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Master of the cinematic tabloid headline, Sam Fuller blossomed for a few short years making tough-minded studio "A" pictures for Darryl Zanuck at Fox. But his budgets shrunk after that deal ended, and despite a couple of near-masterpieces (Run of the Arrow for certain) Fuller's ambitions, if not his creativity, were cramped by smaller-scale limitations. The director's thematically ambitious Underworld U.S.A and The Crimson Kimono were cheap Columbia productions released like ordinary star-challenged program pictures.
1959's Verboten! was a co-production of Fuller's Globe Enterprises and the RKO studio, which folded before the film could be released. American distribution rights were sold to Columbia, robbing Fuller of the chance to promote his film as a "special" item.
Film historians tell us that Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg is the first mainstream American film to feature Nazi atrocity footage from the concentration camps, but Fuller uses a montage of this harrowing material in his own no-budget rendering of the war crimes trials. In their divergent ways Kramer and Fuller's aims sometimes coincided. Both The Defiant Ones and The Crimson Kimono are about race prejudice. In Verboten! Fuller takes on the immediate situation in postwar Germany, tackling a big subject with resources barely adequate to film a television episode.
Fuller makes heavy use of stock footage to tell the story of Sgt. David Brent (James Best), a Fuller everyman (every-rifleman?) hero who helps assault the small German town of Rothbach, but is wounded and trapped among the enemy. Fraulein Helga Schiller (Susan Cummings) heals Brent and hides him from the retreating SS. Germany capitulates but Brent is determined to stay on and marry Helga. He musters out and takes a civilian job in the occupation office attempting to get Rothbach back on its feet. The locals and the Burgomeister (Steven Geray) cooperate happily, but die-hard ex-Nazi soldiers form a resistance movement called "The Werewolves" to murder occupying G.I.s, steal supplies and food and create unrest among the German population. The local leader Bruno Eckhart (Tom Pittman) works right in Brent's supply office, surreptitiously using his influential position to advance the terror of the Werewolves. He tells Brent that Helga's only interest in their marriage is a steady paycheck and fringe benefits like potential U.S. citizenship. Making things more complicated is Helga's younger brother Franz (Harold Daye), an impressionable former Hitler Youth who only slowly realizes the evil of Nazi teachings.
Sam Fuller once again bites off a big chunk of controversy. In 1959 the news from the Cold War front was that West Germany's recovery was succeeding despite signs of nascent Neo-Naziism. Fuller starts his story from the beginning, to remind his audience that the victory in Europe had been a messy problem, at the very least. In the late 1940s the media was too busy funneling official doctrine about the new Communist menace to give full coverage to the problems faced by the Allied occupiers of West Germany. Propaganda from the East (alluded to in the movie) screamed that the U.S. was restructuring West Germany's economy with ex-Nazis in prominent positions.
The best scenes in Verboten! come right at the beginning. Fuller injects realism into David Brent's street fighting, played out on an obvious Hollywood back lot, but the budget simply isn't adequate to the scale of his story. We stay in a few battered rooms while the victory is shown through dramatic but unconvincingly integrated war stock footage. Newly-filmed scenes look cramped, with the same dozen or so extras milling about on very un-European streets (no cobblestones). In two separate scenes, the same streetwalker is leaning up against the same wall in the exact same pose. Fuller has no budgetary room to properly stage a Werewolf attack or a food riot outside the occupation headquarters.
Fuller believed in basic, unfussy character conflict in all of his pictures, and when he had a lesson to teach he preferred to do it in the most direct way possible. Thus everything we see on screen is in the service of the "author's message". We agree with everything Fuller says and we certainly agree with his patriotic attitude, but Verboten! comes across as a 90-minute lecture, illustrated with overdone dramatics. It isn't a matter of degrees of subtlety, as nothing is subtle. Although James Best is a likeable leading man, the direction of dramatic scenes is obvious and the performances tend to grate. Rushed dramatic dialogue invariably leads to characters "revealing" their political stances or making position speeches in favor of this and that. At one unintentionally ironic moment, the Nazi villain tells somebody to stop lecturing him. We all feel the same way!
In his earlier studio pictures Fuller kept the political messages at least somewhat in the background, and films like House of Bamboo and 40 Guns are twisted exercises in genre without an overt political context. But Fuller fans love the way he uses movies to promote his personal convictions. The best Fuller pictures combine his thematic overstatement with a matching visual punch that has earned him a reputation as a primitive original artist. Others call this style hysterical; whether an individual signs on or not for Fuller's more personal pictures depends on whether one is willing to buy into his personal universe.
For the most part Verboten! lacks Fuller's "cinema fist". Helga and David's romantic problems -- he screams at her when he believes that she married him for mercenary reasons -- are presented as crudely as they might be on a bad 1950s TV show. But that doesn't matter to Fuller fans, who see instead a cinema artist working with whatever materials he has to achieve his ends.
The most squirm-inducing scene is the Nuremberg trial, and not just because of the graphic clips of Auschwitz. Fuller's tiny audience gallery set doesn't begin to match with the stock footage of the real trial. He shock-cuts between the atrocity footage and the traumatic, tearful, reaction of the young Franz. Franz remembers Bruno saying the exact same Hitler quotes he hears at the trial, and Fuller unnecessarily drives the point home with kindergarten-lesson flashbacks. The scene is even cruder than it sounds, and Fuller's use of the atrocity footage is no different than any exploitation film's cheap shock approach. Yet this direct-cinema style is fully in character for the director. Sam Fuller has an almost naïve belief in the power of cinema. To him the Franz represents the entire German people, who desperately need the lesson he's preaching.
Susan Cummings was originally Suzanne Tafel; oddly enough she comes across as more of a standard American housewife, straining to remember her original language. Tom Pittman is excellent as the sneaky Bruno, a good actor who would unfortunately die in a traffic accident before the film's release. Familiar Fuller face Paul Dubov juggles some fast dialogue as Dave Brent's boss in the occupation office, a mostly featureless set with a rack of unchanging photos and clipboards on the wall. Good art direction costs money, and money Verboten! didn't have.
Aficionados familiar with Sam Fuller's war stories and his later show The Big Red One will love the opening shot: a pair of dogface riflemen hit the dirt as Beethoven's 9th blasts out on the soundtrack!
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Verboten! is a very sharp and clean transfer of this transitional Sam Fuller picture. Joseph Biroc's B&W cinematography is much cleaner than Sam Leavitt's in the previous The Crimson Kimono. A trailer for the film is included; it appears to be an RKO edit that wasn't used. Along with most of what RKO produced and picked up in 1958, Verboten! was auctioned off to other studios for distribution in 1959.
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T'was Ever Thus.