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DVD SAVANT

The First Films of Sam Fuller
I Shot Jesse James, The Baron of Arizona, The Steel Helmet


The First Films of Sam Fuller
Eclipse Series 5
1949 - 51
B&W
1:37 flat full frame
Street Date August 14, 2007
44.95

Directed by
Sam Fuller

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Samuel Fuller launched his Hollywood writing career even before he went to war, and took it up again immediately upon being demobilized. In 1949 he linked up with B-picture producer Robert Lippert, directing three fast films for him before moving on to work for Darryl Zanuck at Fox. The energetic, enormously inventive Fuller loved a good film story the way he loved newspaper writing, and he filled his screenplays with emotion, irony and his own notions about patriotism and combat. Eclipse presents Fuller's Lippert pictures in its no-frills Series 5 package. Often seen in substandard TV prints, all three features have beautiful transfers and clean audio tracks.


I Shot Jesse James
1949
Starring Preston Foster, Barbara Britton, John Ireland, Reed Hadley, J. Edward Bromberg, Victor Kilian, Tom Tyler, Tommy Noonan
Cinematography Ernest Miller
Art Direction Frank Hotaling
Written by Samuel Fuller from an article by Homer Croy
Produced by Carl K. Hittleman, Robert L. Lippert

Sam Fuller turns the Hollywood western on its ear with his very first job of feature directing. The inexpensive I Shot Jesse James comes a year before the acknowledged beginning of the 'psychological western' but is much more cinematically 'psychological' than either The Gunfighter or High Noon. The movie is also daring in content, suggesting perhaps for the first time that male relationships among cowboys might be stronger than their ties to their 'womenfolk.' Completely inverting the moralistic simplicity of Fritz Lang's The Return of Frank James, Fuller investigates a Judas character who can't seem to grasp the idea that people might stigmatize him for killing his outlaw mentor.

Synopsis:

Tired of living with a price on his head, Bob Ford (John Ireland) murders his friend Jesse James (Reed Hadley) in exchange for amnesty and a reward. The state reneges on the reward but Bob only wants the freedom to marry his girlfriend, singer Cynthy Waters (Barbara Britton). She's instead repulsed, and drawn toward the more honorable John Kelly (Preston Foster). Even though Bob's luck turns for the better, he's cursed by the infamy attached to his betrayal.

I Shot Jesse James was embraced by English auteur critics who loved its essential perversity. Already typed as a morally vacant gunslinger in Howard Hawks' Red River, John Ireland's Bob Ford has a perfect uncomprehending stare. It's obvious that a man choosing outlawry for a lifestyle hasn't really thought things through. Ford can't see beyond his next violent action. He's dumbfounded when Cynthy rejects him, and shocked when a punk kid tries to shoot him because whoever kills the man that killed Jesse James will be famous. Ireland stumbles away from one violent confrontation like a stunned animal, the same way his gladiator character in Spartacus stumbles from his first kill. It's a great characterization.

Fuller organizes an interesting group of characters. Victor Kilian is a generous miner who shares his good luck with Ford. Top-billed Preston Foster probably thought he'd be the hero of the movie, as his John Kelly character is both the honorable man and the one left standing after the final showdown. What a surprise when the film's focus turns out to be "the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard". The critics that detected homoerotic undertones weren't daft; Reed Hadley's unusually calm Jesse James humors his long-suffering wife but seems to prefer Bob's company. He asks Bob to scrub his back, not the missus. Unfortunately, when told that a better future can be had by plugging his best pal, there's nothing to restrain Bob Ford. He even uses a fancy Colt .45 -- a gift from Jesse -- to do him in. I guess that's why they call them Bad Men.

New York boy Sam Fuller shows more fidelity to real western history than any of the 'great' western directors. At one point Bob Ford explains that the James Brothers, the Fords and the Youngers are all related and intermarried. The impact of the 'new western' is felt most strongly when Bob Ford recreates his famous killing in a stage performance. Fritz Lang's Bob Ford (played with unrepentant malice by John Carradine) cast himself as a noble hero on stage, shooting Jesse in self-defense while patriotic music played. Sam Fuller's Bob Ford restages the shooting the way it happened. Shooting the real Jesse in the back didn't bother Ford, but he's suddenly shamed when using blanks on a stage. The artifice of the theater teaches Bob the truth about himself. When a drifting folk singer plays the famous Jesse James song to Bob's face, poor Bob becomes the center of the 1870 equivalent of a media storm -- it's like having his name and face plastered on the 11 O'Clock crime news.

I Shot Jesse James once had the reputation of being shot entirely in close-up, which is untrue. But Fuller's use of close-ups keeps us focused on Bob Ford's interior dilemma, and it works. A number of scenes stay on Ireland's face even as he walks or interacts with crowds.

Tom Tyler is Frank James, and later burlesque comic Tommy Noonan (3 Nuts in Search of a Bolt) is Charles Ford. Saloon singer Margia Dean is in both this movie and the next; she was Robert Lippert's girlfriend and even ended up sandwiched into the Lippert / Hammer production The Quatermass Xperiment five years later.



The Baron of Arizona
19450
Starring Vincent Price, Ellen Drew, Vladimir Sokoloff, Beulah Bondi, Reed Hadley, Tina Rome, Karen Kester, Margia Dean, Gene Roth, Angelo Rossitto
Cinematography James Wong Howe
Production Design Jack Poplin
Art Direction F. Paul Sylos
Film Editor Arthur Hilton
Original Music Paul Dunlap
Written by Samuel Fuller from a story by Homer Croy
Produced by Carl K. Hittleman, Robert L. Lippert

Sam Fuller loved audacious stories and the true-life tale of James Addison Reavis must have tickled him to no end. Reavis was a grand-scale huckster who trumped anything Orson Welles put into his study of big-time fraud, F for Fake. The Baron of Arizona is a beautifully produced miniature epic with an impressive and ultimately sympathetic performance from Vincent Price. "Everyone loves a fraud" is not a common sentiment, but Fuller finds enough good in Reavis to merit our mercy. He's a standard-issue Fuller hero ... a complicated man who doesn't expect favors.

Synopsis:

Land clerk James Addison Reavis (Vincent Price) spends years setting up the biggest swindle of the 19th century, forging documents and records to establish that the poor Sofia de Peralta (Ellen Drew) is the rightful heir to an old Spanish land grant -- which encompasses most of the territory of Arizona. Government agent John Griff (Reed Hadley) tries to prove fraud but no evidence can be found. Reavis marries Sofia and proclaims himself the Baron of Arizona, but neither Sofia nor her adoptive father Pepito Alvarez (Vladimir Sokoloff) realize exactly what Addison is doing.

The story of The Baron of Arizona plays like a tall tale, as Sam Fuller embellishes the true story to make James Reavis seem like a genius. Reavis manufactures an entire false history for the fictitious Peralta family, inventing ancestors and planting forged documents all the way back to original Land Grant records in Spain. To gain access to one copy of the land deeds, he spends several years in a Spanish monastery. To alter another land deed registry, he joins a group of gypsies and seduces a Marquesa (Margia Dean again, the producer's girlfriend). Fuller stresses that the United States honored Spanish land grants under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and that Reavis' chicanery was uncovered only through the work of a tireless federal investigator.

If the information on Wikipedia is accurate, the real James Reavis was less talented but even more conspiratorial. He sought partnerships with a group that included George Hearst (William Randolph's father) to push his claims through. With the backing of fat cats eager to lay claim to a whole territory, Reavis tried the same gambit several times. He eventually married a fake Peralta heir and called himself the Baron of Arizoniac, but a Surveyor General named Royal Johnson disproved his cheap forgeries, along with many claims by copycat fakers. Reavis eventually spent three years in prison.

Fuller shows the obsessed Price carefully creating false stone markers and becoming the guardian of a young girl named Peralta, convincing her that she's the real Baroness. When all the evidence has been salted, he returns and files his claims (as an individual of course, in Fuller's version the corporate moguls are innocent of wrongdoing) and starts collecting money from people who thought they already owned their property. The real Reavis is said to have sent out thugs to extort the financial settlements.

What makes The Baron of Arizona interesting is that Fuller suddenly decides that the Reavis' grandiose dream makes him a hero instead of a nuisance; we side with Reavis and and Sofia against the mobs of dispossessed farmers and ranchers. Fuller touts the fairness of the U.S. government but knows that only those who dare change the map of the world, and he loves bold adventurers. The measure of Fuller's success is that Reavis' wife and servants stand by him even when he eventually confesses. Reavis has built Sofia's entire life on a fraud, but she still loves him. It's a truly unique story idea.

Fuller has two main factors that make his story work. Vincent Price gives a controlled performance, never losing sight of his goal and expressing glee when his crooked plans go well. His final redemption is very well played. Cameraman James Wong Howe gets the maximum from the low-end Robert Lippert production values, and manages some dramatic visuals. The Baron of Arizona has a great many short scenes, and looks much more expensive than Fuller's self-financed effort, Park Row.

Ellen Drew is always good, and Vladimir Sokoloff is charming as the Mexican peasant Pepito. Beulah Bondi is in a couple of scenes as Sofia's governess. As the government agent Reed Hadley returns, this time with a lot more dialogue. Hadley is a familiar voiceover actor known for many 'voice of authority' narrations, especially in crime films, and it's almost unsettling to hear that voice saying normal screen dialogue. Stock thug Gene Roth plays a gentle Spanish priest, and Angelo Rossito of Freaks enlivens the gypsy segment. Tina Rome, the gypsy girl, was also an accomplished writer under the name Tina Pine. Nineteen years later, Pine co-wrote the Alan Arkin film Popi.



The Steel Helmet
1951
Starring Gene Evans, Robert Hutton, Steve Brodie, James Edwards, Richard Loo, Sid Melton, William Chun
Cinematography Ernest Miller
Art Direction Theobold Holsopple
Film Editor Philip Cahn
Original Music Paul Dunlap
Written by Samuel Fuller
Produced by Sam Fuller, Robert L. Lippert

For his third outing Fuller switched from western themes to his home turf of combat, dedicating The Steel Helmet to "the infantry" on an opening title card. The Korean War had just begun and Fuller's was the first picture out of the gate to deal with it. The ads read, "It's the REAL Korean Story," but Fuller's tale could easily have been about riflemen in France or Africa.

Synopsis:

Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans) escapes a massacre by North Korean soldiers, thanks to Short Round (WIlliam Chun), a kid who comes along and unties him. They meet up with another odd survivor, medic Corporal Thompson (James Edwards) and eventually become attached to a patrol headed by Lt. Driscoll (Steve Brodie). The patrol holes up at a Buddhist temple, but can't send news back to their command -- their radio receives, but won't transmit.

The Steel Helmet might have been conceived as a riposte to the liberal-minded Home of the Brave, the Stanley Kramer production about traumatized soldiers and racism in the ranks. Fuller dispenses with several social issues one right after another. A captured Communist taunts black medic James Edwards (also from Home of the Brave), who answers by saying that it might be 50 years before he can ride in the front of the bus, but "some things you can't rush." The Commie also asks Japanese-American Sgt. Tanaka (Richard Loo) about internment camps -- perhaps the first mention in an American film -- and Tanaka tells him to mind his own business.

At the center of The Steel Helmet is Fuller's 'eternal infantryman' Sgt. Zack, a role inhabited body and soul by Gene Evans. Evans is the mouthpiece for all of Fuller's toughness and sentimentality on the subject of soldiering. The officer can't get Zack to speak up but he'll mouth off for minutes about WW2 or the glories of the common foot soldier. Zack is a bit dinged in the head, after having a bullet pierce his helmet and zing around the edge without actually hitting him; he starts the film crawling with his hands tied behind his back. Zack inherits a little Korean kid as a helper, Short Round. He calls him a Gook but then takes it back. Resentful of the '90 day wonder' Lieutenant Driscoll, Zack watches while Driscoll loses a man trying to recover dog tags from a booby-trapped corpse. Zack warned Driscoll but was ignored, and from then on the men look to Zack to lead them. Zack sees only one thing when looks at his prisoner (Harold Fong) ... a ticket to a furlough!

The patrol also has a Conscientious Objector (Robert Hutton), who ducked WW2 but now feels that Commies in Korea are threatening the homeland. Private Baldy (Richard Monahan) is in for some comedy relief about hair loss. The normally loudmouthed comic Sid Melton is used for what must be a private joke -- he has almost no dialogue lines. Frequent Fuller player Neyle Morrow keeps a date with an unexpected I.E.D., and future star casting director Lynn Stalmaster rounds out the cast. Lippert may have stuffed his girlfriend Margia Dean into the costume of a North Korean soldier for a few shots, but we'll never know.

Typical of Fuller, Zack's brutality is not sadistic or cynical, but pragmatic. The enemy will booby-trap anything, so don't rush to investigate dead bodies. We hear plenty of talk about Commie atrocities, but even Sgt. Zack gets emotional and shoots down a prisoner. That leads up to the famous line when Zack grabs the prisoner by his lapels and shouts, "If you die I'll kill you!"

The Steel Helmet was filmed on a tiny soundstage, with a set for a Buddhist shrine used as an observation post. The view from the top of the post is always misty, mainly because we're looking at a bare stage wall; there was no budget for mattes or rear projection. Exteriors were taken in Griffith Park and the final battle is a fairly ragged mess of mismatched stock footage. One shot is just a held still frame! But The Steel Helmet captures the spirit of foot soldier combat as never before, and was instantly popular with ex- G.I.'s. Lewis Milestone's A Walk in the Sun probably had too much poetry for them and the gritty Battleground was still packed with movie stars writing letters home. When Sgts. Zack and Tanaka sit back to back to brace each other while firing their tommy guns at a pair of snipers, we understand what Fuller is going after. For Fuller, real combat is as satisfying as sex.


As is their policy, Eclipse presents the movies without any extras, and even the short essays printed on the package sleeves are unattributed. The quality of the transfers is excellent. Finding written and video accounts of Sam Fuller's life and times is easy, and very rewarding.

Fuller came back to the western intermittently; Forty Guns is out on R1 DVD but Run of the Arrow is not. Many more of his films were about combat, especially against 'the Red Menace'. Fixed Bayonets! and Hell and High Water are available but not the delirious China Gate or the wonderful WW2 epic Merrill's Marauders. There is of course Fuller's later The Big Red One, an autobiographical account of his own experiences in Africa and Europe.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The First Films of Sam Fuller rates:
Movies: All Excellent
Video: All Excellent
Sound: All Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Three slim cases in card sleeve
Reviewed: August 9, 2007



DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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