Samuel Fuller Begins
by Martha P. Nochimson

The Steel Helmet

The Steel Helmet

Eclipse Series 5, a box set of three DVDs, including I Shot Jesse James (B&W, 81 mins., 1949), The Baron of Arizona (B&W, 97 mins., 1950), and The Steel Helmet (B&W, 84 mins., 1951). A Criterion Collection release, www.criterionco.com, distributed by Image Entertainment, www.image-entertainment.com.

The Dark Page (1944)
by Samuel Fuller. Glasgow, UK: Kingly Reprieve, an imprint of Kingly Books, 2007. 227pp. Paperback: $18.95

Feeling homosocial? Sam Fuller is the director for you. Sam’s the man who said, “If a story doesn’t give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes, throw it in the goddamn garbage.” Sorry Sam, I’ll have to find another way of judging narrative value—and your films.

Truth be told, the titles for which Sam is most admired—The Naked Kiss, Pickup on South Street, and Shock Corridor—are deeply concerned with women, and not only as adjuncts to men who are facing inner and outer demons. Criterion’s DVD collection of  The First Films of Samuel Fuller, however, is pretty much a boys’ club affair, and let us hope that the boys are not too precocious. For, although Fuller’s first three films—I Shot Jesse James, The Baron of Arizona, and The Steel Helmet—contain some flashes of brilliance, what may be most interesting about them is the contrast they make with Fuller’s 1944 novel, The Dark Page.

The Dark Page was published about the same time his first films were distributed, and has serendipitously made a reappearance, thanks to Kingly Reprieve Books, at about the same time that the Criterion box set hits the market. If longtime admirers of Fuller’s oft-praised raw visual sense as a filmmaker dip into both the reissued novel and the newly released DVD collection, they will be astonished at how much more at home Fuller is in print than on screen, certainly at the beginning of his career, if not throughout. In The Dark Page, Fuller’s capacity for marshaling sensuous details through verbal language, cultivated during his younger days as a yellow journalist, and his ability to convey a complex understanding of human nature, make an impressive show. The early films—not so much.

Certainly Fuller is more at home in The Dark Page than in his first film, I Shot Jesse James, in which, although he both wrote and directed it, Fuller had almost no control of either the sensory texture or point of view. This tepid Western attempts to wring a story out of the Wild West legend of Robert Ford’s murder of Jesse James, by presenting the outlaw in the hackneyed form of a guy “with a heart, and a hand and a brain,” who “took from the rich and gave to the poor.” This portrait is one of the film’s major problems, as it conflicts sharply with Fuller’s actual opinion that the bandit king was the scum of the earth, revealed in interviews he gave long after he made the film.

As a result, apparently stuck with a demand from his producer that he make James an American populist hero, Fuller was unable to dramatize him (Reed Hadley) with the degenerate vitality he saw in his imagination and instead came up with a wooden character whose wife (Barbara Woodell) knows better than he does who his real friends are. Of course, all the film’s real interest is invested in the guilt of the shooter, Robert Ford (John Ireland), as predicted in the title, but even that is hobbled by the lack of genuine feeling the audience has for the “dear” friend Ford betrays, to his endless remorse.

I Shot Jesse James is soggy with the kind of melodramatic pathos that was approved for family audiences but was neither to Fuller’s taste nor a prefiguration of the kind of effect he later excelled in creating. The film strives doggedly for emotional effect as it dramatizes how Ford commits the murder with the very gun Jesse gave him as a present, in Jesse’s own home, right after an intimate scene in which Ford washes Jesse’s back as he bathes. And, as if Fuller hadn’t sufficiently telegraphed his message of betrayal, he then shows Ford shooting Jesse in the back while he is straightening a picture of—isn’t it touching?—his mother. There isn’t an ounce of suspense or authentic feeling in the moment despite the thumping minor key music on the soundtrack and the reproachful look in the eyes of Jesse’s wife, as she discovers that her worst fears about Ford have come true. Instead the scene leaves us with questions about how a woman with so much insight brought herself to marry Jesse James, whose naiveté is as cloying as it is unbelievable in a hardened outlaw. It screams for the kind of insight into desperate men that Fuller would show not long afterward in Pickup on South Street, in which Richard Widmark, the distillation of the Fullerian hero, wins us over as a guy pummeled by the hard knocks of the street; almost, but not quite, drained of the milk of human kindness.  Chalk Jesse James up to the pressure of genre? Some may say it exceeds even the most sentimental extremes possible in the typical Hollywood Western.

Typical is the watchword of this film. All the characters in Jesse James are familiar stereotypes. There’s the all-too-familiar Cynthy (Barbara Britten), the pretty, demitartish singer with a heart of gold, whom Ford adores enough to kill James for the immunity from prosecution it will buy him, and thus give Ford a future with his lady love. There’s John Kelley (Preston Foster), another of Cynthy’s admirers, a clone of that guy we’ve seen often enough in Westerns who is “man enough” to take the risks of a new territory without breaking the law and victimizing others to do it. Yeah, he’s the one for Cynthy and she feels guilty knowing it. Probably most of the clichéd feel of the performances has to do with the inability of either Ireland or Foster to carry a film. But the moments when Fuller goes into high gear in this film—details to follow—suggest that it was Fuller’s lack of experience that caused him to miss opportunities to use his actors better, even if they are from the industry B list. Moreover, the cinematic techniques Fuller uses are tired and dull, particularly his incessant recourse to montages of newspaper headlines propelled toward the viewer to tell the part of the story he doesn’t want to dramatize. The sanitized folksong, the lyrics of which I have quoted above, that memorializes the story of Ford and James takes its toll as a saccharine soundtrack ditty. With only a few exceptions, the lighting and cinematography are far too reminiscent of what would soon be familiar as the flat texture of television serials.

But all is not lost. In narrating Ford’s progress toward martyrdom, Fuller also demonstrates an electrifying sense of the consequences of actions that goes far beyond the easy morality espoused by the Production Code Administration. Ford’s situation, as imagined by Fuller, casts light on a strain in the American character which so single-mindedly pursues desire that all thoughts of repercussions vaporize in a puff of denial, only to haunt the victor mercilessly. When Cynthy’s manager offers Ford a job as an actor, reenacting his murder of his best friend, Ford happily takes the deal, unable to foresee that he cannot relive that moment even once, let alone seven nights a week. But Fuller does not isolate Ford as the only fatally myopic violence addict. In depicting the avid eagerness of the people packing the theater to experience vicariously the death of Jesse James, Fuller also characterizes, with a savvy humor, the passive attraction ordinary people feel for the illusion of what I will call the “entitlement violence” that Ford has acted out.

Beyond these insightful scenes, just when it seems too late for the redemption of the pedestrian visuals of this film, Fuller serves up a cinematic triumph. In the final shots, he visualizes Ford’s obsessions by covering with darkness the classic Western shootout over Cynthy in which Ford is killed by Kelley, even though the fight takes place during the day. The final close-up, in which Cynthy cradles the dying Ford, beautifully picks out their heads in a small pool of light within a deep blackness that represents more the murky state of his love for her than a naturalistic evocation of the chiaroscuro of light and dark on the street on which he lies. Indeed the very last frame is a marvelously composed, almost abstract image of the back of Cynthy’s head as she bends over Ford in sorrow, leaving them both faceless and yet indelibly etched at the same time.

That said, comparisons that can be made between Jesse James (as well as The Baron of Arizona and The Steel Helmet) and The Dark Page generally work in favor of the book. If Fuller had some feel for the erotics of violence that possessed Robert Ford, in none of these first three films does he have in his blood the sense of place that he has for the grit of the New York streets in The Dark Page. The novel, which Fuller’s mother sold to a publisher while her son was fighting during World War II, grows organically from Fuller’s experiences as a newsman. It transports the reader to a time and place, the Thirties in The Big Apple, so effectively that one can virtually feel and smell the city’s meanest of mean streets and its down-at-heel beer-perfumed bars. The effect is, of course, in the accretion of details, not in just one evocative paragraph, but the following serves up a slice of the texture of the novel: “South Street was quiet. A moon was coming up and he could smell fish and the river. Waterfront factories were quiet and dark. He passed an old woman poking around in the garbage near one of the markets; a cat gnawing at a hunk of refuse. He saw the stern light of a tug hauling a line of loaded barges. He paused in front of a big plate glass window upon which was crudely painted Keenes.” There is nothing remotely resembling this texture in the studio sets for Jesses James or the even less vivid, almost amateurishly sterile sets of his next film, The Baron of Arizona, though there is a respectable recreation of felt atmosphere in his third cinematic effort, The Steel Helmet, born of Fuller’s indelibly etched war experiences.

Fuller’s 1944 novel is an oedipal story of an experienced newspaper editor, Carl Chapman, and his protégé, a feisty reporter named Lance McCleary. Narrated in the third person, in some chapters from Chapman’s point of view and in others from McCleary’s, it explores Chapman’s management of McCleary’s investigation into a murder that, unbeknownst to the younger man, was committed by Chapman himself. Chapman’s jaded ruthlessness is complicated by the remnants of his youthful fervor as a reporter which, until it is too late, impel him to let the intrepid McCleary gather the information that will doom the older man. McCleary’s eagerness to solve the mystery is frustrated by the pressures of the economics of journalism, with their demand for sales rather than truth. No longer limited by the constraints of his actors, Fuller creates compelling characters free from central-casting clichés, and animates their stories with expressions and textures he almost never achieved with a camera.

Oscillating between Chapman’s and Lance’s vividly drawn opposing desires, Fuller seamlessly feeds his reader necessary expository information, all the while placing his adversaries within the context of a living, breathing New York City. In doing so, Fuller creates an admirable psychological and social complexity. In his novel, though not in most of his films, Fuller anticipates by decades the advent of popular entertainments with multiple points of view. As we avidly accompany Lance toward enlightenment, we root for him to find the clues he seeks, while, moving into Chapman’s head, we are privy to the clever false trails and dead ends into which he steers Lance. Between the two experiences, an intricate moral and intellectual perspective emerges that allows us to embrace the tensions between disparate choices made by men in an America emerging from the Great Depression, as well as to explore our own ethical sensibilities.

Fuller never made The Dark Page into a film, but he did sell it to Columbia, which filmed it under the title, Scandal Sheet (dir. Phil Karlson, 1952), three years after Fuller made Jesse James. It’s an entertaining thriller with some good film noir flavor, but it never rises to the psychological intensity of Fuller’s novel, nor does it come close to the specificity of place Fuller achieved on the printed page. At this point in Fuller’s career, however, there is no reason to believe that he would have had much more success than Karlson at moving the story from page to screen. Perhaps Fuller wouldn’t have opted to use panoramic views of the majestic, sunlit New York skyline as movie shorthand for the story’s location, a vocabulary that directly undercuts the unrelievedly seedy, claustrophobic Manhattan topography that defines the novel. But it’s unlikely that Fuller would have escaped the Hollywood casting clichés that, in Scandal Sheet, replaced his red-headed, New Yorkish, Ichabod Crane-like Lance McCleary with dark, pretty boy John Derek and a mid-American media dialect that denies the role of place in speech patterns. Similarly, studio pressures replaced Fuller’s short, equally New Yorkish, Napoleonic Chapman with thuggish Broderick Crawford with his Hollywood trained diction.

Such problems—characters scrubbed of any specificity, and banal movie shorthand for identifying place—are only a part of the disappointments of Fuller’s second film, The Baron of Arizona, also based loosely on a legendary American figure, James Addison Reavis, who, by forging land grant documents, attempted to scam the United States government out of most of what is now the state of Arizona. With a leaden cast headed by Vincent Price as Reavis, Arizona has even less psychological and physical texture than Jesse James, even though the cinematographer was James Wong Howe. Filled with standard-order southwestern shanties and cartoon-like reproductions of monasteries and haciendas, this Arizona has no existence as a landscape, a historical site, or a cultural system. What is worse, it doesn’t even manage to rise to the level of an exciting and entertaining generic tale of a rogue. Fuller uses expository techniques so thuddingly ponderous that, anachronistically speaking, at times the narrative seems to have been constructed by someone trained to write instruction manuals for DVD players.

The film begins in a men’s club, where central casting’s idea of bewhiskered, prosperous old patriarchs obligingly ask government agent John Griff (Reed Hadley) questions that will allow him to dole out expository information about “a real lover of Arizona… my friend James Addison Reavis.” When one of the pompous white-haired patricians asks in a hushed voice, “You mean the man who called himself the Baron of Arizona?,” a neon sign starts blinking, “Exposition, exposition, exposition.” And sure enough, right on cue the film lurches into a flashback that tediously follows Reavis’s rise and fall, never missing an opportunity to use Griff’s voice-over to make connections that are already as obvious as an infected case of acne. (One interesting Fuller intertextuality: he repeatedly uses the name Griff, as both a first and last name, in a number of his films, including Pickup on South Street, The Naked Kiss, and The Big Red One.)

Laying it on with a trowel, Fuller gives us our first view of Vincent Price as Reavis during a rainstorm, punctuating his words with a peal of thunder. Pounding music takes on the burden of emphasis when the rain stops. Reavis’s plot depends on his ability to marry a woman of Hispanic heritage whom he can establish as the rightful owner of Arizona by forging old Spanish land grant documents, once he creates a suitable past for her. Reavis begins by inventing the necessary pedigree for a downtrodden, hungry little peasant girl called Sophia (Karen Kester), an orphan whom he recreates as the heir to the de Peralta family, the supposed inheritors of the Arizona land grant. He then buys the newly baptized Sophia de Peralta an education that will transform her into a “real” Spanish lady.

Once the education is set in motion, Reavis leaves Sophia to her teacher and goes off to masquerade as a monk so that he can alter the ancient land grant contract located in an Arizona monastery, moving on, when the deed is done, to Spain, where he seduces both a gypsy and an aristocratic floozy to complete the necessary forgeries. Fortunately for Reavis, the grown Sophia (Ellen Drew) is bedazzled by him, allowing Reavis to complete the second stage of his scheme, his marriage to her. But the infernal machine stops with the wedding ceremony. Reavis is unable to seduce the entire state, principally because Agent Griff punctures Reavis’s impossible dream with a relentless repudiation of his lies.

Again, as in Jesse James, in what is mostly an otherwise dull, clichéd film, Fuller finds a kernel of searing truth. He depicts Reavis’s mad adventure as part of a national, aggressive, sociopathic tendency not only to climb into self-created fantasies and live them as if they were real, but to impose them on an unwilling world, no matter what damage may result. The deeply rooted antidemocratic strain that Reavis’s impulse represents, a danger to the United States then as now, is explicitly exposed by the angry small landowners who resist his efforts to swindle them. And even today Fuller’s awkward speeches strike home; the antidemocratic self-created mythology of the present administration proves that the kind of hubris that motivated Reavis cannot be exposed often enough. The problem is that what could have been a great saga of outrageous obsession was absurdly executed. And, of course, Orson Welles had, with much greater artistry, realized a film on the same theme a decade earlier, with Citizen Kane. Then, too, by the end of the film, Fuller seems to have failed where the state of Arizona succeeded. Somewhere during the proceedings, he appears to have been seduced by the magnitude of Reavis’s bold daring, and alienated from Reavis’s victims.

Arizona ends with a formerly deluded Reavis realizing that the love of Sophia, a good woman, is more important than, well, Arizona. His transformation, contradicting history—Reavis was an unreconstructed grifter until the day he died—and psychology—through Reavis’s absurdly precipitous turnaround—is more mendacious than the original scam. In the last analysis, Fuller enobles Reavis at the price of demonizing the working farmers he sought to cheat, by transforming the latter into a completely unsympathetic lynch mob in the penultimate scenes, a narrative turn that validates Reavis’s contempt for ordinary people and will suggest to some that Fuller shared a generous helping of his protagonist’s defects. It is one of the worst films I have ever seen.

Fuller was on stronger, if not strong enough, ground when he made his first war film, The Steel Helmet, which intriguingly and appropriately gives war a Twilight Zone-like frisson. Touted as the first American film to treat the Korean War, The Steel Helmet may also have the distinction of being the first to capture the disorienting experience of unprepared American troops in a land war in Asia. Produced by Fuller with his own money, The Steel Helmet certainly reveals more of Fuller’s spirit, through expository technique and characterization vastly superior to those in Fuller’s first two films. Here we get our first glimpse of the basis for Fuller’s subsequent reputation as a cult film director. Helmet begins with an effective trompe l’oeil effect before proceeding to a suspenseful moment that visually sets the scene with an economy that was all too scarce in Fuller’s first two pictures. The credits roll over a bullet-punctured steel helmet which seems to rest on the grass by itself. The helmet soon moves, however, revealing itself to be perched on the head of an American soldier, Sergeant “Iron Mike” Zack (Gene Evans), whose hands are tied behind him and who, like a wounded snake, struggles to shimmy to safer ground. The arrival of two bare feet belonging to a Korean child of no more than eleven years of age, Short Round (William Chun), who prods Zack’s body with a rifle, invites fear for the shackled American. In a lightning quick reversal, the child cuts the soldier’s bonds with a knife lying nearby, proclaiming, “South Korean!”

It isn’t the sensational opening of The Naked Kiss, which begins in medias res as a half-naked Constance Towers beats a man into submission with her purse and then shucks her blonde wig, revealing that she is bald. But it does prefigure the wit and verve with which Fuller later went on to develop his movies. For an added kick, when Zack tells Short Round that he speaks more like a “dogface” than a “gook,” the child says emphatically, “I am no gook; I am Korean.” This too prefigures Fuller’s unsentimental way of confronting troubling social issues head on, and his willingness, so uncharacteristic of the early postwar period in Hollywood, to complicate our feelings for his protagonists by giving them unattractive attitudes.

The best aspect of Helmet is how it communicates the experience of feeling constantly lost on the battlefield, unable to determine the loyalties of the strangers one meets in the mists that befog everyone’s path, and forever losing whatever comrades one encounters. The worst aspect is its unqualified hatred of the North Koreans (Fuller, of course, was notoriously anticommunist) and its man-crush on gruff, pragmatic, uneducated, battle-hardened, but secretly soft-hearted, Zack, Fuller’s idea of the perfect soldier and, perhaps, the perfect man. Like Lee Marvin’s Sergeant thirty years later in Fuller’s The Big Red One, Zack, combining luck with cool shrewdness, makes war, for all its exposed confusion and cruelty, into a game that can be won by the right man. In this way, Fuller, who has no particular love for the countries that wage armed conflict but great admiration for individuals who can endure its insanity, caters to the illusions we all want to believe in and, inadvertently, carries on the “glory of war” tradition of the mass media.

As he made more pictures, it became increasingly clear that the battlefield was Fuller’s key metaphor for life. So fully was Fuller committed to the need for an immediately reactive defensive stance in a world filled with danger that he often fell into an unattractive anti-intellectual bias and a near contempt for the contemplative nuances of art and culture. It’s not by coincidence that Zack, an early model of this kind of machismo, a less grotesque Stanley Kowalski taken seriously as a heroic figure, emerged in Fuller’s first war film. The context of the Korean War allows Fuller to create a survivor who validates the Fullerism that it’s better (and much safer) to be a boor. Ditch the sacred and take the profane.

A telling and early example of the film’s admiration for Zack’s defensive rejection of “the frills” of humane practices occurs with the discovery of the body of a dead American, and the insistence of college-trained Lieutenant Driscoll (Steve Brodie) that one of the soldiers retrieve the dead man’s dog tags. Speaking with his mouth full of the melon he and his compatriots have found on the road, the juice running down his chin, Zack grunts, “Look, lieutenant, don’t let your emotions get the best of you. That man is nothing but a corpse. Nobody cares who he is now.” The lieutenant is disgusted by Zack’s attitude, but the soldier who goes for the tags is killed when the booby-trapped American’s body explodes. Sergeant Zack’s adaptation to a norm of violence marks the superior man.

Fuller’s embrace in Helmet of violence as not only the rule of life but as a thing of beauty is evident in the brilliance of his shot compositions and camera technique when Zack and his cohort ferret out a simplistically characterized and vicious North Korean “commie” major hiding in the Buddhist temple in which they take cover, and during the combat sequence at the end of the film when the cut is made between survivors and victims. The battle scenes are ravishing. Moreover, Fuller finds nobility in Zack’s inability to express emotion other than through violence. When little Short Round is killed by a North Korean sniper outside the temple, Zack, through what is obviously a great deal of sorrow, says only that it was the “kid’s fault.” For being careless? Vulnerable? It goes unspecified. But when the captured North Korean ridicules a note found subsequently from Short Round asking Buddha to make “Sergeant Zack like me,” Zack kills his prisoner of war for his insult to Short Round’s memory, even though he is an important prisoner who would have earned the motley group of soldiers a reward from the army. Such is the love song of Fuller’s noble savage.  

Unsurprisingly, it is neither the idealists nor the cream of American society that live to tell the tale of that day, but the social outcasts, the different ones, including Zack, a black medic (James Edwards) who has inured himself to risking his life in an Asian land war for a country that discriminates against him at home, a Japanese-American (Richard Loo) whose family was in an internment camp during World War II (Fuller’s praiseworthy reference to an American shame few at the time cared to acknowledge), and an oddball white Southern soldier (Richard Monahan) who has been cruelly marginalized because of his premature baldness.

Needless to say, the educated Lieutenant and the conscientious objector in the group do not make it, although in the end they acquit themselves with what Fuller acknowledges as courage. The film concludes with the war-weary soldiers trudging off to fight another time. This indeterminate closure is, in some ways, a realistic and even innovative terminus for a war story. But the unending battle scenario also has the unfortunate overtones of a parable of life that defends the know-nothing biases of an American mass audience which, confronted with a choice between the nuanced, long-range thinking of an educated man and the sharp decisiveness of an ignoramus who has no options but the preprogrammed dogma rolling around his empty head, will choose the latter every time.

The First Films of Samuel Fuller is distributed as part of Criterion’s Eclipse series, which seeks to make available “affordable,” “simple” versions of “lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics.” In keeping with this goal, the boxed set of Fuller’s first films provides no commentary tracks, interviews, or documents for any of the three films. The notes on the case covers are more adulatory than informative, but they do include a useful list of credits. The collection is likely to interest Fuller aficionadoes and those curious about the construction of masculinity in American culture. For my part, I was more engaged by The Dark Page as “the road not taken” by Fuller. Equally absorbed by manhood, it creates more vibrant, freewheeling characters than Fuller’s first films and connects male aggression, entitlement, and ego to the social fabric of America in a much more nuanced manner. The novel brought me into the patriarchal mysteries of combat and conquest more fully than any of Fuller’s films, although I enjoy seeing Pickup on South Street and The Naked Kiss as much as I like reading The Dark Page—even if biology prohibits me from giving Sam the salute of appreciation he cherished most.

Martha P. Nochimson, a Cineaste Associate, is the author of The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood and, most recently, Dying to Belong: Gangster Movies in Hong Kong and Hollywood.

Copyright © 2008 by Cineaste Magazine