Relishing the autobiography of film legend Samuel Fuller.
Samuel Fuller (1912-1997) is best known as the maverick director of war films, like The Steel Helmet, from the 1950s, through his 1980 epic The Big Red One (which was only recently fully restored on DVD). Yet, his 2002 memoir, from Alfred A. Knopf, A Third Face: My Tale Of Writing, Fighting, And Filmmaking, shows that he was alot more than that. He was a teen crime reporter in the end times of the Yellow Journalism era of William Randolph Hearst (he wrote for Hearst’s New York Journal American), he was a World War 2 grunt on Omaha Beach during D-Day, he was a writer of pulp fiction. He was a man of intense passions, even if most of them belied his hard-boiled image and revealed that he was a, *gasp*, bleeding heart liberal, not to mention a fairly philosophical guy, albeit in a materialistic way:
See, there’s no way you can portray war realistically, not in a movie nor in a book. You can only capture a very, very small aspect of it. If you really want to make readers understand a battle, a few pages of your book would be booby-trapped. For moviegoers to get the idea of real combat, you’d have to shoot at them every so often from either side of the screen. The casualties in the theater would be bad for business. Such reaching for reality in the name of art is against the law. Hell, the heavy human toll is just too much for anyone to comprehend fully. What I try to do is make audiences feel the emotional strife of total war.
That Fuller, descendent of Russian Jews named Rabinovitch, led such a colorful life is a good thing, for his writing style -- at best termed primitivist -- is solid, but nothing to rave about. But, what he lacks for in prosaic grace he made up for in earthly experience. Here he describes the feeling of the first time he killed a man in war: "Afterward, when you kill, you’re shooting the same man over and over again. Your will to survive surprises you, eventually kicking abstract thoughts like remorse or mercy out of your brain. The reality is, you’re glad the other guy is dead and you’re still alive." Not exactly Dostoevsky, nor even Mickey Spillane, yet, it serves the purpose of aptly conveying the man’s life story the way his image would lead one to believe it had to be conveyed. In this light, it’s no wonder that Fuller claims the first word he ever spoke was "Hammer!"
Fuller died before his book was finished, so A Third Face was completed by Jerome Rudes, Fuller’s longtime confidante, and Fuller’s wife, Christa Lange Fuller. It’s also no wonder that the man preferred B films, or at least inexpensive films (which all but a few of his twenty-nine films from 1949 to 1989 were) to blockbuster materials, for he claimed that if a script doesn’t give you a hard on in two scenes, you should not make the film. Doing small budget films also allowed him the freedom from having studio executives looking over his shoulders. Thus, he produced a string of gritty classics that even high-minded European film critics responded to: I Shot Jesse James (with a gay subtext), Park Row, Pickup On South Street, Run of the Arrow, House of Bamboo, China Gate, Underworld U.S.A., Merrill’s Marauders, The Naked Kiss (which sees a prostitute reject conventional mores and hyposcrisy), and Shock Corridor.
Fuller not only directed these films, but wrote most of them, as well. The lone exceptions were few, like White Dog (written in collaboration with Curtis Hanson), which was a film so controversial that Paramount’s studio heads, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner, refused to release it. The movie was about a dog trained by racists to hunt down and kill black people. Fuller writes of Americana like few others could: Hitchhiking across the country, at the height of the Great Depression, covering -- as a reporter -- such stories as Al Capone, Prohibition, the Ku Klux Klan, Hoovervilles, major strikes, Charles Lindbergh, and the rise of Hitler’s Nazi Party, his years in the army with the legendary First U.S. Infantry Division, called The Big Red One, under General Patton, which battled Rommel and the Wehrmacht in North Africa. When Pearl Harbor happened, Fuller, then an old twenty-nine, volunteered to serve, because, as he put it: "What kept going through my brain was that I had a helluva opportunity to cover the biggest crime story of the century, and nothing was going to stop me from being an eyewitness." He writes of friendships with celebrities as diverse as Damon Runyon, Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock, Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch, and even rock star Jim Morrison, lead singer for The Doors. He raves about the creative and financial support he got from producer Darryl Zanuck, at a time when most studios were crumbling, and micro-managing films into the dull stupor of 1950s fare. He also tells of harassment by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI over certain Un-American aspects of his films.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of the book, however, comes when Fuller devotes a whole tiny chapter -- the seventeenth, called Detailed Description -- to a commendatory letter he received from his Commanding Officer, Major John H. Lauten, about his heroic actions in battle. Pride, plain speech (Fuller calls Jean-Luc Godard a filmic thief for having based his whole career on "quoting" Fuller’s work -- yet he forgives the Frenchman), and vanity (Fuller once starred as a runway model for Japanese clothes designer Yohji Yamamoto): These are all things quintessentially Fullerian, yet when the book ends, all a reader wants to do is follow his advice, when Fuller says, ‘Okay, now all you new voices, let yourselves be heard!’
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