“PRIMITIVE DIES”. This was the bald headline that disgraced the tiny item in an Australian newspaper declaring the passing in October 1997 of Samuel Fuller – accompanied, of course, by a mugshot of the filmmaker chomping on a cigar. How does a great, influential director get to be encapsulated, by some copywriter who may have known little and seen less of his work, as a primitive? A primitive like Ed Wood (deranged Z movie bungler), or a primitive like Steven Spielberg (unreflective entertainer for the people)? Primitive like Robert Aldrich (classical action, violence, machismo) or like Gaspar Noé (modern confrontation, provocation, sensation)?
To answer these questions properly would probably require a book-length detour through the fields of cultural studies, reception studies, Pierre Bourdieu-informed accounts of social taste and distinction, comparative histories of American and European cinema, and – last but far from least – the variegated national histories of film criticism itself. The effort would not be wasted. For the artist who dies a primitive is an artist unknown, undigested, a mystery hidden under stereotype, cliché and snobbish posturing.
Most of us who love cinema think we know something about “Sam” (as we familiarly called him, but not how he signed himself), born 1912. We know that he stood against a wall during a luridly filtered party scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965) and told Jean-Paul Belmondo (and us) that film is “like a battleground. It’s love, hate, action, violence, death … in one word, emotions” – even if we haven’t yet seen Pierrot le fou. We know that his films display a tabloid aesthetic (inspired by his youthful days in the newspaper game) and wallop a kino-fist; that they are, above all, dynamic, kinetic, visceral. A Pop Art guy before his time.
From A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995) – which leans heavily on the work of Michael Henry Wilson, see his epic final tome À la porte du Paradis (2014) – we know about the bold long takes, the wild and woolly camera movements, the disorienting close-ups (the first of which was the first shot in his first feature, I Shot Jesse James ), the starkly angular, comic-book compositions, the furious montages. And we know who he has influenced, those contemporary directors, from Jim Jarmusch to Leos Carax, who cite him lovingly.
And we’ve also heard – far too often – about the supposedly bad B movie acting (delivered by Gene Barry or Constance Towers), the excruciating dialogue alternating heavy-handed slogans and hard-boiled retorts, the lurid plots. (My vain attempt, once upon a time, to explain the serious premise of White Dog  – I think I called it “a metaphor for racist socialisation” – to a Literature Professor from University of Sydney led only to his superior mirth, and my peeved discomfort.) The unreal clichés and stereotypes, lordy! (Pointer for 21st century social-media readers: in this paragraph, I am being bitingly ironic.)
We know he had something to do with politics, and that political statements are uttered in his films – but whether he was arch-conservative or anarchist, or something weirdly liberal in-between, seems to be a murky call, especially if you haven’t yet seen the films for yourself.
By the way, I don’t mean that film-seeing remark as a lofty rebuke from a cinephilic ivory tower: one of the principal reasons there has been such a fog around Fuller is that, in many times and places, his films have mostly remained very hard to see, on big or small screens. I myself had to wait 25 years for an opportunity to see the hallowed titles Park Row (1952) – a celebration of the newspaper industry, and Fuller’s personal favourite – and Fixed Bayonets! (1951), one of his many projects (across film, novels and TV) devoted to the various wars of the 20th century.
As a 1970s teenager, I depended on broadcast TV to catch titles like Underworld U.S.A. (1961). Through the 1980s, VHS never served Fuller terribly well; DVD and Blu-ray have subsequently done a much better job, promoting Pickup on South Street (1953), House of Bamboo (1955), Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964) to their richly deserved cult status. (I even got to do an audio commentary for Eureka on Fixed Bayonets! in 2016, re-released as part of the Fuller at Fox box set in 2019.) But some, such as the remarkable Run of the Arrow (1957) and most of his late works of the ‘80s and ‘90s, are still elusive. Others, including The Crimson Kimono (1959) and China Gate (1957), are only now revealing their riches to those who weren’t able to catch them 50 or 60 years ago.
Fuller is a filmmaker who – more than any other filmmaker – calls forth pithy encapsulations. In their massive 50 ans de cinema américain (1995), Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Bertrand Tavernier (who both passed away in, respectively, December 2020 and March 2021) briefly consider Christian Viviani’s suggestive formulation – “by pushing the ridiculous just a little too far, he attains poetry” – and end up reversing it: by pushing poetry just a little too far, he attains the ridiculous. (1) Criticism surely needs its encapsulations flung back and forth in the course of debate and education; but, in the case of Fuller, the summary verdicts for or against tend to replace actual, in-depth analytical work on the films themselves.
Is no judgment on Fuller, positive or negative, celebratory or condemnatory, free from some loaded judgement implying an elaborate and unstated system of social taste? The cinematic moves that look primitive to some in Forty Guns (1957) seem to others virtuosic – I vote with the latter verdict. This blurry situation is exacerbated by the fact that “Sam” – again, more than any other director – has been sliced up very differently by successive schools of criticism, creating a monstrous series of incommensurable Fullers. In one of the finest essays in the annals of English-language criticism – with certainly one of the best titles, “Tough Nuts to Crack” – Ronnie Scheib (1944-2015) began a study of Shock Corridor with this handy breakdown of the terrain.
For the Cro-Magnites, Fuller is the great American primitive, swinging through the trees with a camera between his toes – he may have a pea brain but he sure got big eyes – and rhythm. For the outlying Solar Plexites, Fuller’s a down-home, funky director, as American as violence and cheesecake. For the Aesthetes, he’s a poetic film noir auteur, a modernist – they saw him in Pierrot le fou and scrambled off to see his films. And, by gosh, there they were: recurrent themes, Brechtian distanciation, jump cuts, dislocation of sound and image, all you could ask for in an authentic American Artefact. For the Moralists, Fuller is either a Nasty Fascist or a Misunderstood Liberal. (2)
Fuller, after he was discovered and hailed by critics, stuck close to film culture. He gave numerous interviews, warmly acknowledged those commentators who had given his career a hand, generously attended retrospective events and film festivals. But Fuller was also (against his will) frozen within the rather coarse-grained characterisations that these successive champions elaborated. At the beginning, in the early 1950s, there was the minority report offered by Manny Farber, who praised Fuller among those post-1940s filmmakers who find their “best stride in a culture-free atmosphere that allows a director to waste his and the audience’s time”, calling fond attention to the “episodic, spastically slow and fast" rhythm of the work, its “scepticism and energy”. (3)
Seven years later, more influentially, there was the enthusiasm of Luc Moullet in Cahiers du cinéma, who praised Fuller’s camera movements on the grounds that they are “fortunately, totally gratuitous: it is in terms of the emotive power of the movement that the scene is organised”. (4) This notion of Fuller as an essentially inorganic, bits-and-pieces filmmaker, devoted to a cinema of the flourish and moments of excess, has ruled many appreciations since, including those of Scorsese (who eulogises the way a body slams into a wall and the camera movement picks up the energy of the blow) and Quentin Tarantino (as narrated in the documentary The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera [Adam Simon, 1996]).
Nowadays, when such flourishes in cinema are legion, even routine (see, for instance, the work of Edgar Wright), we can easily overlook what they must have once meant to modernists like Farber and Moullet: in the context of a more conventionalised and rigid mainstream, Fuller’s stylistic tics were the first signs of a personal cinema suddenly possible within the System – hence Moullet’s regard for these “instinctive … rough sketches” revealing “the force of the instantaneous and of the unfinished”. (5)
Later, in a remarkable historic conjunction, British film culture in the late 1960s and early ‘70s showed its love for good old Sam by producing three books in as many years: an Edinburgh Film Festival anthology, plus studies by Phil Hardy and Nicholas Garnham. (6) The last of these tends more toward a socio-political perspective than a purely aesthetic one (with Fuller positioned somewhere between the ideological myopia of Old Hollywood and the radical reportage offered by the global New Waves), but the first two books issue squarely from the heady excitement of a structuralist-textualist moment in British film culture.
Here, Fuller’s movies are dissolved into one great corpus and become a churning Sargasso Sea of oppositions and antinomies, contradictions and reversals, striking images and juxtapositions. (See my introduction to a reprint of Sam Rohdie on House of Bamboo in 1969 here.) No movie in his career emerges as better executed or more vividly realised than any other – such evaluative pretensions of a Leavisite period having been left behind in the wild rush to Paris – and all partake of the same exhilarating Fuller-effect. Which is not an entirely false impression, but all the same …
It’s truthful to the extent that no Fuller film is entirely bereft of some interest, some idea, some moment that is captivating on one level or another. But his career is uneven, as even the most diehard fans would have to now admit. Some are more like didactic pamphlets than fully or convincingly dramatised movies – for example, that curious patchwork of fiction and documentary concerning the rise of a neo-Nazi youth movement, Verboten! (1958). Merrill’s Marauders (1962) fits the structural template of the Fuller War Movie down to a tee, but it’s hard to get excited about in isolation, without the buzz of pro-Fuller cinephile rhetoric heightening the significance and impact of stray good scenes. Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (1973) is his most obviously strained, quasi-Godardian effort at pleasing his European aficionados – going fatally further in this direction than other ‘50s contemporaries like Aldrich, Frank Tashlin, Nicholas Ray or even Alfred Hitchcock, whose work shifted in its pitch (not entirely happily) after it had been acclaimed, feted and reinterpreted abroad.
Curiously, when even a whiff of so-called “production values” moves in, the mitigating critical buzz disappears fast – as is the case when watching the mediocre Hell and High Water (1954). Fuller is firmly fixed in the popular filmgoing imagination – however unfairly – as a King of the Bs, which is already what Farber was happy to see him stay back in 1952. This is why the small-scale of White Dog (1982) was more immediately embraced by embattled cinephile critics than the grander canvas of The Big Red One (1980) – although passing time, and especially the appearance of a restored/enhanced version, has revealed the latter to be the richer and more deeply lasting work.
So what makes Fuller a great director – beyond, that is, the myth and the hype? There are at least ten extraordinary films in his career: how many manage even half that number? Fuller’s best work attained its combustible powers in the ‘50s, in the company of a new generation that included Aldrich, Richard Brooks and Ray. These auteurs can be thought as melodramatists, but not in the vein of Douglas Sirk or Vincente Minnelli who mined the “feminine” genre of the domestic melodrama to some similar ends in the same period. Fuller is on the side of action-melodrama or, as so many critics down the decades have approvingly described it, lyrical violence.
His films were part of a loose movement that upped the ante on violence and tension, heightened a certain noir romanticism (the individual against society, lovers on the run … ) and explored new forms of psychological characterisation. Fuller’s films are all about drives, impulses, emotional states that are imprinted on the human being as traces of “ideological” socialisation (although ideology is never a simple thing in his work) – as much as they issue from within the hearts, minds and guts of individuals. All Fuller’s screen creatures are divided and twisted (the most oft-cited emblematic character being the demented black man who shouts KKK slogans in Shock Corridor): it is the clash of inner and outer states that fuel his narratives and shape the actions – and also, as a by-product, equalise the genders. These characters hammer out their problems by bashing themselves against each other and the world – hence the intense, even obsessive physicality of this cinema, and (as in every type of melodrama) its lurid, expressionistic taste for grotesque bodily metaphors of social conditions (eg., the obese criminal capitalist poolside in Underworld U.S.A.).
Although it sounds like a slightly old-fashioned description nowadays, Fuller’s films embody and exhibit ideological contradiction – but in a game, vivid, virtuosic, frequently perverse way. (Underworld U.S.A., for example, was made to show how organised crime took taxes from government – which “made me very happy”, Fuller said – and how someone could use the FBI as a tool of revenge: “I thought it would be very funny”.) (7) His tales of identity-in-flux – especially Run of the Arrow – are strikingly prescient of what gets called nowadays intersectional and/or postcolonial cinema.
Fuller’s films – with their heterogeneous mixes of footage, their hallucinatory dream/fantasy sequences (see Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, the latter a likely influence on David Lynch), their plot trajectories of reporting and transmission, their clashes of sound and image – are also prophetic of the heady, reality-twisting role of media in our modern world. According to Scheib:
What TV homogenises, deadens, disconnects radically and connects trivially, Fuller electrifies, forcing his audience to confront the impossible juxtaposition of absolutes, of consciousnesses that cannot, yet do, share the same frame, and the multiplicity of absent syntaxes which could articulate their coexistence and their consecutivity. (8)
But where Fuller is definitely not a prototype of postmodernism is in his insistence on a few absolute values, values that are the pumping heart of his cinema. Perversity and amorality may be plentiful, but this storyteller will not abide injustice, hypocrisy (“getting involved in something emotionally and doing nothing about it”), (9) or the corruption of innocence. Underworld U.S.A., The Naked Kiss and The Big Red One give us the impression that nothing was more sentimentally sacred to Fuller than childhood, and nothing more despicably evil than its desecration.
Thanks to tireless researchers who have trailed through studio archives and interviewed surviving crew members, we have some idea now exactly what Hitchcock, Ray or Fritz Lang actually did in the process of directing a movie – how they worked on the script and pre-production, how they staged and re-shaped a scene on the set, how they edited and completed their work. With Fuller we (as yet) know virtually nothing of this. Like most directors, he never talked about the nitty-gritty of his filmmaking. Everything was aphorisms, broad strokes, spontaneous advice to young, aspiring filmmakers – such as counselling that the start of any movie has to give the viewer a hard-on. In a characteristically tub-thumping 1964 essay titled "What is a Film?", Fuller gets no closer to technicalities than this: “What other medium can take us into the eye of a character, probe through his mind, catch a look that would take a dozen words to describe?” (10) As a result, there has been little appreciation, so far, of Fuller’s true craft as a director. (11)
Pickup on South Street would be a good place to start such a project of recovery, since it is his most classical film, demonstrating what Victor Perkins has described as a “strategy of style”, a “rhetoric more or less constantly in play which is nevertheless not a particularly obtrusive rhetoric” (12) – a far cry from the typical kino-fist reveries. In both Pickup on South Street and The Big Red One, we see Fuller’s mastery in deploying dialogue-less, action-based scenes to advance narration and express complex arrangements of milieu and theme – as in the wonderfully economic colliding of bodies, looks, gestures, characters and narrative lines in the former (culminating in the immortal opening exchange: “What happened?”/”I’m not sure yet”), and the heartbreaking scene of Lee Marvin carrying a dying child on his shoulders in the latter, an extended passage structured delicately around mechanical, anempathic toy music. In Fuller’s more modernist mood, Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss (truly twin peaks of ‘60s cinema!) generate their complex effects of disquiet from what he described as “a European tempo, that to me is a superior tempo. If you make any scenes with violence the contrast is excellent”. (13)
Fuller directed five films of varying lengths after White Dog, as well as writing novels, his wonderful autobiography, a travel book on old Manhattan, even a comic book – but in the fifteen-year period until his death, he mainly moved in the larger-than-life realm of his own myth. As Coursodon & Tavernier point out, he was one of the few filmmakers ever to benefit consistently from the support of genuinely cinephile producers (Peter Bogdanovich, Jon Davison, Jacques Bral). (14) Street of No Return (1989) is typical of the work of this period – some wild and outrageous scenes, mostly referring back to his past glories, but swamped by some less-than-wonderful attempts at emulating rock-video mannerisms. The Day of Reckoning (1990), adapted for TV from a Patricia Highsmith story, is a grimmer and more perverse adieu.
In the meantime, he acted for Amos Gitai (Golem, the Ghost of Exile, 1992), Aki Kaurismäki (La Vie de bohème, 1992) and brother Mika (Tigrero: A Film That was Never Made, 1994), Wim Wenders (The State of Things , plus a spookily touching envoi in The End of Violence ) and Larry Cohen (A Return to Salem’s Lot, 1987) – Cohen being a close artistic cousin of Fuller, an equally uneven melodramatist of special distinction, whose great ideas occasionally outrun his capacity to depict them entirely legibly on screen.
For me, the best testament to Fuller from this final period is John McNaughton’s telemovie Girls in Prison (1994), from a script by Fuller and his wife Christa; this bracingly straight politicisation of a pulp standard from the ‘50s hurls in everything – blacklist, war, media corruption – and binds it to the collective rage of women who find solidarity behind bars. It’s Shock Corridor with a happy ending. And definitely not primitive.
1. Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Bertrand Tavernier, 50 ans de cinéma américain (Paris: Nathan, 1995), pp. 501-502. back
3. Manny Farber, Negative Space (New York: Da Capo, 1998), p. 56. Farber’s more extensive 1969 essay on the director appears on pp. 129-133. These texts were subsequently reprinted in Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber (Library of America, 2016). back
4. Luc Moullet, “Sam Fuller: In Marlowe’s Footsteps”, in Jim Hiller (ed.), Cahiers du Cinéma – The 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985), p. 148. Moullet has reprinted and commented on this early essay (written when he was 22) in his splendid collection, Piges choisies (Capricci: 2009). back
5. Ibid, p. 153. back
6. David Will & Peter Wollen (eds), Samuel Fuller (Edinburgh Film Festival, 1969); Phil Hardy, Samuel Fuller (London: Studio Vista, 1970); Nicholas Garnham, Fuller (London: Secker and Warburg, 1971). For more on these books and their cultural moment, see my review of Marsha Gordon, Film is Like a Battleground: Sam Fuller’s War Movies (2017). back
7. Don Ranvaud, “An Interview with Sam Fuller”, Framework, no. 19 (1982), p. 28. back
8. Scheib, “Tough Nuts to Crack”, p. 36. back
9. Ranvaud, “An Interview”, p. 28. back
10. Samuel Fuller, “What is a Film?”, Cinema, Vol. 2 No. 2 (July 1964), p. 22. back
11. The late 2010s saw a new wave of retrospectives igniting magazine dossiers and books on Fuller, not all of which I have yet consulted: see, for instance, Jean Narboni, Samuel Fuller, un homme à fables (Capricci, 2017); Frank Lafond, Samuel Fuller, jusqu’à l’épuisement (Rouge Profond, 2017); Jacques Deniel & Jean-François Rauger (eds), Samuel Fuller: Le choc et la caresse (Yellow Now, 2018); and Trafic, no. 104 (December 2017). Mention must also be made of Fuller’s splendid autobiography, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking (2004), and the unconventional film subsequently adapted it from it by his daughter, Samantha Fuller: A Fuller Life (2013). back
12. V.F. Perkins et al, "The Return of Movie", Movie, no. 20 (Spring 1975), p. 6. back
13. Ranvaud, "An Interview", p. 27. back
14. Coursodon & Tavernier, 50 ans de cinéma américain, p. 503. back
© Adrian Martin November 1997 / July 2002 / updates December 2021