Sam Fuller lived quite a life before he ever even thought about working in the film industry. He was a crime beat reporter at 17 years old. He served in the infantry in World War II, turning down a cushy press corps assignment. Both of these experiences would shape the man, writer, and filmmaker he was to become. His newspaper experience gave him access to a lifetime of stories, an understanding of the newspaper business, and a honed writing skill. That ability would serve him most. Fuller was a writer more than a filmmaker, and it was with his typewriter that he most excelled. The war would emotionally scar him. He may have entered with the typical young ideas of glory in the battlefield, but he left with visions of death and gore that he could never forget. It hardened the man. Instead of turning bitter, he found a way to exorcise those demons and ultimately made a heck of a living in the process.
His films are, if nothing else, quite unique. He wasn’t raised in the same studio environment as most filmmakers, and there was always a kind of docudrama feel to almost everything he wrote or created. He was excessively patriotic in his younger years, but at the end of his life he became disillusioned and moved to Europe. His films were almost always steeped in the film noir of the early 30’s and 40’s, even his later works. Everything from the characters to the words they spoke had a decidedly Fuller reality to it. Known mostly for smaller budget films, Fuller was prolific and could work quickly.
Collected here is a nice sample of Fuller’s work.. I’m pleased to see films included simply because he was involved in the writing, since that’s what he truly did best. It should make you hungry for more, and there is plenty more out there.
The films in the collection are:
It Happened In Hollywood (1937)
Tim Bart (Dix) is the wild west hero of the silent screen. With his film partner Gloria (Wray) they are the darlings of the young movie-going public. Bart spends a lot of time visiting kids in hospital wards. They all love him and join cowboy fan clubs. He owns a huge ranch he hopes to one day turn into a place for young boys to go when they don’t have anywhere else. Life is good. Then a technological breakthrough in the industry changes everything. Now movies talk, and Bart doesn’t adapt at all to the new kind of films. Gloria goes on to stardom while Bart loses everything. A young boy Bart met just before an operation still looks up to his silver screen hero. He runs away from the hospital to visit the star. Unable to show the boy the great time he once promised, he has a party using many of the current stars’ doubles so that Billy can have a good time. When happenstance makes him a real life hero Hollywood falls in love again, and the Western makes its leap to talkies … with Bart and Gloria riding in the saddle once again.
Fuller shares a screenplay credit here with Ethel Hill and Henry Fergusson. The story credit goes to the film’s producer, Myles Connelly. That was really the extent of Fuller’s connection to the film, but it does show his penchant for inside business. It really plays more like an inside look at Hollywood at the end of the Silent Era. Richard Dix was a pretty big name in those years, and Fay Wray was coming off her iconic role in King Kong. Still, it was a small and mostly forgotten film today. It’s got a short running time and is a pretty nice treat for film fans everywhere.
Adventure In Sahara (1938)
“All wrongs must right themselves eventually.”
Jim Wilson (Kelly) is an airline pilot about to take a plane load of passengers out when he receives a dire telegram. His brother has died in the French Foreign Legion. The note contains a cryptic line about Jim knowing what to do. Suddenly he leaves the plane full of passengers without a word and enlists in the Legion, requesting to be stationed under the same commander as his brother. He doesn’t mention the brother, of course. He ends up at Fort Agadez in the Sahara, an isolated fortress built to battle Arabs. There he falls under the thumb of a ruthless and cruel commander in Captain Savat (Gordon). The commander is a tyrant whose disregard for the safety of his men has lost him many lives and worse, the respect of his charges. They look to Wilson to lead a mutiny over the vicious leader. Unknown to them, the request plays right into his hands of revenge. The mutiny is complicated when his love interest and fellow pilot Carla (Gray) crashes her plane in the area surrounding the fort. Still, Wilson is determined to go through with his plans and face his court martial, if it comes to that.
Fuller gets story credit here, while the screenplay is credited to Maxwell Shane. It is likely his most derivative work. It takes quite obviously from two contemporary works. Mutiny On The Bounty had just won Best Picture a couple of years before, and Paramount was working on a huge remake of Beau Geste with Gary Cooper. This was a big picture for actor Paul Kelly, who was reestablishing himself after serving two years in prison for manslaughter. Actor C. Henry Gordon would die suddenly about a year later from a blood clot. Note should be taken of an exceptional job by horror favorite Dwight Frye who plays Savat’s informant among the troops.
Power Of The Press (1943)
“Freedom of the press means freedom to tell the truth. It does not mean freedom to not tell the truth.”
John Carter (Watson) is the publisher of the New York Gazette. He has just been called out in print by a fellow mentor and friend, Ulysses Bradford (Kibbee) for resorting to unethical sensationalism to sell papers. Bradford runs a very small town paper and calls Carter a traitor to his country for printing such blatant anti-American lies in the middle of a World War. Actually, Carter agrees and is ashamed at what elements in his staff have allowed to happen to his paper. He is about to deliver a public speech agreeing with the charges when he is shot. On his deathbed he rewrites his will, giving the paper to Bradford, who needs the prodding of Carter’s secretary Edwina (Dickson) to take on the challenge. The real power of the paper and the man responsible for the bad turn is a man named Raskin (Kruger). He’ll stoop to anything, including murder, to discredit Bradford and keep his control over the paper. Their first task is to clear the name of the kid Raskin has framed for Carter’s murder. It’s a battle of ethics and patriotic responsibility … and control over the power of the press.
Fuller again gets story credit here. The screenplay is credited to Robert D. Andrews. This one most represents the Fuller film. It’s very much an inside baseball style film that relies quite heavily on Fuller’s own experience as a reporter. There’s no question that he’s able to provide details of the industry that make this film as informative as it is entertaining. There’s a lot of Rah Rah and patriotic speeches that were common in Hollywood at the time to build support for World War II. Here it’s the bad guy who is using the paper to question America’s involvement in the war. Things have sure changed.
“When you fall in love, I mean really in love, you know for sure.”
Jenny Marsh (Knight) is on parole for murder. She killed a man for her lover, Harry Wesson (Baragrey). She’s now under the supervision of parole officer Griff Marat (Wilde). He’s tough, but fair. He sets forth the conditions of her parole which she meekly accepts … except for one. She’s not allowed to associate with Wesson. Griff tries to give her a taste of honest family life by getting her a job at his home caring for his blind mother. All the while she’s scheming with Wesson. But it’s Griff who’s falling for her. Will Jenny and Wesson use his feelings against Griff, or will Jenny fall for Griff?
Fuller shares a writing credit with Helen Deutsh. This is far more of a straightforward film than most of the works that Fuller was associated with. There’s a lot of film noir characterization and dialog going on here. To its credit, the story goes further than you would expect, becoming almost a different film in the final third. Patricia Knight shines here and carries the film as Jenny Marsh.
Scandal Sheet (1952)
“You should never give an alchy more than a buck at a time. You’re liable to kill ‘em.”
Mark Chapman (Crawford) has been brought into the New York Express by the stockholders to become its managing editor. He’s charged with turning the paper’s red ink into black. He does, but that black ink ends up on sensationalized headlines and compromised ethics. Makes no matter to Chapman. He’s on his way to 750,000 new subscribers and part ownership of the paper. He’s brought along his old ace reporter Steve McCleary (Derek). McCleary and his photographer Biddle (Morgan) stoop to anything to get a scoop. At least one reporter isn’t happy with the change in the paper’s direction, and she also happens to be Steve’s love interest, Julie Allison (Reed). When a woman turns up murdered after attending the paper’s Lonely Hearts Club Ball, the two reporters work together to find the killer. Unfortunately for Chapman, his past is catching up with him, and it’s just murder. Now his own sensational headlines might be his undoing.
This is the kind of story that Fuller did best, and this is one of his best films. It’s based on his own best selling novel, The Dark Page. It’s got that inside the newspaper business angle that Power Of The Press had. It also has a dynamite story. It’s a mystery that’s really no mystery, at least to the audience. It’s by far the best film in the collection. It doesn’t hurt that the film has the talents of an A cast for the time. Broderick Crawford as Chapman adds power to the role. Donna Reed excels here as the cub reporter who is no Lois Lane. Harry Morgan is the photographer but is billed here as Henry Morgan for some reason. Finally John Derek rounds out the cast as ace reporter McCleary. Even though you know the who in the whodunit, this one will still offer enough surprises that it’s a fine example of Fuller and film noir at its best.
The Crimson Kimono (1959)
“Does everyone in your family have a nose like that?”
Sugar Torch (Pall) is a stripper with dreams. She’s designed a new routine called The Crimson Kimono that she thinks will launch her into the bigger stages of Vegas. But before she can give her first performance she’s shot dead. Enter detectives Charlie Bancroft (Corbett) and Joe Kajaku (Shigeta). As they try and solve the murder they both fall for one of the case’s key witnesses, Christine Downs (Shaw) who painted Sugar Torch in a red Kimono for the routine.
This is actually one of the more closely associated films to Sam Fuller. He wrote, directed, and produced the film. Sadly, it’s the worst in the collection and the least like anything he was known for. The story is absolutely horrible and goes everywhere and nowhere at the same time. There is a wonderful opportunity for cultural nuances that really never happen. Most of the slow paced film features characters sitting there talking about things that really don’t help much with the story. Even the love triangle is badly played and merely feels awkward. The climax is so anticlimactic that you’re going to be annoyed at wasting so much time getting there. The performances are also horrible all the way around. Not vintage Fuller at all.
Underworld USA (1961)
“I know I’m drunk but my brain’s okay.”
It all begins one New Year’s Eve when young Tolly witnesses his father’s brutal murder at the hands of four street thugs. He won’t rat the one man he recognized to the cops, however. He vows to get revenge on his own. When he finds out that the leader of the killers went to jail for life, he gets himself sent first to reform school and then to prison to face the killer. But he’s old now and on his deathbed. He gets him to rat out the other three guys. Once outside again, he learns that his three killers are now big shots in the local mob organization. He works his way into the operation to exact his revenge.
This is another one that is completely Fuller. He again wrote, directed, and produced this film. Revenge is a very common theme in Fuller’s films, and it is the driving force behind this gangster film noir piece. It’s a tail of greatness and mediocrity. The film is wonderfully done. The direction and cast all do a splendid job of creating some incredible imagery. Unfortunately, the story goes nowhere we haven’t already been, even back in 1961. It’s a bit of a surprise that it is the writing that lets this film down. That’s usually where Fuller excelled the most. This time he displays superior filmmaking skills. A bit of an enigma for Fuller fans, but worthy of inclusion on this set. The performance by Cliff Robertson is particularly powerful here, although for some reason I keep expecting him to tell someone something about great power and great responsibility. I can’t imagine why.
All of the films are presented in their original aspect ratios. All but The Crimson Kimono and Underworld USA are full frame. These two films are 1.85:1 All are black and white, and the studio used relatively clean prints. The films are mostly alone on the discs, so you won’t find any compression artifact to distract from the prints.
All are presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. The films are mostly dialog driven, so that’s really all that is serviced here.
Some of the discs contain a feature. Here’s the list:
Sam Fuller’s Search For The Truth With Tim Robbins: (7:06) I’m not a fan of Tim Robbins, and he seems a pit insincere here as he talks about Fuller. I’m sure that the characterizations are accurate. I just don’t think Robbins was that close. He recounts encounters with Fuller and attempts to examine his thoughts. It’s short, and even shorter when you account for at least a couple of minutes of clips.
Sam Fuller Storyteller: (24:14) This is the best of the features and contains some great testimonials and anecdotes from friends, family, and colleagues. The heartstring music is a little much for me, but there’s a lot to be learned about the man and the events in his life that shaped him and his films.
Curtis Hanson – The Culture Of The Crimson Kimono: (9:23) Curtis breaks down the film, but because I was so disinterested in the film itself, most of this was rather dull for me.
Martin Scorsese On Underworld USA: (5:09) Scorsese says that Fuller made films as good as he talked films. It’s actually a very good description of what Fuller did. Here Scorsese breaks down the big elements of this particular film.
Sony has done the film fan a wonderful favor by putting together collections like this. Columbia Pictures was at the forefront of these noir movements, so Sony owns an impressive library of these wonderful films. While not every film here is genuinely classic, there are some nuggets here that true film afficionados will be very happy to get their hands on. Keep it up, Sony. Buy this set and you can tell your friends, “I once saw a movie like that. All about revenge, ex-con’s revenge. Very touching.”