Obituary: Samuel Fuller

Saturday 22 October 2011 22:14

Samuel Michael Fuller, film director: born Worcester, Massachusetts 12 August 1911; married 1965 Christa Lang (one daughter); died Los Angeles 30 October 1997.

"A film is like a battleground. There's love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word, emotions."

This feisty manifesto, endlessly quoted by cinephiles and adopted as a rallying slogan by a whole generation of directors, was spoken, in English, in Jean-Luc Godard's 1965 masterpiece Pierrot le fou by the American film- maker Samuel Fuller. (Or "Sam" Fuller: although the idea of referring to Wallace Stevens as "Wally", and to Charles Ives as "Charlie" or even, God forbid, "Chuck", would make literary and music critics cringe with embarrassment, Fuller was one of those Hollywood directors - others were "Nick" Ray and "Sean" Ford - whose vernacular idiom and buttonholing style appeared to invite buddy-boy nickname statius.) The sentiment is not, to be sure, a subtle one. But then, subtlety was never Fuller's forte.

In his movies a spade was almost viscerally present as a spade. Like Dr Johnson refuting the exponents of metaphysical scepticism by subjecting external reality to a hefty kick in the shins, he was prepared not only to call a spade a spade but to slam it into the public's face as an irrefutable demonstration of its physical existence.

It was often said of him - a tabloid reporter before he became a film- maker - that he retained the newspaperman's snooping instinct for a scoop, for a banner headline. The very titles of his movies appeared to scream out for the exclamation marks of a yellow press sensationalism. Listen to them: I Shot Jesse James! Fixed Bayonets! Pick-up on South Street! Hell and High Water! Forty Guns! Verboten! Underworld USA! Shock Corridor! The Naked Kiss! Shark! Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street!

That demotic plainspokenness, that bluff indifference to the finer sensitivities and genteel felicities of high-art cinema, was undoubtedly the main source of his raw, uncouth strength as a film-maker. He had no scruples about allowing the more or less formulaic plotlines of his genre-inspired work to spiral out in every direction to encompass his characteristically gutsy metaphorising of emotion and violence - of, one might say, emotion as violence.

And he did tend to see the world in primary colours. He once admitted, for example, that he plotted his movies on a blackboard with several different colours of chalk to ensure that the components of action (red), exposition (white) and romance (blue) were all evenly balanced.

Yet there could also be detected in his work an ambiguity that belied this slightly reductive even if self-cultivated image as the poet of potboilers or, as the auteurist critic Andrew Sarris once (approvingly) categorised him, "American primitive". That ambiguity was, to begin with, of an ideological nature. Fuller may have been unsubtle as he rode roughshod through the due processes of narrative decorum, but no one who was, as he was, a staunch Democrat all his life yet frequently found himself dismissed as "a right-wing reactionary" could be entirely one-dimensional.

It was also aesthetic. Notwithstanding the uncompromisingly tough-guy, cigar-chomping posture he affected to adopt, there were many scenes in his work that punctured the myth that a Fuller movie could be everything but moving. A case in point is a celebrated sequence in his late, semi- autobiographical war movie The Big Red One (1979) in which Lee Marvin endeavours to comfort a dying child, an inmate of the concentration camp that he and his unit have just helped to liberate. Melodramatic yet utterly unmanipulative, it is guaranteed to bring tears to the eyes of spectators even as tough as the director himself.

Fuller was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1911. At the age of 12 he was employed as a copyboy on the New York Journal and, a mere five years later, became the youngest criminal reporter ever to have written for a major American newspaper. (In 1952 he would pay tribute to that seminal period of his life in Park Row, whose title denotes the area in New York that was the exact equivalent of London's Fleet Street.)

Unemployed in the depressed Thirties, he "lit out for the country" in true Huck Finn fashion, wandering the American hinterland by illegally hitching rides on freight trains. Simultaneously, he entered the temple of the arts by the tradesman's entrance, writing and publishing short stories for magazines and, in 1935, the first of several pulpy novels, Burn Baby Burn. (It is actually not too bad.)

There was a brief screenwriting stint, mostly of B-movies, in the Hollywood of the inter-war years, followed by quite exceptionally distinguished service in the Second World War, during which he fought in North Africa and Europe and received the Bronze Star, the Silver Star and a Purple Heart, then a return to Hollywood in 1949 to write and direct the first of his 22 films. This was I Shot Jesse James, a low-budget version of the ultrafamiliar western legend narrated - with the perversity which would soon be recognised as Fuller's trademark - from the killer's point of view.

Thereafter, as writer, producer and director of most of his movies - their auteur complet, as his French admirers would define him - he brought his controversial, pugnacious "touch" to all of Hollywood's more overtly virile genres. He made westerns (The Baron of Arizona, 1950, Forty Guns, 1957, Run of the Arrow, also 1957), war movies (Fixed Bayonets and The Steel Helmet, both shot in 1951, China Gate, 1957, Merrill's Marauders, 1962), thrillers (the viciously anti-Communist Pickup on South Street, 1953, House of Bamboo, 1955, The Naked Kiss, 1964, and Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, 1972, the last not likely to be forgotten by anybody who has seen it for its extra- ordinarily violent shootout in a maternity hospital). By contrast, he never, wisely, attempted a comedy, a romantic melodrama or a musical.

In his later years he settled in Paris, where he had long been the object of a cult. There he directed a couple of forgettable French-language thrillers and made personal appearances in the works of those younger film-makers who had regularly championed him, Godard, Dennis Hopper, Luc Moullet and, on four separate occasions, Wim Wenders. For Wenders he acted in The American Friend (1977), Hammett (1982), The State of Things (also 1982) and, this year, The End of Violence, a film in which, alas, his own approaching end - and equally the end of the cinema that he personified, the cinema of what might be called "purple imagery" (as we say "purple prose") - is all too visible.


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