Sam Fuller: Dark knight

The director Sam Fuller created some of the most powerful war movies of the Fifties. He might get the credit he deserves at last, says Geoffrey Macnab
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"He has a tabloid mentality... he has to hit you with the headlines, hit you with the prose," Martin Scorsese once said of the maverick film-maker Sam Fuller. To those of you who don't remember or know him, Fuller was one of the great pioneers of American cinema. His disciples range from Scorsese to Jean-Luc Godard, from Quentin Tarantino and Curtis Hanson to Wim Wenders and Tim Robbins.

It is hard to say whether Fuller was a highbrow in lowbrow garb, or vice versa. Whatever the case, his movies dealt in provocative, intelligent and sometimes sensationalist fashion with issues that other directors wouldn't go near.

Long before Brokeback Mountain, he was exploring the idea of love between cowboys in I Shot Jesse James (1949). He was ready to tackle such subjects as racism and insanity in Shock Corridor (1963), and even paedophilia in The Naked Kiss (1964).

His war films have a ring of authenticity that you don't find in Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line simply because he was speaking from first-hand experience. As an infantry man, he was on Omaha Beach on 6 June 1944.

Three of Fuller's best films – House of Bamboo (1955), Fixed Bayonets! (1951) and Hell and High Water (1952) – have just been released on DVD in the UK for the first time. They deal with typical Fuller subjects – US ex-GIs on a murderous rampage in Tokyo, veterans fighting a rearguard action during the Korean War, and an ex-Navy officer trying to stop the Russians from dropping an atomic bomb on Korea.

But Fuller wasn't only a great film-maker. In his younger years, he was a celebrated New York crime reporter and pulp novelist. Now, more than 60 years after its original publication, his 1944 bestseller The Dark Page is being republished. It is an embroiled Oedipal tale about Carl Chapman, the editor of a New York tabloid, and his young star reporter, Lance McLeary.

The reporter is investigating a murder that the editor knows more about than he is letting on. The book works both as a hardboiled thriller and as an evocation of a lost era in US tabloid journalism, when the hard-drinking and endlessly cynical reporters all behaved as if they were on leave from The Front Page .

Christa Lang, his widow (Fuller died in 1997), points out that there were some striking parallels between Fuller and his fictional creation, the brilliant but amoral editor. In the novel, Chapman is appalled when a tubercular woman turns up at a Lonely Hearts Ball he has organised to boost circulation, claiming to be his wife. In real-life, Fuller himself was once trapped into a bigamous marriage. When he was 24 and had just sold his first screenplay (the musical Hats Off) to Hollywood, he was dragged down to Tijuana, Mexico, by a real-life femme fatale who married him there.

The only hitch was that Fuller's new wife, Mae Scriven, already had a husband – the legendary comedian, Buster Keaton. The fact that Keaton had wed Scriven by accident (or so he claimed), during an "alcoholic blackout", didn't change the legality of the situation. Fuller was so appalled that he quickly annulled the marriage.

By the 1970s, Fuller had become a cult figure among a new generation of directors and young counter-culture rebels. Jim Morrison, the lead singer of The Doors, wanted to form a production company with him.

The German film-maker Wim Wenders, who cast him in four of his movies, calls him "one of the great movie directors of the 20th century, sure. But most certainly its greatest storyteller. In my book, at least." Even so, he is a forgotten figure in Hollywood.

'The Dark Page' by Sam Fuller is published by Kingly Books, priced £10.95; 'House of Bamboo', 'Fixed Bayonets' and 'Hell and High Water' are out now on DVD