s cinema as defined by a close-up, grotesque, intimate mise en scène). These attempts to find detail in larger, encompassing tableaux are most evident in the optical zooms found intermittently throughout his work.
Dombrowski is also very insightful in terms of the box office success (or often not) of Fuller’s films. Like many other directors with surprisingly long careers, Fuller’s films seem to have only rarely met significant popular success. His ability to keep working was an outcome of the relative cheapness and efficiency of his films, his intermittent large successes, and the shifting nature of Hollywood itself and how it calculated (or, yet again, not) an individual film’s viability. In this respect, Fuller seems to have only really achieved true box office success early in his career, specifically in relation to the phenomenon of The Steel Helmet (1951) – a large percentage of Fuller’s earnings on this film were blown making one of his most fascinating and personal films, Park Row (1952), a misfortune that led to the “necessity” of his Fox contract – and his first two films at Fox, Pickup on South Street (regarded by many as the peak of his career) and Hell and High Water (1954; one of his most conventional films). As Dombrowski also points out, Europe was often the key market (and production base) for many of Fuller’s later films, reflecting the degree of critical interest he found there and how it helped forge niche audiences for his work.
This attention to detail, form and context is the greatest contribution provided by Dombrowski’s book. But the book’s subtitle, If You Die, I’ll Kill You!, suggests other, less rigorous approaches to Fuller’s work that the book only intermittently embraces. There are points in the book where I would have liked Dombrowski to break free from her systematic analysis of each film and branch out into an approach that would have also more fully encompassed Fuller’s biography and embraced the critical work already done by others. Rather than providing a portrait of the filmmaker as a kind of mad or hyperbolic artist who combined the hyper-masculine sensibilities of American Abstract Expressionism with the searing, bold type of a set of tabloid headlines – a kind of messy pre-Pop Art, perhaps – Dombrowski moves to contain and explain the excesses and strangeness of Fuller’s work. She is, of course, open to these aspects of Fuller’s cinema – and it is hardly surprising that many critics have taken their lead from these elements – but she only intermittently embraces them. A “fuller” book would have fused these two approaches to the director’s work – Dombrowski only gets part of the way there but this is still the best book yet published on Fuller, other than the director’s autobiography. It is thus apt that the nonsensical but still resonant quotation from The Steel Helmet – “If you die, I’ll kill you!” – provides the subtitle for Dombrowski’s book rather than the attention grabbing lead (I think we all know which one Fuller himself would have used). Dombrowski is also good on the few occasions when she brings a more personal edge or dimension to her writing, or when she dabbles in the fields of value or critical judgement. In this respect, Dombrowski’s book is very balanced. She plainly has a love of Fuller’s work, but doesn’t really provide much in the way of critical judgement (again, this is a general characteristic of neo-formalist analysis). It is possible to join together these two, hardly distinct, forms of criticism. And such a point of focus would have been a good place for Dombrowski to more adequately address the existing writing on Fuller. Such a level of reticence also seems slightly odd in the context of Fuller’s own passionately held opinions and judgements. Although his work is often equivocal, it is full of ideas, opinions and critical statements. The Films of Samuel Fuller never quite captures or embraces the full range of Fuller’s cinema – the sense of the director as an “idea volcano” (p. 203), as Dombrowski puts it – but it is still an essential and very well-argued example of contemporary auteurist criticism.
The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You!, by Lisa Dombrowski, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut, 2008.
- Phil Hardy, Samuel Fuller, Studio Vista, London, 1970.
- Nicholas Garnham, Samuel Fuller, Viking, London, 1971.
- David Will and Peter Wollen (eds), Samuel Fuller, Edinburgh Film Festival, Edinburgh, 1969.
- Columbia Pictures’ recent DVD box-set, The Samuel Fuller Collection (2009), provides a fascinating insight into this side of Fuller’s career. Including only two films directed by Fuller, it instead features films that are adapted from stories and novels by Fuller, as well as those scripted by him for other directors. Of particular note are Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet (1952) – based on Fuller’s novel The Dark Page – and Shockproof (1949), a film noir co-scripted by Fuller and directed by Douglas Sirk. Each of these not fully successful films helps to further define the distinctiveness of Fuller as a filmmaker.
- Some of the key films that Fuller appears in include: Pierrot le fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965); The Last Movie (Dennis Hopper, 1971); Der amerikanische Freund (The American Friend, Wim Wenders, 1977); 1941 (Steven Spielberg, 1979); Der Stand der Dinge (The State of Things, Wenders, 1982); The End of Violence (Wenders, 1997).
- Samuel Fuller (with Christa Lang Fuller and Jerome Henry Rudes), A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2003.
- These documentaries include: Cinéma cinémas: Fuller à la table (André S. Labarthe, 1982); Falkenau, vision de l’impossible (Falkenau, the Impossible, Emil Weiss, 1988); Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made (Mika Kaurismäki, 1993); The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera (Adam Simon, 1996); The Men Who Made the Movies: Samuel Fuller (Richard Schickel, 2002); Tell Me Sam (Emil Weiss, 2005). Although many of these documentaries include roughly the same stories peddled by Fuller, Falkenau, the Impossible and Tigrero present previously unreleased footage shot by Fuller at the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp and for an uncompleted project in South America, respectively. Both also literally stage the return of Fuller to these two places, providing something of a metaphor for the re-evaluation and “resurrection” of the filmmaker’s fractured career. In other respects, both films are relatively insubstantial and unimpressive examples of documentary cinema.