Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Proof positive of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's commitment to classic films on DVD comes with The Sam Fuller Collection. The seven-disc set packages two of the iconoclastic writer-director's Columbia efforts, preceded by five pictures for which he took story or screenwriting credit. The films feature strong characters from the idealistic Fuller mold -- motivated, energized, determined.
1937's It Happened in Hollywood is an odd little Hollywood behind-the-scenes tale with similarities to Singin' in the Rain. In his autobiography Sam Fuller claims that he cooked up the story with producer Myles Connolly. Richard Dix plays silent western star Tim Bart, an easygoing fellow who gets along well with cowboy extras, his co-star Gloria Gay (beautiful Fay Wray) and his faithful horse. Summoned back to the studio from a charity tour cheering hospitalized kids, Tim becomes a casualty of the advent of sound. Westerns are out and fancy dress romances are in. Gloria finds Tim acting work, but he rebels against playing a ruthless gangster because his juvenile audience looks up to him as a good example. To help out a runaway kid, Tim goes out on a limb to organize a picnic party attended by Hollywood stand-ins, all of which pretend to be the big stars they double for.
Originally called "Once a Hero", It Happened in Hollywood is a pleasantly naïve entertainment that endorses the wholesome public personas of tremendously popular cowboy stars like Tom Mix. Some of the movie star impersonators are better than others but watchful fans will be rewarded by a number of arcane references, such as an Edward Arnold look-alike ringing a bell and shouting, "Come and Get It!" Harry Lachman's direction is standard stuff, and Sam Fuller touches seem limited to the clever story construction. When a script change requires Tim's bank robber character to shoot a policeman, he quits and is barred from acting. The event is echoed later when Tim stumbles into a real bank robbery and uses his quick-draw skills to gun down the crooks. In the acclaim that follows, the studio decides that there's still a place for good guy westerns, and all ends happily.
Adventure in Sahara (1938) is the least of the pictures in the collection. Sam Fuller's story (screenplay by Maxwell Shane) conflates Beau Geste and Mutiny on the Bounty into a French Foreign Legion tale done on the cheap, without stars. A sign tells us that we're at the Paris Airport, despite the desert hills behind the hangars. Pilot Jim Wilson (the under-valued Paul Kelly) quits his job to join the Legion and get revenge for his dead brother. The culprit is the evil Captain Savatt (Savatt, not Savant), a sneering sadist who lets sick men die in the sun and metes out savage beatings for any show of disrespect. Wilson's aviatrix girlfriend Carla (Lorna Gray) shows up to witness a full-on mutiny. The twist is that Jim's mutineers rescue Savatt's troop of legionnaires during an Arab attack. In his autobiography Fuller says that he sold the story based on the idea that the mutineers would be commended for bravery and sentenced to death in the same ceremony.
Director R. Ross Lederman imparts little distinction to the action but Franz Planer's cinematography is always attractive. The generic story offers okay parts to deserving actors: Robert Fiske, Marc Lawrence, Dick Curtis, even Dwight Frye. The one black character is a rather painful comic invention. Charles R. Moore plays "Gungadin", a fellow American who volunteered for the Legion but still performs demeaning chores, waiting on his fellow soldiers and rolling his eyes when Jim and Carla kiss.
Although Sam Fuller was overseas fighting when 1943's The Power of the Press was produced, it is the first feature in the collection to bear his personal touch. Fuller sold the story to Columbia in 1938; co-writer Robert D. Andrews must have added the film's wartime context. The patriotic script overflows with Fuller sentiments about the social responsibilities incumbent on the Free Press. The messages come fast and thick, but director Lew Landers keeps the pace fast and good performances disguise the fact that literally all of the film's action happens off screen. As in the best Fuller films, we're keen to find out what will happen next.
Publisher Carter (Minor Watson) regrets that he's turned his big-city newspaper into an isolationist rag that grabs circulation with alarmist headlines. Evil editor Howard Raskin (Otto Kruger) arranges for his boss to be shot down at a society dinner, but Carter lives long enough to nominate ethical country editor Ulysses Bradford (Guy Kibbee) to take over the paper. Raskin bides his time, convinced that Bradford can't handle the job. Copy editor Griff Thompson (Lee Tracy) continues Raskin's smear campaign against a warehouse operator accused of hoarding wartime supplies. At a crucial juncture Griff has a change of heart, and redirects the paper's resources to uncover Raskin's arrogant power grab.
Complain as we may about its oversimplification of complex issues, The Power of the Press makes a still-relevant statement about the abuse of power, equating Howard Raskin's prejudicial use of slanted headlines with outright treason. The story's arguments are indeed overstated, as the idea of a major paper taking an isolationist stand during World War II seems highly unlikely. Raskin's editorials attack the USA's alliances with England and the Soviets and complain about the hardships inflicted by rationing.
Familiar Warners comedian Guy Kibbee is only partially successful in a wholly dramatic role. Kibbee isn't asked to break into silly grins, but he is required to lay the sentiment on pretty thick. The film's newspaper flavor comes via Lee Tracy, the fast-talking favorite of many racy Pre-codes (Doctor X, Blessed Event, Bombshell). Here Tracy plays the first of many Sam Fuller characters named Griff. A decisive pro, newspaperman Griff should probably have been the film's central character. In a smaller part is future tragic blacklistee Larry Parks as another determined patriot victimized by Raskin's treachery.
The Power of the Press's dialogue is a tall stack of civic-minded position speeches. The film resolves with Bradford and Griff turning the tables on Raskin, after the villain's smear campaign has effectively lynched an innocent businessman and done serious damage to the war effort. We can tell that this a Sam Fuller film, as it juggles hot-button issues with complete self-confidence.
1949's Shockproof is a fascinating mess disowned by both Fuller and its director, Douglas Sirk. According to Sirk, Fuller's exciting screenplay originally ended with the main character, a parole officer, being gunned down by a policeman. Co-writer Helen Deutsch assumed a producer role and changed the ending, redirecting what was a far-fetched but compelling romantic crime tale into complete incoherence. Shockproof is also a showcase for the beautiful Patricia Knight, Cornel Wilde's actress wife. Cameraman Charles Lawton Jr. gives Knight the glamour close-up treatment usually reserved for Columbia's reigning star Rita Hayworth.
Convicted murderess Jenny Marsh (Patricia Knight) is granted parole but refuses to obey the strict rules laid down by officer Griff Marat (Cornel Wilde) and continues to associate with her lover, shady gambler Harry Wesson (John Baragrey). Griff hires Jenny to take care of his blind mother (Esther Minciotti) and eventually proposes marriage. Jenny has a change of heart but can't break off her crooked deal with Harry, who hopes to discredit Griff. A second rash murder turns Jenny and Griff into fugitives, living in poverty and terrified of the long reach of the law.
Shockproof starts well with a nicely-turned Marnie- like montage showing paroled murderer Jenny Marsh changing her wardrobe and hair color. Handsome Griff gives Jenny extra chances and makes their relationship personal by inviting her to dinner -- disturbingly unprofessional behavior for the dedicated parole officer. The deceitful Jenny still loves the gambler boyfriend who waited for her for five years -- she committed murder for him -- and takes advantage of Griff's interest. We'd be perfectly happy to see the film to resolve in a conventional manner, as does the later Jane Greer parolee potboiler The Company She Keeps.
With the second murder Shockproof literally falls apart, fragmenting into character inconsistencies and loose story threads. The lovers' sudden transformation into hobos feels as if a second movie were starting without the first being resolved. Griff turns his back on his job, his helpless mother and his future in politics. Other reversals are even less credible, especially the ridiculous happy ending that ignores several still-pending character issues. The movie ignores Griff's fall from grace as well as Jenny's legal dilemma. It's fairly clear that they'd both be in jail, instead of exiting with smiles on their faces.
By 1952 Sam Fuller had five directing credits. Scandal Sheet is an adaptation of Fuller's wartime novel "The Dark Page" and the first film noir directed by the major talent Phil Karlson. Although Karlson's efficient and stylish approach smoothes over some of the book's gritty details, Fuller's mousetrap construction, sharply drawn characters and insights into the newspaper business are undiminished. Scandal Sheet lacks Fuller's distinctive 'screaming headlines' tabloid style yet shapes up as a superior mainstream thriller.
Hardboiled newspaper editor Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford) generates circulation by underhanded means. His worshipful young reporter Steve McCleary (John Derek) pulls sleazy confidence tricks to get choice information from crime victims. This "father and son" team drums up a Lonely Hearts Club to exploit unhappy singles. "Women's angle" writer Julie Allison (Donna Reed) objects to these tactics but is ignored. When a female attendee at the paper's Lonely Hearts Dance (Rosemary DeCamp) is found murdered, the opportunistic Steve determines to track down the killer as yet another newspaper promotion. Chapman gives cautious approval for Steve to dig into the victim's past. Helping is broken-down ex-reporter Charlie Barnes (Henry O'Neill), who traces the investigation through a pawn ticket belonging to the murdered woman.
Scandal Sheet is a solid, unpretentious thriller with excellent casting. John Derek gives his best performance as the overeager and unprincipled reporter, while Donna Reed provides a moral backstop. She's just a couple of roles away from her Oscar-winning turn in From Here to Eternity.
Broderick Crawford has one of his best roles as the overbearing but vulnerable tabloid editor. Chapman's character is his profession. Not unlike Orson Welles' famous scorpion, Chapman contradicts his own best interests by allowing Steve to continue with the investigation, ironically making himself the victim of another yellow story for public consumption.
Excellent cinematography by Burnett Guffey makes this a very handsome urban noir. Phil Karlson would continue with an entire series of hard-hitting crime dramas: Tight Spot, Five Against the House and The Brothers Rico.
The first of two Columbia efforts produced, written and directed by Sam Fuller, 1959's The Crimson Kimono sees the director putting his full weight behind the issue of interracial romance and marriage. At the time still illegal in some states, the controversy was given a glossy treatment in two popular hits directed by Joshua Logan, South Pacific and Sayonara. Fuller dares to give the issue real teeth: instead of a Caucasian soldier in love with an Asian woman, he presents a romance between a Japanese-American man and a Caucasian woman. Both are consenting adults sensitive to the feelings of those around them. Perhaps the biggest affront to conservative sensibilities is the fact that the white girl rejects her first beau, a conventional handsome white hero.
The Crimson Kimono's murder mystery is secondary to this love triangle. Detective partners and close buddies Charlie Bancroft and Joe Kojaku (Glenn Corbett and James Shigeta) fought together in Korea and share an apartment. When a stripper named Sugar Torch is murdered they end up providing protection for artist Chris Downs (top-billed Victoria Shaw of The Eddy Duchin Story). Both men soon fall in love with her.
Fuller decorates his story with cultural detail in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo district: a Buddhist prayer ceremony, a Kendo fighting competition. Art figures into the story on two fronts. Chris painted a portrait of the stripper in a fancy Japanese kimono. When Joe is intrigued by Chris's artwork and she responds to his musical talent, the artist and detective recognize one another as soul mates.
Fuller further probes the race issue by making Joe the one who reads prejudice into the love triangle, and jealousy breaks up the Joe-Charlie partnership. Curiously, the murder they are solving is eventually revealed to be another case of romantic jealousy. Sam Fuller's dramas may be unsubtle but they're often quite complex. The Crimson Kimono feels dated only when redundant speeches take over; the actors' expressive faces tell the story on their own.
Anna Lee's drunken muralist is a fairly unconvincing character intended to add color to the proceedings. Several capable Japanese-American players carry good parts, while Fuller veterans Paul Dubov and Neyle Morrow appear as a burlesque lowlife and an oddball librarian.
The rushed production shows in some of cameraman Sam Leavitt's undistinguished night exteriors; his unadorned lighting of key scenes does the attractive leads no favors. Sam plays several scenes in satisfying unbroken takes, but he also compensates for a lack of coverage by cutting to grainy optical blow-ups. This "directing by optical printer" makes The Crimson Kimono look unnecessarily sloppy.
1961's Underworld U.S.A. is perhaps the best example of Sam Fuller in "shocking exposé" mode. The gangster mini-epic is loaded with shouting newspaper headlines, shock cuts, grotesque killers and an obsessive hero. Fueled by cinematic blood & thunder, Fuller's tabloid-in-motion is a one-man crusade against organized crime.
Underworld U.S.A. is a cartoonish but absorbing gangster revenge tale. Young punk Tolly Devlin (as an adult, Cliff Robertson) sees his father murdered on the same night that he receives a Cain- like scar over his right eye. Watched over by the worldly-wise Sandy (Beatrice Kay, looking like an aged Sylvia Sidney), Tolly graduates from reform school to prison. He emerges from behind bars with the identities of the men that killed his father. Tolly ignores Sandy's advice and joins the mob to exact his revenge. He learns the ropes from Gus (Richard Rust), a hit man willing to murder a little girl on orders from the big boss, Driscoll (Robert Emhardt). Teaming up as a double agent for District Attorney John Driscoll (Larry Gates), Tolly turns the mob against itself.
Fuller doesn't waste time with niceties. The fat cat vice lords meeting by an Olympic pool use coffee shops as heroin distribution centers and discuss pushing more drugs to schoolchildren. The utterly ruthless Tolly Devlin uses prostitute Cuddles (Dolores Dorn) in his plans, laughing in her face when she expresses a desire for a real life with a husband and children. He delights in setting up his mob targets to be shot or burned alive. True to gangster form, Tolly learns to appreciate Cuddles just as comeuppance time rolls around. Fuller finishes with a crude optical zoom to Tolly's clenched fist. Later critics would coin the phrase "cinema fist" to describe Sam Fuller's personal style.
Cinematographer Hal Mohr may be the key factor in Underworld U.S.A.'s enhanced impact; the modestly budgeted film can boast superior imagery. The mob's glass and steel offices equate organized crime with big business, while some of Dolores Dorn's close-ups are breathtakingly beautiful. Fuller blocks his compositions the way an editor blocks out a page of newsprint. He places a photo of a baby strategically between Tolly and Cuddles. Prominent signage for "The Big Red One" is visible at Army recruiting stands and in the office of the D.A., a fighting man fond of puffing on a Fuller-esque cigar. This gangland saga shows a solitary avenger destroying the mob, perhaps for the last time in American films. From here on organized crime will be portrayed as immune to the loss of a few executives.
The Sam Fuller Collection is generous gift to classic film fans; Sony should be rewarded for attending to the legacy of such an important American filmmaker. All of the transfers are excellent, with the last two appropriately enhanced for widescreen. English subtitles are provided. I've heard some negative remarks about the packaging, which didn't bother me at all. The only slight hang-up I experienced was putting the discs away, discovering that the bottom ones need to be slightly slotted in. Like many new disc holders, you can't navigate this one in the dark or when holding a drink in your hand. There are lots of much-screwier disc packages out there. In my opinion this is nothing to get upset about.
Trailers are not included but four of the shows carry interview featurettes. The best is the longest, Samuel Fuller Storyteller. Input from Martin Scorsese, Curtis Hanson, Tim Robbins, Wim Wenders and Fuller's wife and daughter Christa and Samantha sketches a broader portrait of the director. Martin Scorsese goes solo On Underworld U.S.A., waxing poetic about Fuller's individualistic style. Curtis Hanson offers a less compelling analysis of The Culture of The Crimson Kimono, while Tim Robbins searches for relevant thoughts in Sam Fuller's Search for Truth. All of these notables knew Samuel Fuller personally and are unanimous in their praise. 1
Research: Jon Halliday Sirk on Sirk, Viking Press, New York 1972; Samuel Fuller A Third Face, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2002.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Sam Fuller Collection rates:
Movies: Hollywood: Good; Sahara: Fair ++; Press: Good -;Shockproof: Good; (until the end, when it falls apart; Scandal: Excellent; Kimono: Very Good; Underworld: Excellent.
Supplements: Four featurettes
Packaging: Seven discs in plastic and card folder in card sleeve
Reviewed: October 14, 2009
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
1. One of the interviewees regrets that Sam wasn't able to make a wider range of films, saying that he would have been a good comedy director. That remains an open question, but I had a positive experience reading an unproduced Fuller script called The Lusty Days. Fuller manages to make a story about Abraham Lincoln, a traveling French kootchie dancer and an effort to collect Union votes from Confederate prison camps into a truly hilarious read.
I was able to observe Mr. Fuller for one day's acting work on 1941. He's the officer in charge of Interceptor Command who orders a full alert: "The hell with visual confirmation, they're JAPS. Go to condition RED!" Chomping on a cigar, the director performed his small but colorful part like a pro. Hardly anybody in the crew of sixty had any real idea who he was.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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