Sam’s Place

First published in the May-June 1996 issue of Film Comment, in time for the broadcast bow of Adam Simon’s The Typewriter, The Rifle and the Movie Camera; offered now as a new Sam Fuller DVD box set hits the streets.–Robert Horton

“Who’s Griff?”

The question has to be asked. If the subject is Samuel Fuller, and the man himself is sitting right there, you’ve got a golden opportunity to find out why a character named “Griff” pops up in so many movies from the writer-producer-director’s filmography. One of the many things to like about a new hour-long documentary called The Typewriter, The Rifle and The Movie Camera is that director Adam Simon and executive producer Tim Robbins do ask the question.

Samuel Fuller

In picking up on Griff, Simon and Robbins cast themselves not as documentarians or reporters but as fans. Their partners in this unabashed love letter are Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino, who offer appreciations, anecdotes, and gruff-voiced Fuller imitations.

The ungainly title of the documentary (co-produced by the BFI and the Independent Film Channel) captures the three phases of Fuller’s career: his beginnings as a copyboy and crime reporter for the great New York newspapers of the 1920s, from which world he bounced into novel and screenplay writing; his service in the First Infantry Division, The Big Red One, during World War II; and his life as a film director, which began with I Shot Jesse James in 1948. Fuller, who has lived in Paris since the early 1980s, is interviewed in a variety of settings by Tim Robbins, and displays all the finger-poking vigor and indefatigable logorrhea that have made him such a legendary storyteller, on and off the screen (some of his anecdotes are clearly streamlined by cutting, lest the program go on indefinitely).

The program is a treat, and crafted with love. We hear just enough from Fuller himself to give us the flavor of the different periods of his life, which he relates with the straightforward (if often excited) narration of a good reporter. His description of what war does to a soldier – a fist inside you that never unclenches – isn’t that of a wounded veteran, or a self-pitying neurotic. It’s more like a piece of reportage, a fact given a vivid description by a good journalist who has boiled something down to its colorful, true, unsentimental essence.

This is something Fuller brings to his movies. It’s true that, in Fuller’s films, you often feel you’re smack in the middle of the action – at times the camera itself is knocked around, by its own crazy momentum, or a fighting actor’s shoulder. But you are also detached, which is a quality that isn’t remarked on much when critics describe Fuller as a primitive or irrational director. Yes, he’ll cut between close-ups so intense you feel you’re standing in the middle of a two-person meltdown; the opening dust-up from The Naked Kiss can leave bruises (the camera whammys around so much that you can actually see Fuller himself in one shot, yanking off Constance Towers’ wig). But Fuller will also shoot the choreography of conflict from far away: the kitchen knockdown-dragout in Shock Corridor is covered in a calm longshot, and much of the intricate fighting in Fixed Bayonets is played out on the huge icy set that lets us see the broad, merciless pattern of men being fired upon. That’s a reporter’s view – watching the scene and getting it down right.

The only time Fuller seems sentimental during the documentary is when he’s describing the help of a mentor or teacher (such as the towering newspaperman Arthur Brisbane, or Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck, whom Fuller acknowledges for his willingness to gamble on the likes of China Gate and Forty Guns). It strikes me that Fuller himself is a teacher in his movies, laying out some of the hard truths that the viewer will need to know, trying to pass along stuff learned the hard way. Maybe that’s why so much of his conversation carries the polished, thought-out conclusion of a lesson plan: “When you kill, you kill the same guy over and over and over again.” Often his films have characters who need to learn something, whether it is the ground-level rules of infantry life (don’t take the dog tags off a dead G.I., because he might be booby-trapped) or the risky rules of trust that make some kind of emotional life possible – a lesson often unlearned by Fuller’s characters (Richard Widmark gets it in time in Pickup on South Street, Cliff Robertson doesn’t in Underworld USA).

Sometimes in Fuller’s films the director seems to be depicting something for the sheer sake of doing it right – not the way the movies have shown it to you before, but the real business. You can practically feel him poking you in the arm. The opening of Pickup on South Street sets the wide-ranging plot in motion with a simple act: a subway pickpocket lifts a wallet from a woman’s purse, and escapes despite being watched by the FBI. This, however, is mere description; Fuller’s treatment of this event places us in a new realm. Watch the scene and you’ll realize that no one has ever caught the stop-and-lurch of a subway car with just this documentary exactness, while at the same time completely stylizing and sexualizing the close-quarters jostling of a sweaty-browed dame and the thief. And we get a textbook lesson in how to pick a purse clean, from initial approach to the definitive snap of the purse being closed (I said it was sexualized). The importance of technical fine points is reinforced in the long-take interrogation scene with street-rat Thelma Ritter, as she impatiently questions the FBI guy on what, precisely, he witnessed – “Was the newspaper rolled-up, or folded? Listen, mister, ya gotta be sure.”

Fuller himself might scoff at the role of teacher; in the documentary, Jarmusch relates a story about Fuller winning a film festival humanitarian award for Shock Corridor, a movie with a riot of social issues and morally twisted-up characters. Jarmusch says Fuller got up on stage and refused the prize, saying, “This isn’t a goddam humanitarian film. This is a hard-hitting action-packed melodrama. Give your award to Ingmar Bergman.” Okay. Still, Fuller’s films often present a kind of blueprint of the way a system – the mob, the battlefield, publishing – works. Like the map of the mined field in Fixed Bayonets, it’ll tell you exactly where to step so you don’t get your legs blown off. The only problem is, the guy with the map is lying incapacitated in the middle of the field, and you’ve gotta tread out there and get it off him. In a final touch that wouldn’t be out of place in an Ambrose Bierce Civil War story, the map turns out to be unreadable anyway – powder or blood has blacked it out.

The Typewriter, The Rifle provides enough clips to suggest why so many filmmakers, critics, and moviegoers have been enthralled by Fuller’s style. The show never quite reaches the heights of Richard Schickel’s 1970s series of director appreciations, The Men Who Made the Movies, which beautifully captured the different styles of six directors (and why they meant something).

But Scorsese puts on his teacher’s cap and contributes some keen analysis on how the violence in Fuller is conveyed through Fuller’s idiosyncratic camera placement and deployment of actors, particularly those strange love scenes in Pickup on South Street, where kiss comes to shove and the feral Widmark looks as likely to bite Jean Peters as make love to her. (It wasn’t method acting, but surely Widmark’s neurotic characters of the era are as appropriate a subject for a study of postwar anxiety as Brando’s.) Scorsese recalls seeing I Shot Jesse James as a child, and being powerfully affected by his identification with the movie’s main character – who was not Jesse James, but the coward Robert Ford. Even to the kid Scorsese’s eyes, the film had the tang of authenticity: “(It was) a more street-corner, daily-life reality. In other words, you might find more people like Bob Ford in your life than Jesse James…and you might be one of ’em.”

Scorsese also describes the way a sequence from The Steel Helmet was the model for a fight scene in Raging Bull. (Stray thought: could Casino, with its essay-like treatment of The Way a System Works, have been intended as a Fullerian piece of thorough reporting?) Tarantino doesn’t fess up to any borrowings, but he and Robbins prowl through Fuller’s L.A. garage, known as The Shack, where mementos, photographs, and scripts from Fuller’s career are piled together, forming a life’s museum. This is a delightful scene in and of itself, but I will always be grateful to Adam Simon (whose main directorial credit is the Roger Corman Carnosaur) for giving us the spectacle of Quentin Tarantino and Tim Robbins gazing admiringly together at a “badass bayonet” (they do make an odd couple, but then Fuller’s films often depict collisions of cultures). These two nose around the souvenirs, lovingly cradle the bullet-pocked helmet from The Steel Helmet, and read passages from Fuller’s war diary in which specific ideas for later movies are first written down. They find a depiction of the original Griff, too – and no, I’m not going to give away that particular story before you hear Fuller himself explain it.

One of their discoveries in The Shack is a blown-up photograph of Fuller as a still-teenage crime reporter in the office, hat on head, feet crossed on a cluttered desk. He looks like a brash, unstoppable punk; he looks like he rules New York. They admire the picture long enough for Tarantino to cast Johnny Depp as the young Fuller.

I recognize that picture. When I was in college, I cut that picture out of a small film magazine and taped it to the shelf above my typewriter. I loved Fuller’s wild and individualistic movies, and when I was working on a school assignment or tapping out the last-minute contents of a film society newsletter, it helped to look up and see that vision of impertinent style. Maybe Quentin Tarantino or Jim Jarmusch or Adam Simon did something similar in their youths, I don’t know, but The Typewriter, The Rifle is nothing if not a piece of hero-worship. I bring this up only because I’ve been teaching film lately, and I find myself wondering about how I should introduce movie directors to students – not all, but some – who haven’t heard of Citizen Kane except as a reference in a Simpsons episode. I’m aware that the artist-as-hero is not a fashionable approach these days, and indeed I recognize the limits of that approach. Then I read my students’ journals, which hum with excitement over seeing Reservoir Dogs for the first time, and I really get a picture of the video-store population that follows Jackie Chan movies and Pulp Fiction wannabes (and I carefully write in the journal margins that Killing Zoe is really not a Tarantino movie per se, and that perhaps they might be interested in movies by Leone, Kurosawa, Huston…). They know the stories behind Clerks and Slacker, and they know these young filmmakers are speaking to them – perhaps the equivalent of Scorsese’s quickening to the “daily-life reality” of Fuller. Thus we get heroes named Quentin and Kevin and Spike.

I still don’t know whether hero worship leads people to greater understanding or down the path of false gods. What I hope is that fandom creates links, and that when Tarantino’s fans listen to him talk about Sam Fuller, or wonder why he named his production company after a Frenchman named Godard, that maybe they’ll be curious enough to seek out those names out at the better video stores. On the other hand, I’m realistic; most of my students hated Breathless.

The Steel Helmet: Gene Evans

Having that picture of the young Sam Fuller hanging over my typewriter helped me when the blank page looked like the enemy. So I’m a sucker for The Typewriter, The Rifle, and the Movie Camera. It concludes, far too soon, with Fuller musing on one of his own heroes. He and Robbins, who have a height differential of a good foot-and-a-half, stroll through the grounds of the Rodin Museum in Paris, at sunset. They pass Rodin’s mighty statue of Balzac, which prompts Fuller to set a few scenes, including a characteristically smash-mouth opening, from a projected Balzac movie biography. “He was a scoundrel, he was a liar, he was a bullshit artist…he was a wrrrriter!” Flash on a photo of a younger Fuller, sitting in a room with a Paris street sign, Rue de Balzac, above his head (I hope he stole it). Back to the Rodin: the sun is setting in Paris, low enough so the flare from the light obscures the image of the two men in front of Balzac. Sam Fuller is still talking.

One Response

  1. […] here:  Sam's Place « The Crop Duster Friday, November 20th, 2009 Film Channel TAGS: 1920s, beginnings, bfi, channel, crime-reporter, […]

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