Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The First Films of Samuel Fuller (Eclipse Series 5)

Eclipse Series (Criterion), DVD, Release Date August 14, 2007
Review by Christopher S. Long

(OK, so here's a review I wrote in between two brief hospital stays back in 2007. This was during what I call my "I need to prove to everyone how much I know about directors so I can get invited to one of those hot auteurist orgies" period, which explains the run down of so many titles. I'm sure I had a good reason for reviewing the titles in reverse chronological order. I present this review mostly unedited and in honor of what would have been Sam Fuller's 103rd birthday today.)

Sam Fuller was a movie character before he was ever a movie director. He was a teenage crime reporter on the shadowy streets of New York, a pulp novelist, and an infantryman in WWII who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. Fuller had already tried his hand at screenwriting before serving in the army, but he didn’t direct his first film until 1949. “I Shot Jesse James” (1949) didn’t launch him to instant stardom, but it was an auspicious beginning to a career that would later gain a major boost from the “Cahiers du Cinema” critics who adopted Fuller as one of their favorite Hollywood icons. Godard even cast him in “Pierrot le fou” (1965) as the unnamed American Film Director. Fuller’s macho persona combined with his gritty directing style to make him a legendary figure on par with Sam Peckinpah, though more venerated as an inner-circle “auteur.”

Fuller directed several Westerns, the best of them being the delirious, fetishistic “Forty Guns” (1957) starring Barbara Stanwyck as “a high-ridin’ woman with a whip” but was most celebrated for his work in two genres: film noir and the war picture. “Shock Corridor” (1963) and the “The Naked Kiss” (1964) are the two best known examples of his noir work, while “The Big Red One” (1980), a film that requires a deeper color than “pitch black” to describe its cynical humor, is probably his best-known war film.

But it isn’t necessarily his best. That honor belongs to “The Steel Helmet” (1951), his third film and also the third film in the new boxed set from Criterion: “The Early Films of Samuel Fuller.” The movies stars Gene Evans, in his first of several roles for Fuller, as Sgt. Zack which is only a couple letters away from being Sgt. Rock which should clue comic book fans into what kind of guy Zack is (and, yes, I know Sgt. Rock wasn't created until 1959!) Zack is a cigar-chomping, wise-cracking hard-ass who has seen so many of the horrors of war that he just doesn’t give a good goddamn what happens to him or to anybody else.

In the opening scene, Zack takes a bullet in the helmet (producing an image that “Saving Private Ryan” fans will recognize) but somehow survives unscathed. He picks up a young South Korean boy he dubs Short Round (William Chun) and soon encounters an African-American medic named Thompson (James Edwards). Their tiny makeshift unit tries to survive the return to home base through decidedly unfriendly territory. The trio later runs into a unit led by a white, greenhorn Lieutenant (Steve Brodie) who can’t stand Zack but still begs him to help them get to a nearby temple. Zack refuses at first, but the sound of North Korean zip guns convinces him otherwise.

“The Steel Helmet” is remarkable for being one of the first American film to reflect the troubled and sometimes desperate conditions for GI's in Korea. It is even more remarkable for its vivid, if sometimes overwrought, depiction of racial tension in the conflict, not just between the American soldiers and the indigenous population, but among the soldiers themselves. For his part, the steel-hearted Zack actually warms more to Short Round, Thompson and Japanese-American Sgt. “Buddha-Head” Tanaka (Richard Loo) than he does to the Caucasian members of the unit. Racial issues come to a near-boil when a Communist prisoner (Harold Fong) stirs up trouble by asking Thompson and Tanaka why they would serve a country that doesn’t serve them. Patriotism trumps all other concerns, as it often (though not always) does in Fuller’s work. We’re all Americans here, so go screw yourself, you pinko bastard!

Fuller works wonders with a low budget. Though some of the sets have a decidedly artificial look to them, he still portrays a convincing and harrowing fight for survival capped by a lengthy siege in a Buddhist temple. Fuller’s heart doesn’t melt for super-grunt Zack either; the film’s most shocking moment reminds us vividly of how empty Zack’s apathetic bravado really is. He is no hero, not by a long shot. “The Steel Helmet” relies on easy stereotypes as a shortcut to creating memorable characters, but Fuller’s bravura direction keeps the material fresh and exciting. The final twenty minutes or so of “Steel Helmet” are simply extraordinary.

The first two films in the set are low-budget Westerns. “The Baron of Arizona” (1950) seems like a can’t-miss project with its impressive array of talent: Fuller writes, produces and directs; James Wong Howe photographs the film; and a young, strapping Vincent Price stars in the title role. Based on a true story, the film tells the tale of James Addison Reaves, the self-proclaimed Baron of Arizona, who almost pulled off the greatest land swindle in American history since Peter Minuit. Reaves went to unbelievable lengths (further exaggerated in the film) to create a fictional Spanish ancestor for his young wife Sofia (Ellen Drew), establishing her as the rightful heir (by way of King Ferdinand) to the entire territory of Arizona.

Price shines as the dirty-dealing crook, but the film is a relatively pedestrian effort by the director. Fuller, revealing his roots as a crime reporter, spends nearly half the movie depicting (in needless flashback) the Baron’s step-by-step machinations in engineering his scheme. We watch breathlessly as Price practices ancient penmanship and reads from a 15th century book of Spanish land grants. Even a “Batman” style “ZAP!” “WHAM!” on the screen couldn’t give such material any oomph. Reed Hadley serves as an intriguing foil to the Baron, as a dogged expert on forgery who won’t rest until he proves Reavis to be a fraud. A last-minute change of heart by Reaves feels cheap and poorly earned, and certainly bears no resemblance to the real story.

The collection kicks off with a much more interesting film, “I Shot Jesse James.” The DVD release is particularly well-timed with the upcoming Andrew Dominick film “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford.” Fuller’s movie provides a surprisingly sympathetic depiction of James’s killer Robert Ford (John Ireland) who pulls off the infamous, dirty low-down deed about twenty minutes into the movie. The rest of the film depicts the aftermath of his betrayal, as Ford tries to carve out a living for himself in a world that thinks he is the most despicable traitor since John Wilkes Booth... or maybe even Judas Iscariot.

Ireland didn’t win any acting awards for his portrayal of Ford, and with good reason. He sometimes seems so stiff that you wonder if he’s doing line readings on set, and his range of facial expression goes from “hang-dog” to “moping.” But just when the film appears to be settling into a comfortable B-movie formula about a man trying to make a better life for his gal Cynthy (Barbara Britton), it takes a strange and exciting turn into twisted psychological terrain. To earn money (since the government didn't pay its promised reward for James’s murder) Ford portrays himself in a play titled “How I Shot Jesse James.” Amazingly, Ford (in the film, though definitely not in real life) doesn’t try to sugar-coat his crime; the play is staged like the real deal we saw in the first act. Ford waits for his good friend Jesse James to turn around to hang a picture then “Pow!” right in the back.

When I say the film is sympathetic to Ford, I mean that Fuller takes great pains to understand why Ford did what he did. This doesn’t mean that Ford is depicted in a positive light. Rather, Ford seems so childish and self-absorbed he is nearly incapable of understanding why shooting a friend in the back is wrong, as long as it means amnesty and a big paycheck. It never even occurs to Ford that his darling Cynthy (as well as everyone else) would think him a wretch for his betrayal, and any guilt he feels after the fact is directly correlated to his inability to get what he wants out of the whole affair.

“I Shot Jesse James” isn’t a masterpiece, but it's a pretty impressive debut feature. Reed Hadley isn’t terribly convincing as Jesse James and the film plods for a while after the assassination, but the second half (starting with the play) is quite engaging as Ford slowly wilts under the pressure of an entire nation’s disapproval. Just imagine what his Twitter feed would have looked like. Barbara Britton is also a stunning beauty who seems a bit out of place in such low-budget fare. She became much better known as a “Revlon Girl” in the 50s.

The films are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios. Like many recent Criterion (and Eclipse) full screen releases, the transfer is picture-boxed which means that some viewers will see thin black bars on the left and right sides of the screen. Eclipse is Criterion’s no-frills series, so the transfers aren’t up to the usual pristine standard of the parent company. Of the three, “The Baron of Arizona” is probably the weakest, showing the most instances of debris from the source print, while “The Steel Helmet” is the strongest. All of the transfers are more than acceptable.

The DVDs are presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the English audio. The audio transfer is clean and clear; no complaints at all.

This is the 5th volume in Criterion’s Eclipse Series. Like all the others, it includes no extras whatsoever. The point of the Eclipse Series is to release as many early or lesser-known films by great directors as possible without having to pour extra time and money into stuffing the package with as many extras as possible. This is strictly no frills.

Each disc is housed in its own thin keep case. There are no insert booklets, but the inside sleeve of each cover contains a few paragraphs about each film’s production history.

Final Thoughts:
This fifth volume of Criterion’s Eclipse series is my personal favorite so far. Sam Fuller has been a cause celebre for auteurist critics for most of the last 50 years yet he still remains woefully underexposed to mainstream audiences. This release of his first three films provides a valuable addition to anyone’s DVD library. Like any director making his first films, Fuller was still honing his craft, but “I Shot Jesse James” is an impressive debut and “The Steel Helmet,” only his third film, is one of his very best. This package comes highly recommended.

If you enjoy this, and want to check out more of Sam Fuller’s work, you really can’t go wrong with any choice. However, I most strongly recommend the following films which are all available on Region 1 DVD: “Forty Guns,” “The Big Red One,” “Pickup on South Street,” “The Naked Kiss,” “Shock Corridor,” and “Hell and High Water.”

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