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Tag Archives: Sam Fuller

Review Round-Up: Dan Sallitt Double Feature / Samantha Fuller’s A FULLER LIFE

I originally wrote the following reviews of films by Dan Sallitt and Samantha Fuller for Cine-File Chicago back in January to coincide with theatrical screenings. The Sallitt films can be rented on amazon (and you really should see them if you haven’t already) and the Fuller doc is happily still enjoying theatrical engagements around the world (with a home video release coming eventually).

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Dan Sallitt’s HONEYMOON and ALL THE SHIPS AT SEA (American Revival)

When the enterprising distributor The Cinema Guild picked up the low-budget comedy/drama THE UNSPEAKABLE ACT in 2012 it considerably upped the profile of writer/director Dan Sallitt, a New York-based critic and filmmaker whose sparse filmography (he’s made exactly one film per decade over each of the past four decades) constitutes one of the hidden treasures of independent American cinema. Beguiled Cinema, the programming endeavor of local critics Ben and Kat Sachs, has teamed up with Chicago Filmmakers to present this rare double-feature screening of Sallitt’s second and third films at Columbia College’s Film Row Cinema, an event that should be considered unmissable for local cinephiles. Both movies are visually austere, dialogue-based dramas centered on two characters in conflict. The earlier of the two, 1998’s HONEYMOON, is a mature and astonishingly frank portrayal of marriage about two old friends, Mimi (Edith Meeks) and Michael (Dylan McCormick), who decide to tie the knot on a whim. These urban professionals seem intellectually and emotionally compatible and their friends have long remarked that they would make the “perfect couple.” It isn’t until their honeymoon at a lakeside cabin in rural Pennsylvania, however, that they first attempt physical intimacy–in a series of awkward and halting encounters that must rank as the most honest portrayal of sexual dysfunction ever committed to celluloid. Mimi and Michael’s decision to stick out the marriage ultimately leads to an ambiguous finale that will likely serve as a Rorschach test for the personal philosophy of each viewer. What’s not in doubt is the phenomenal chemistry between Meeks and McCormick, who convey the evolution of a years-long relationship telescoped into just a few days. Even more compressed, and impressive, is the 64-minute ALL THE SHIPS AT SEA from 2004. The lean running time of this virtual two-hander, about a series of philosophically-inflected discussions between two very different sisters, belies the wealth of feeling and ideas that Sallitt has crammed into it: respectable Evelyn (Strawn Bovee) teaches theology at the college level while her estranged, potentially suicidal younger sister Virginia (Meeks again) returns home after being kicked out of a religious cult. As the women struggle to re-establish their former sibling bond, the notion of exactly who is helping who is kept tantalizingly in flux. New City’s Ray Pride will introduce the screening. The A.V. Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky will lead a Q&A afterwards. (1998 and 2004, 154 min total, 16mm and DVCam) MGS

More info at http://www.chicagofilmmakers.org.

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Samantha Fuller’s A FULLER LIFE (New Documentary)

With A FULLER LIFE, Samantha Fuller, daughter of maverick filmmaker Samuel Fuller, has made an unconventional but entertaining documentary about her father. The first-time director daringly eschews traditional interview segments in favor of having a dozen motion-picture luminaries appear before her cameras only to read excerpts from her dad’s superb, posthumously published memoir, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking. Among the readers, most of whom worked with or were friends of the late, great Fuller, are: Jennifer Beals, Robert Carradine, Joe Dante, Bill Duke, James Franco, William Friedkin, Mark Hamill, Monte Hellman, Buck Henry, Tim Roth, James Toback and Constance Towers. Some misguided critics have damned A FULLER LIFE with faint praise by likening it to a mere star-studded “audio book” but this is hardly a fair analogy since many of the film’s pleasures are image-based. The “chapters” are visual records of the subjects reading their texts in a specific location, one that seems suffused with an almost mystical energy: Fuller pere’s legendary garage-office, a place affectionately known as “the shack,” which functions today as a virtual shrine to his impressive careers as newspaperman, soldier and filmmaker. Each segment is also cleverly intercut with scenes from both Fuller’s official oeuvre, from 1949’s I SHOT JESSE JAMES to STREET OF NO RETURN 40 years later, as well as home movie and documentary footage he shot throughout his life (including powerful wartime images of a recently liberated concentration camp in Falkenau, Czechoslovakia, footage that was recently added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry). Finally, the film’s most disturbing sequence, the Dante-narrated “Sicily Black and Blue,” is embellished by an inspired use of animation. All of this adds up to a fitting tribute to a vital American artist, one whose ballsy and highly personal “yarns” were both ahead of their time and inextricably tied to the colorful, adventurous life of their creator. As a writer/director, Sam Fuller may have specialized in genre fare (especially war movies, westerns and crime films) but, whether working as an independent or within the Hollywood studio system, he stamped everything he did with his outrageously entertaining, “yellow-journalist” style. Within his idiosyncratic idiom, Fuller’s commitment to racial equality, long before such a stance was fashionable in American cinema, looks especially interesting today. A FULLER LIFE is a must for Fuller’s admirers and an ideal introduction to his work for the uninitiated. (2013, 80 min, DCP Digital) MGS

More info at http://www.siskelfilmcenter.org.

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Filmmaker Interview: Samantha Fuller

Samantha Fuller, daughter of maverick American filmmaker Samuel Fuller, makes an exceedingly promising directorial debut of her own with A Fuller Life, a fittingly unconventional documentary portrait of her father. I interviewed her via e-mail in advance of its Chicago premiere this weekend (it will screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, January 17 at 6:45 and Monday, January 19 at 6:00). My review of the film will appear soon either on this website or in Cine-File Chicago but let me just say for now that A Fuller Life is both a must for Fuller fans and an ideal introduction to his work for the uninitiated. You can find more info about the screenings on the Siskel Center’s website.

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MGS: I know you conceived this film as a way of celebrating your father’s 100th birthday. I’m curious about your choice of only having the subjects read excerpts from his autobiography, A Third Face. How did you arrive at the decision to create the film in this unique way and did you ever consider making a more traditional documentary (i.e., with conventional interview segments)?

SF: Yes, the film was intended as a centennial celebration of my father’s life. See, as a child, he had always told me that we would have a big party when he turned 100, and I took him up on that. It didn’t matter that his body wasn’t present, since his spirit never left us. By having our guest readers speak his words, it served as a vehicle to bring his voice back to life. In this way, he felt very present during the entire process. My father’s films were quite unconventional, so there was no way I was going to make a conventional documentary about him. The film was entirely shot in his office. A place humorously called “the shack,” where nothing much has changed since his death in 1997. The participants loved that idea and read parts of his autobiography surrounded by rows of his favorite books, stacked scripts, film memorabilia, his beloved typewriter and of course a big fat cigar placed at their side. The actors were interviewed after reading their segment. The interviews will be featured on the DVD supplements.

MGS: How did you decide which segments from A Third Face to use? Also, did the subjects have any choice in which excerpts they read or did you assign the texts to the readers?

SF: I wanted to tell my father’s story chronologically, respecting the flow of his autobiography. The film is intended to reflect on his gusty life, brimming with multiple hard-hitting stories. It wasn’t easy deciding which segments to use, since every one is a good story in itself. I chose the ones that would give a sense of the life he lead. In the case that the audience is left wanting more, they can always pick up A Third Face and enjoy a real page turner. A Fuller Life is basically structured in three parts: the first section leads us through his youth, and his time as a young crime/freelance reporter. The second part describes his experience on the front lines of the Infantry during WWII, and how he survived major battles in North Africa, Sicily and D-Day. We witness the liberation of the Falkenau camps in Czechoslovakia through his words and his camera lens. The third, focuses on his career in Hollywood and how he successfully managed to combine work and family. The passages were assigned in a way that I trusted the readers would relate to most. Not once did any of them question my choice since I believe that they were indeed connected to the part of the story that they were telling.

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MGS: One of the things I loved about the use of different narrators was how they all delivered your father’s prose in a different style, which made the film very dynamic. Each segment was like a different song on a beautifully constructed mix-tape: some of the readers were matter-of-fact while others, notably Bill Duke, were incredibly dramatic. It was also very refreshing to hear a couple of female voices in the mix (Jennifer Beals and Constance Towers). Was there much rehearsal and/or discussion beforehand about how the texts would be read?

SF: Thank you for using the word dynamic in your question, since that was indeed what I was aiming for. Once again, in the spirit of my father’s films, which were always loaded with TNT in a certain form. Bill Duke happened to be the first one to read, and his performance was striking. He really is the one who channeled my father’s delivery most. After him, I thought that we better tone the other readers down, in order not to turn the film into a Sam impersonation film. I asked the rest of the readers to channel my father in a more subtle way, a talent that they were able to provide. The shoot was mostly in one or two takes, it was quick and to the point. Nobody had to memorize the text since they had it in front of them while filming. My father loved powerful female characters, so it felt natural to include a couple strong women in the mix.

MGS: Perhaps the most tantalizing aspect of the film was the use of documentary and home-movie footage that your father shot himself. The home movie scenes were playful and poignant but the WWII footage (especially from the concentration camp) was harrowing. What are your plans for the rest of the “100 reels of 16mm film” that you describe uncovering in the prologue?

SF: I digitized approximately three hours of footage that my father shot on his 16mm Bell & Howell camera. Some great home movies, but mostly film from the European liberation after D-Day. Only ten minutes were utilized in A Fuller Life, which leaves plenty material to make another documentary, which I’m currently working on. This time, the film will solely target WWII. I also have over 200 letters that my father wrote to his family during that time. Highlights from his correspondence will be included in the film. The structure will be similar to A Fuller Life in the sense that an actor will be reading excerpts from the letters, his voice will be heard over the images.

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MGS: I’ve shown your father’s films in my Intro to Film classes and they’ve always gotten a very positive response (even though most of my students are unfamiliar with his life and work). If you had to pick a single film to use to introduce young people to the films of Sam Fuller, what would it be and why?

SF: I’m glad to hear that you are showing Fuller films in your class. There is so much to learn from them! The fact that most of his films were made with small budgets and tight schedules is encouraging to fellow filmmakers to go out and tell their stories. It’s difficult for me to pick a single film of his since I love them all, almost comparably to how one would love their siblings. But if I really had to pick just one that would introduce a new audience to his films and life, it would be the restored long version of The Big Red One. That is an autobiographical film about his experience as a Dogface in the U.S. Infantry during WWII. Sadly, he was never able to enjoy the release of the long version since it was completed after his death. Nonetheless, it is the version he had wished for, and it stayed true to his vision according to the script. The film deals with his grueling years in the army, yet is is layered with humor and emphases the absurdity of war. His character is named Zab, not Sam. Actually, there is a part of him dispersed into every character. It is his most personal film.

You can check out the trailer to
A Fuller Life via YouTube below:


Actress/Author Interview: Christa Lang Fuller

Christa Lang Fuller is an actress, author and producer who runs Chrisam Films, the company she founded with her husband, the late Sam Fuller, in 1981. She got her start acting in movies in Paris in the 1960s, working with such notable directors as Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Pierre Chenal and Roger Vadim. After meeting him in Paris in 1965 she appeared in most of her husband’s films including, notably, 1973’s Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, where she played the starring role.

I developed an online correspondence with Christa when she wrote me to kindly correct some erroneous information I had posted in my blu-ray reviews of Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss earlier this year. The following interview, conducted recently via e-mail, is by far my favorite piece that I’ve ever published on this site. I made no attempts to “normalize” Christa’s incredibly creative syntax and use of capitalization, which I believe accurately reflect the voice and speech patterns of an exuberant RACONTEUR. Anyone familiar with her husband’s work will understand why they were a match made in heaven by reading what follows.

MGS: So how does a young woman from Germany find herself acting in Paris during the height of the French New Wave?

CLF: My attraction to things French came from the fact that my grandmother on my father’s side had been of French Huguenot origin. TWICE a week I went to a French cultural center to study their beautiful language. Then I saw an ad about an au pair girl wanted in France. I left Germany at the age of 17 and remained in FRANCE. In ESSEN I had passed an audition for HELMUT KAUTNER at the theater school in BOCHUM —Arthur Miller’s THE CRUCIBLE, but my mother did not approve of me being an actor. In Paris after various jobs –my last au pair was with the stunning and briliant comtessa MIRANDA de TOULOUSE LAUTREC who is still my friend, I did translations for a textile firm all the while taking acting classes at night. I posed for PAUL BELMONDO, the famous sculptor and MARC ALLEGRET liked my tests and was going to star me in a movie about a GERMAN au pair girl surrounded by the hot actors of the sixties SAMI FREY, JOHNNY HALLIDAY and a big article about Christa Lang in the papers with the bronze bust by BELMONDO got me working with CLAUDE CHABROL in LE TIGRE AIME LA CHAIR FRAICHE —an alcoholic dumb blonde and getting a great review by CHAZAL in FRANCE-SOIR had GODARD ask his friend CHABROL if he could see me for ALPHAVILLE…….I also did a play for many months by SACHA GUITRY called LA JALOUSIE —the director HENRY MURRAY was ANOUK AIMEE’s father and loved to repeat that DA VINCI only made one MONA LISA and that he only made one ANOUK……his real name was DREYFUS and he loved to also repeat with glee how he lifted the grey skirts of Nazi secretaries occupying la belle France and do it to them from behind……….the rest of the story —I let you imagine the rest. It gets really raunchy…….I learned a lot performing LA JALOUSIE by SACHA GUITRY and remember turning 20 years performing in VICHY the day on my birthday…….SACHA GUITRY’s comic genuis can be discovered via CRITERION ===A GREAT BOX SET……..

MGS: Your bit part in Alphaville as the Seductress who picks Akim Tamiroff’s pocket is great. Accounts of how Godard directed actors during this time vary wildly. Do you recall if he was very specific in giving directions or did he let you and the other actors just do your thing?

CLF: GODARD was very exciting to work for — he knew what he wanted, but left you free to improvise!!! He was distant, but professional during the three day shoot and even though he acted strange when I met him for the first time, he was fantastic on the set. I love the movie, KARINA, CONSTANTINE, TAMIROFF and the whole vibe of the movie……Godard is really a unique talent.

MGS: You met your husband, Sam Fuller, around this time. In his memoir, A Third Face, he writes very memorably about your first meeting – a dinner date with you and your friend Maria-Rosa Rodriguez, who also happened to be Miss South America. What were your first impressions of Sam?

CLF: He was mesmerising, told us stories and was so genuine a person that I fell in love, but he never went for his actors in a romantic way. “It’s against my religion,” he used to joke. However I seduced him by mentioning RING LARDNER, not knowing that he had been one of his mentors in his adolescence. He promised that he would get me the ENGLISH version at BRENTANO’S. AND HE DID —–he was a man of his word and not some bullshitter like a lot of the men in showbiz —-I was sweating out his call —and he DID call and we started dating………PARIS, mon amour……….

MGS: A Third Face, published posthumously in 2002, is one of the all-time great books about a film director. What was your role in the writing and editing of this book?

CLF: VICTORIA WILSON at RANDOM responsible for many bios including the KATHERINE HEPBURN one, called to talk to SAM about BARBARA STANWYCK since she was planning her bio. SAM coud not talk after his stroke, was very weakened, so I sat in the sun with him and started writing the way he talked and read every sentence like he had written it, which in a way he did —-I had close to 2000 pages when he left us ……..in 1998 my granddaughter SAMIRA was born and from taking care for over three years day and night of my husband, I had now a baby to help nurture. Like GARGAMELLE in RABELAIS: I cried with one eye and laughed with the other……….I had picked Jerome Henry RUDES because he had a good eye and was a minimalist to edit SAM’s almost hundred years on this planet.

MGS: I was blown away by “The Reconstruction” of The Big Red One when it was released a few years ago. The newly integrated scenes, including your scene as the German Countess, make the film a much richer experience. But I know some critics were skeptical of some decisions such as the voice-over narration being retained. Do you think Sam would have been pleased with this version of the film?

CLF: Of course, he would have been pleased………it’s a 90 percent improvement thanks to RICHARD SCHICKEL and BRIAN JAMIESON. The scene of the countess I liked was when SCHROEDER shoots her, her pearl necklace has pearls falling one by one on the floor. Don’t know where those rushes are, but at least the Hitler bad-mouthing countess is back in the picture like they say!!!! And a scene with an impotent Nazi at that, can’t get any better!!!

MGS: Sam’s final movie, Street of No Return, is full of great moments but it was sadly re-edited against his wishes. Is there any chance it too might be reconstructed in a cut that more closely resembles his original intentions?

CLF: SAM suspected JACQUES BRAL of having a hidden mimetic rivalry going on and even though he was kind and polite, to cut and recut a film for a whole year was strange. He is a good director himself………but here we go to what the French call L’espace du NON DIT……….maybe the film will get more or less SAM’s cut again and a new run………

MGS: I’ve managed to track down all of Sam’s movies even though a lot of them are difficult to see in the U.S. What can you tell me about the status of never released-on-DVD titles like China Gate, Run of the Arrow, Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, Les Voleurs de la Nuit and the wonderful Mika Kaurismaki documentary that you conceived and produced, Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made? What are the chances these titles might see home video distribution soon?

CLF: AM WORKING on CHINA GATE —-the great song by NAT KING COLE with the same title CHINA GATE is available on itunes —-hope the dvd will be happening soon—-it’s INDOCHINA before it became VIETNAM —LES VOLEURS DE LA NUIT ==have no idea but it was fun to have scenes with the late, great CLAUDE CHABROL, one of the funniest directors ever —it’s not a bad movie at all…….CASSAVETTES liked it a lot when they booed it in BERLIN and he got the golden BEAR for LOVE STREAMS……ten years later we got the BERLIN CRITICS AWARD for TIGRERO, a real crowd pleaser that I am very proud to have brought forth into the light. SAM had shot those rushes of the incredible KARAJA indians in 1955 with the same BELL AND HOWELL camera that he shot the liberation of the camps with in 1945 and in 1975 the birth of our daughter SAMANTHA……….death — adventure—birth………..Returning with SAM, MIKA KAURISMAAKI and JIM JARMUSCH and SARA DRIVER to make this wonderful piece TIGRERO was one of my happiest moments ever!!!! THEY put it out on dvd, BUT NEVER really got behind it, the way they should have. Hoping for a new life of TIGERO as well —the young people should discover the life of the KARAJA INDIANS……Incas who migrated from the ANDES and settled on the foot of the amazon —their language resembles JAPANESE and no linguist can figure it out…….

MGS: I teach film history classes to a lot of young people who may have heard Sam’s name but might not be familiar with his work. What movies would you recommend for them to see to introduce them to the world of Sam Fuller?

CLF: all of the them —he really had to fight hard for most of the movies to retain his artistic integrity……..he loved being with students and they liked him in return, because he was without WAX —-sans CIRE —sincere—–

MGS: Thank you so much for your time.

CLF: THIRTY


A Golden Age of Hollywood Primer, pt. 2

A continuation of the list of essential titles from Hollywood’s studio system era that I began earlier this week. This part of the list encompasses films released from 1948 – 1959.

Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, Universal, 1948)

Set in Vienna in the early twentieth century, Max Ophuls’ masterpiece tells the incredible story of the title letter-writer (Joan Fontaine) and her three brief but fateful encounters with a ne’er-do-well pianist (Louis Jourdan) over the course of several decades. His inability to recognize her on the latter two occasions elevates the simple plot, which is recounted via flashback, to the level of high tragedy. Fontaine is heart-breaking in the lead role but the real star is German-born, French-bred director Max Ophuls, whose relentless use of tracking shots has made him virtually synonymous with that type of camera movement and has been a major influence on subsequent directors from Stanley Kubrick to Martin Scorsese to Paul Thomas Anderson.

All About Eve (Mankiewicz, 20th Century Fox, 1950)

The career of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, universally acknowledged as a brilliant screenwriter but still underrated as a director, hit a dizzying career peak with this backstage drama, a witty and highly literate bitch-fest. A ruthlessly ambitious young actress (Anne Baxter) insinuates herself into the life of her idol, a legendary theatrical actress experiencing a mid-life crisis (Bette Davis, magnificent in a role that undoubtedly hit close to home). The whole ensemble cast is perfect including both of the leads, Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter, Marilyn Monroe and, especially, George Sanders as an acid-tongued theater critic.

Park Row (Fuller, United Artists, 1952)

Sam Fuller’s highly personal, self-financed love letter to “the fourth estate” is also his greatest achievement: an enormously entertaining look back at the newspaper rivalries of late 19th century New York City starring Gene Evans (The Steel Helmet) as Phineas Mitchell, a reporter who dares to start his own paper. Told in the broad, colorful strokes that became Fuller’s trademark, this cinematic yarn consistently delights in everything from its exquisite period detail to its staggering use of crane shots. The unavailability of Park Row on home video is positively scandalous. Are you listening, Criterion?

Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, MGM, 1952)

The most beloved Hollywood musical of all-time, in large part because it offers an affectionate and humorous look back at the process of filmmaking during the dramatic period when silent pictures gave way to the talkies. Co-directed and choreographed by star Gene Kelly, who brought a more masculine and aggressively athletic style of dance to the movie musical – in contrast to the Fred Astaire-style gracefulness that had previously dominated the genre.

The Band Wagon (Minnelli, MGM, 1953)

Speaking of which . . . my own personal favorite musical is this Vincente Minnelli gem. Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is an over the hill hoofer whose latest show, a theatrical musical comedy, is hijacked by Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), a pretentious director intent on turning it into a modern day version of Faust. Exacerbating the situation is that Hunter can’t stand Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse – never lovelier), the ballet dancer hired by Cordova to star opposite him. Sparks fly between Astaire and Charisse both off the dance floor and on, especially during such classic production numbers as “Dancing in the Dark,” “That’s Entertainment” and the film noir influenced “Girl Hunt.”

The Naked Spur (Mann, MGM, 1953)

In the 1950s, multi-genre specialist Anthony Mann crafted his own unique brand of “psychological western,” which is typified by a series of fascinating Jimmy Stewart vehicles. Here, Stewart plays Howard Kemp, a traumatized Civil War veteran-turned-bounty hunter who reluctantly accepts the help of two strangers in tracking down wanted killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan in his prime). During the lengthy trek back to civilization where Vandergroat will stand trial, the captive shrewdly manipulates his trio of captors, driving wedges of resentment between them . . . This was perhaps the first of several great ’50s films to subtly undermine Stewart’s all American, nice guy persona.

Night of the Hunter (Laughton, United Artists, 1955)

A bizarre confluence of talented people came together in 1955 to bring to the screen this one of a kind masterpiece – a cross between a Brothers Grimm fairy tale and a gothic horror film. This includes Davis Grubb, who provided the pure Americana source novel, film critic-turned-screenwriter James Agee, veteran British actor Charles Laughton (directing for the first only time), and Robert Mitchum, playing way outside of himself as the psychotic preacher of the title. The luminescent cinematography is courtesy of the great Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons).

All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, Universal, 1956)

Douglas Sirk was to the melodrama what Alfred Hitchcock was to the thriller – its most famous and accomplished practitioner. All That Heaven Allows is his most beautifully realized creation, the story of an upper-class, middle-aged widow (Jane Wyman) who provokes scandal when she embarks on a romance with her much younger, working class gardener (Rock Hudson). Celebrated in some quarters as a subversive Marxist critique of middle America, derided in others as camp, I think All That Heaven Allows was rightly appreciated by 1950s audiences for what it is – a masterful tearjerker and damning indictment of hypocrisy rolled up into one entertaining and colorful package.

Bigger Than Life (Ray, 20th Century Fox, 1956)

James Mason is a schoolteacher and family man who begins suffering from a bizarre strain of megalomania after becoming addicted to the prescription “wonder drug” cortisone. Director Nicholas Ray’s unparalleled mastery of ‘Scope framing (check out what he does with the staircase in Mason’s home) and Technicolor (those yellow cabs!), combined with mise-en-scene that reconfigures American post-war prosperity as something nightmarish and oppressive, is perfectly suited to the melodramatic storyline. “God was wrong!”

The Searchers (Ford, Warner Brothers, 1956)

Quite simply one of the greatest movie ever made, John Ford’s deeply felt western combines adventure, tragedy, comedy and romance in the story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne in his best and most complex performance), a Civil War veteran who embarks on an obsessive, years-long quest to find his niece after she is kidnapped by Comanche Indians. Only what is he really searching for? His humanity? The Moby Dick of the cinema.

Vertigo (Hitchcock, Paramount, 1958)

Alfred Hitchcock’s highly personal and deeply disturbing study of obsession, which unfolds like a dark and troubling dream. Jimmy Stewart is Scottie Ferguson, a retired cop with a fear of heights who agrees to work a job as a private eye at the request of an old friend. This involves tailing the friend’s wife (Kim Novak), with whom Ferguson falls hopelessly and dangerously in love. Hitchcock leads both Ferguson and the viewer into a downward spiral of despair, eventually ripping the lid off a Pandora’s box of sexual perversity containing voyeurism, fetishism and – as Hitchcock was happy to note – necrophilia. A career high point for all involved including Hitchcock, Stewart and composer Bernard Herrmann.

Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger, Columbia, 1959)

An electrifying courtroom drama in which a country lawyer (Jimmy Stewart again) agrees to defend a G.I. (Ben Gazzara) accused of killing the man who raped his wife (Lee Remick). Director Otto Preminger was always one to push the envelope and you can almost feel the old studio system crumbling around him when listening to this film’s daring use of language and looking at its authentic and evocative Michigan locations. Also features a snazzy Duke Ellington score.

Some Like It Hot (Wilder, United Artists, 1959)

Billy Wilder’s crude, gender-bending comedy about a couple of down on their luck Chicago musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who disguise themselves as women to get a job in an all-female band headed to Florida. En route, they both develop the hots for singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe at her sultriest) but of course can’t reveal their true identities. Like a lot of classic Hollywood comedies, this hilarious romp works as well as it does because you can feel director and co-writer Billy Wilder trying his damndest to smuggle risque material past the censors. It’s no coincidence that his career went south when, just a few years later, there was nothing left to fight against.


Fuller on Blu x 2

“This isn’t a goddamn humanitarian film. It’s a hard-hitting, action-packed melodrama. Give your award to Ingmar Bergman.”

– Sam Fuller, accepting a Humanitarian Award for Shock Corridor at the Valladolid International Film Festival

Although January isn’t even over, I doubt there will be many more significant home video releases in all of 2011 than the Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray editions of Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, two seminal works by one of America’s most iconoclastic filmmakers. These nightmarish, post-noir masterpieces, written and directed by Sam Fuller in 1963 and 1964, are finally getting the treatment they deserve with Criterion’s sparkling new anamorphic HD transfers, which supplant the company’s earlier standard DVD releases of the same titles (spine numbers 18 and 19, respectively). Additionally, both discs are loaded with sterling special features that make them an ideal introduction to the work of a man aptly dubbed “a cinematic warrior” by Quentin Tarantino.

Sam Fuller began his filmmaking career as a true independent, directing low-budget quickies in the late 1940s, and wound down his career the same way, albeit as an American exile scrounging for work in Europe in the late 1980s. In between, he enjoyed a lengthy stretch in Hollywood as a contract director at Twentieth Century Fox in the 1950s (where he made such highly personal and superior genre films as Fixed Bayonets, Pickup on South Street, House of Bamboo and Forty Guns) and a briefer, unhappier stint there in the late 1970s and early 1980s (where he saw United Artists cut his epic war film The Big Red One by 40% and Paramount shelf his racially charged drama White Dog). Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss constitute one of the high points of Fuller’s career – when he was working as an independent for Allied Artists in the early 1960s and could express aspects of his crazy vision that he couldn’t have gotten away with at a major studio, but with enough money and resources to work with talented collaborators like actress Constance Towers and cinematographer Stanley Cortez.

Shock Corridor, the earlier of the films, is essentially a tale of two movies: a murder mystery set inside a mental hospital and an exploitation of this location as an extended metaphor for all that is wrong with America circa 1963. In Fuller’s characteristic yellow journalism-style, he tells the story of John Barrett (Peter Breck), a reporter who feigns insanity in order to be committed to an asylum where a patient was recently murdered. Once inside, he hopes to interrogate the three key witnesses to the murder, mental patients who have not been forthcoming with police. Barrett believes that solving this mystery will lead to a big story and, potentially, a Pulitzer Prize. As Barrett first befriends and then interviews the witnesses, we realize what troubling social ills drove each of them insane: anti-communist hysteria, racism and the threat of nuclear annihilation. But the closer Barrett gets to the truth, the more he risks losing his own sanity. He may eventually get the story he’s after but, after being attacked by “nymphos” in the women’s ward, subjected to electroshock therapy and more, Fuller asks “what price glory?” with a palpable and bitter irony.

Shock Corridor is full of wild, hallucinatory images befitting its central location. This includes a startling interpolation of color footage (shot by Fuller himself in Japan and South America) in an otherwise black and white film, which is used to signify the mental turmoil preceding moments of clarity for some of the patients. For many viewers, the most memorable image may be the climactic scene where Barrett imagines a thunderstorm inside the main corridor of the hospital, a scene for which Fuller flooded, and literally ruined, his large set. (By necessity, he shot this sequence last.) The film’s soundtrack also impresses with its intimations of aural hallucination: Fuller abruptly shuts music cues on and off and presents reverb-heavy internalized voice-over. In 1963, Shock Corridor may have seemed like nothing more than a ludicrous b-movie but, nearly half a century later, unencumbered by the standards of “realism” to which all American movies seem to be held by contemporary reviewers, Fuller’s vision of America-as-mental hospital looks like the audacious work of art that it is: pulpy and crude but also strangely beautiful and as visceral as a punch in the stomach.

As disturbing as some of the scenes in Shock Corridor undoubtedly are, Fuller outdoes himself with The Naked Kiss the following year. Jean-Luc Godard once memorably described Fuller’s visual style as “cinema fist” and there is no more apt scene to illustrate this than the film’s first indelible images: the point of view of a drunken pimp being beaten by a bald prostitute with her handbag. She is Kelly (Constance Towers), a “lady of the night” who proceeds to move from a nameless big city to the seemingly idyllic small town of Grantville in an effort to start her life anew. Upon arriving, she immediately throws herself into the arms of the first man she sees, a police captain named Griff (Anthony Eisley, one of many “Griff”s in Fuller’s universe), who has a habit of seducing women of loose morals before sending them packing to the seamier town on the “other side of the river.”

Only Kelly, determined to reform, refuses to leave and gets a job instead at the local Children’s Hospital. Soon she develops a romance with Grant (Michael Dante), a local millionaire and the hospital’s chief benefactor, whose grandfather was the town’s namesake. To give more of the plot away would be criminal, especially since Fuller’s story takes a bizarre left turn in the final act, which allows him to ramp up his criticism of small town hypocrisy to dizzying heights. Suffice it to say that Fuller’s vision of the evil lurking behind the façade of American white picket fence wholesomeness makes David Lynch’s similar critique in Blue Velvet look like child’s play.

Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss are profitably viewed as companion pieces in several ways, such as the fact that they share several key collaborators; central to the success of both movies are the performances of Constance Towers, the doe-eyed Irish-American actress whose impressive emotional range could convey vulnerability one minute (her heartbreaking final scene in Shock Corridor) and steely toughness the next (the memorable scene in The Naked Kiss where she forcibly stuffs money into the mouth of a brothel’s madam.) Towers may never have “made it” as an A-list actress in Hollywood but the memorable work she did for Fuller and John Ford (who both used her twice and clearly adored her) has ensured her place in film history – ahead of other stars whose careers may have seemed more respectable at the time.

Also performing double duty on both films was cinematographer Stanley Cortez, a master of chiaroscuro lighting whose previous credits included The Magnificent Ambersons and The Night of the Hunter. Cortez’s penchant for high contrast lighting is the single major reason why Criterion’s Blu-rays represent such an essential upgrade over their standard DVD counterparts; check out the interplay of light and shadow in the prison sequences of The Naked Kiss to understand how much richer and more beautiful darkness can be rendered in high-definition.

Finally, the supplements on each disc are unusually insightful and provide what amounts to a master class on the life and career of Sam Fuller. This includes vintage interviews with the great man himself, new video interviews with Constance Towers (who still looks lovely well into her seventies and tells some cracking good yarns about working with Ford and Fuller) and, best of all, Adam Simon’s feature-length 1996 documentary The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera (included on the Shock Corridor disc, marking its first home video release on any format.)

This last feature sheds light on the several lives Fuller lived as a crime reporter and soldier before he ever made a movie and contains interviews with Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, all of whom wax poetic on Fuller’s films and their influence. But it’s the incredible interviews with the outrageous raconteur Fuller, conducted not long before his death, that provide the documentary’s high point; the film ends, for instance, with Fuller pitching the idea for a biopic of Honore de Balzac, using colorful language and his trademark growl of a voice to make a hypothetical movie about the life of the mind sound almost impossibly exciting. “He was a scoundrel!”, Fuller says of Balzac. “He was a bullshit artist!” Then, after a slight pause for dramatic effect: “He was a writer!”

Thanks to Christa Fuller for making corrections to this review.


Top 25 Films of the 1950s

25. Hiroshima Mon Amour (Resnais, France, 1959)

Alain Resnais’ first feature takes an impeccable, highly literary script by Marguerite Duras and turns it into a radical, intensely cinematic movie: two lovers, an unnamed Japanese architect and a French actress, have a lengthy conversation on the subject of memory. The present day scenes are continually peppered with flashbacks to the woman’s harrowing experiences as the persecuted lover of a German soldier during the Second World War. Resnais’ groundbreaking, nonlinear editing style, used to suggest “flashes of memory,” has had an incalculable effect on subsequent filmmakers.

24. The Music Room (Ray, India, 1958)

23. The Earrings of Madame de . . . (Ophuls, France, 1953)

Austrian-born director Max Ophuls made what are arguably the most elegant movies of the classic French cinema; his much beloved tracking shots find a perfect compliment in narrative structures that continually circle back on themselves, like a waltz, before resolving in a typically tragic denouement. Letter from an Unknown Woman, from Ophuls’ brief stint in Hollywood, is my favorite of his films but I think Madame de . . . is the masterpiece of his lengthier French career. The unnamed title character is the wife of a general in the French Army who sells her most expensive pair of earrings to pay off a debt, an act that becomes a catalyst for a chain of events bringing about her ruin. Apart from the aforementioned formal grace, the lead performances (from Daniel Darrieux, Charles Boyer and the very suave and refined-looking Italian director Vittorio de Sica) are sublime.

22. Los Olvidados (Bunuel, Mexico, 1950)

The first masterpiece of Luis Bunuel’s Mexican period is this unforgettable tale of juvenile delinquents living in the slums of Mexico City. The main characters are Jaibo, the leader of a gang, and Pedro, an impressionable boy who wants to do good but becomes enmeshed in gang activity after being repeatedly rejected by his own mother. There are many aspects to this film that are similar to Italian Neorealism, including the documentary-like visuals and incredibly naturalistic child performances, but Bunuel, being true to his roots, continually pushes the material in a more dream-like and surreal direction. An uncompromising film that was way ahead of its time, Los Olivdados feels like it could have been made yesterday.

21. The River (Renoir, France/India, 1951)

river

20. Ordet (Dreyer, Denmark, 1955)

Carl Dreyer’s penultimate film is this transcendentally uplifting drama adapted from a play by Danish pastor Kaj Monk. The slowly, exquisitely paced story takes place in a rural farming community and centers on the Borgen family, which consists of a widower father and his three grown sons. Issues of faith, love (in many forms) and repression are profoundly explored when the wife of the eldest son dies and the middle son, a religious fanatic who believes he is Jesus, claims to have the power to bring her back to life. This is not merely a film about religion; it is a spiritually intense experience unto itself, one that can even be appreciated as such by an old atheist like me.

19. Senso (Visconti, Italy, 1954)

Alida Valli is a wanton countess in 19th century Italy who betrays her country to pursue a destructive affair with a lieutenant of the occupying Austrian army (Farley Granger). Visconti’s elegant mise-en-scene, featuring impeccable period set and costume design rendered in ravishingly beautiful Technicolor, marked an about face from his early Neorealist phase and the beginning of a mature “operatic” style that would continue for the rest of his career.

18. Touch of Evil (Welles, USA, 1958)

17. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks, USA, 1953)

16. The Naked Spur (Mann, USA, 1953)

In the 1950s, multi-genre specialist Anthony Mann crafted his own unique brand of “psychological western,” which is typified by a series of fascinating Jimmy Stewart vehicles. Here, Stewart plays Howard Kemp, a traumatized Civil War veteran-turned-bounty hunter who reluctantly accepts the help of two strangers in tracking down wanted killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan in his prime). During the lengthy trek back to civilization where Vandergroat will stand trial, the captive shrewdly manipulates his trio of captors, driving wedges of resentment between them . . . This was perhaps the first of several great ’50s films to subtly undermine Stewart’s all American, nice guy persona.

15. Park Row (Fuller, USA, 1952)

Sam Fuller’s highly personal, self-financed love letter to “the fourth estate” is also his greatest achievement: an enormously entertaining look back at the newspaper rivalries of late 19th century New York City starring Gene Evans (The Steel Helmet) as Phineas Mitchell, a reporter who dares to start his own paper. Told in the broad, colorful strokes that became Fuller’s trademark, this cinematic yarn consistently delights in everything from its exquisite period detail to its staggering use of crane shots. The unavailability of Park Row on home video is positively scandalous. Are you listening, Criterion?

14. All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, USA, 1956)

Douglas Sirk was to the melodrama what Alfred Hitchcock was to the thriller – its most famous and accomplished practitioner. All That Heaven Allows is his most beautifully realized creation, the story of an upper-class, middle-aged widow (Jane Wyman) who provokes scandal when she embarks on a romance with her much younger, working class gardener (Rock Hudson). Celebrated in some quarters as a subversive Marxist critique of middle America, derided in others as camp, I think All That Heaven Allows was rightly appreciated by 1950s audiences for what it is – a masterful tearjerker and damning indictment of hypocrisy rolled up into one entertaining and colorful package.

13. Floating Clouds (Naruse, Japan, 1955)

Mikio Naruse has long been considered one of Japan’s greatest directors by Japanese critics. Yet in spite of a prolific body of work (his career began in the silent era and stretched all the way to the late 1960s) he’s never been as well known in the west as his contemporaries. Floating Clouds is my favorite of the Naruse films I’ve seen, a heartbreaking story of a doomed love affair. Yukiko (Hideko Takamine), an employee of Japan’s forest service, meets and falls in love with a co-worker, Kengo (Masayuki Mori), while stationed in French Indochina during WWII. After the war, they meet up again in Japan where an obsessed Yukiko attempts to resume the affair in the face of some very bastard-like behavior from her indifferent former lover. Naruse’s trademark ability to extend sympathy to all of his characters – in a scenario where people can’t resist making terrible decisions – left me with a feeling of sadness I’ve never quite shaken.

12. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, USA, 1952)

The most beloved Hollywood musical of all-time, in large part because it offers an affectionate and humorous look back at the process of filmmaking during the dramatic period when silent pictures gave way to the talkies. Co-directed and choreographed by star Gene Kelly, who brought a more masculine and aggressively athletic style of dance to the movie musical – in contrast to the Fred Astaire-style gracefulness that had previously dominated the genre.

11. Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger, USA, 1959)

An electrifying courtroom drama in which a country lawyer (Jimmy Stewart again) agrees to defend a G.I. (Ben Gazzara) accused of killing the man who raped his wife (Lee Remick). Director Otto Preminger was always one to push the envelope and you can almost feel the old studio system crumbling around him when listening to this film’s daring use of language and looking at its authentic and evocative Michigan locations. Also features a snazzy Duke Ellington score.

10. Bigger Than Life (Ray, USA, 1956)

James Mason is a schoolteacher and family man who begins suffering from a bizarre strain of megalomania after becoming addicted to the prescription “wonder drug” cortisone. Director Nicholas Ray’s unparalleled mastery of ‘Scope framing (check out what he does with the staircase in Mason’s home) and Technicolor (those yellow cabs!), combined with mise-en-scene that reconfigures American post-war prosperity as something nightmarish and oppressive, is perfectly suited to the melodramatic storyline. “God was wrong!”

9. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, Japan, 1954)

Akira Kurosawa’s best film and arguably the greatest action movie ever made. A village of poor farmers learn they are about to be raided by bandits on account of their soon-to-arrive barley crop. They hire seven samurai to help them defend the village from attack, with nothing to offer in return but food and board. The first half of this massively influential three and a half hour chambara extravaganza is devoted to setting up the conflict and introducing the seven samurai as distinct and memorable personalities (with Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune deserving special honors for carving out indelible archetypal characters). Then, when the epic, rain and mud-soaked battle finally does arrive, it is impossible not to care deeply about the human cost of the outcome. Seven Samurai is to the samurai picture what The Searchers is to the western: the best film of its kind.

8. The Band Wagon (Minnelli, USA, 1953)

My own personal favorite musical is this Vincente Minnelli gem. Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is an over the hill hoofer whose latest show, a theatrical musical comedy, is hijacked by Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), a pretentious director intent on turning it into a modern day version of Faust. Exacerbating the situation is that Hunter can’t stand Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse – never lovelier), the ballet dancer hired by Cordova to star opposite him. Sparks fly between Astaire and Charisse both off the dance floor and on, especially during such classic production numbers as “Dancing in the Dark,” “That’s Entertainment” and the film noir influenced “Girl Hunt.”

7. Some Like It Hot (Wilder, USA, 1959)

Billy Wilder’s crude, gender-bending comedy about a couple of down on their luck Chicago musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who disguise themselves as women to get a job in an all-female band headed to Florida. En route, they both develop the hots for singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe at her sultriest) but of course can’t reveal their true identities. Like a lot of classic Hollywood comedies, this hilarious romp works as well as it does because you can feel director and co-writer Billy Wilder trying his damndest to smuggle risque material past the censors. It’s no coincidence that his career went south when, just a few years later, there was nothing left to fight against.

6. A Man Escaped (Bresson, France, 1956)

Robert Bresson’s minimalist drama, based on the memoir of a real life French resistance fighter’s escape from a Gestapo prison, unforgettably conveys one man’s relentless desire to regain his freedom. Eschewing the easy thrills so common to the Hollywood treatment of this type of subject matter, Bresson instead zeroes in on the specific process of how Lieutenant Fontaine acquires, creates and utilizes the tools that enable his escape plan to work. The stringent use of close-ups of hands at work, accompanied by a use of heightened sound effects and an extensive employment of first person voice-over narration, draws the viewer into Fontaine’s world to an almost unbearable intense degree. This is on my short list of near-perfect movies.

5. Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953)

Kenji Mizoguchi’s best-loved film is this unique ghost story/war movie/melodrama hybrid. In feudal wartime Japan, two men (a potter and a farmer) move from their home village to a city, hoping to become war profiteers, but tragically opt to leave their wives behind; as the men become wildly successful, one of the wives is murdered and the other is forced into a life of prostitution. The homecoming finale, which sees the protagonists as “sadder and wiser men,” is shattering. Mizoguchi’s ravishingly photographed fable of greed and ambition uses light, shadow and fog (not to mention those legendary crane shots) to perfectly complement his view of the world as a place of impossible moral choices.

4. Vertigo (Hitchcock, USA, 1958)

Alfred Hitchcock’s highly personal and deeply disturbing study of obsession, which unfolds like a dark and troubling dream. Jimmy Stewart is Scottie Ferguson, a retired cop with a fear of heights who agrees to work a job as a private eye at the request of an old friend. This involves tailing the friend’s wife (Kim Novak), with whom Ferguson falls hopelessly and dangerously in love. Hitchcock leads both Ferguson and the viewer into a downward spiral of despair, eventually ripping the lid off a Pandora’s box of sexual perversity containing voyeurism, fetishism and – as Hitchcock was happy to note – necrophilia. A career high point for all involved including Hitchcock, Stewart and composer Bernard Herrmann.

3. Journey to Italy (Rossellini, Italy, 1954)

My favorite Italian movie ever is this deceptively simple melodrama about a bored married couple (George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman) who travel to Naples following a death in the family. As they wander the city separately (she visits museums and the ruins of Pompeii, he flirts with the prospect of adultery), they take emotional stock of their lives for the first time in years, leading to one of the most spiritually uplifting finales in cinema. A film in which nothing and everything happens, this is the birth of cinematic modernism without which such diverse films as Antonioni’s L’avventura, Godard’s Contempt and Kiarostami’s Certified Copy would not be possible.

2. Tokyo Story (Ozu, Japan, 1953)

Yasujiro Ozu’s supreme masterpiece tells the story of an elderly Japanese couple who travel from their rural hometown to visit their grown children in the title city, only to find that their children don’t have much time to spend with them and even treat them as a nuisance. Rather than condemn any of his characters the way you would expect a Hollywood melodrama to do, Ozu’s patient, observant, non-judgemental eye sees the disintegration of the family as the sad but natural order of the universe. The heart of the film is Ozu’s favorite actress Setsuko Hara as Noriko, the elderly couple’s daughter-in-law, whose smiling countenance seems to radiate an almost overwhelming warmth and humanity. When one embittered character tells her that life is disappointing, Noriko’s resigned, smiling response is “Yes, I’m afraid it is.” Sublime.

1. The Searchers (Ford, USA, 1956)

Quite simply one of the greatest movie ever made, John Ford’s deeply felt western combines adventure, tragedy, comedy and romance in the story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne in his best and most complex performance), a Civil War veteran who embarks on an obsessive, years-long quest to find his niece after she is kidnapped by Comanche Indians. Only what is he really searching for? His humanity? The Moby Dick of the cinema.


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