He was born in August 1912. At twelve years-old, he became a paper boy, at seventeen, a criminal reporter for The New York Graphic, at twenty, a ghost writer, at thirty, a decorated soldier. Scorsese said of him that “when you respond to a Fuller film, what you’re responding to is cinema at its essence. Motion as emotion. Fuller’s pictures move convulsively, violently. Just like life when it’s being lived with genuine passion”. This week, we celebrate Samuel Fuller’s centennial.
Since he never revealed the screenplays he had written as a ghost writer in the early thirties, his official filmography doesn’t start until 1936, with a short Laurel & Hardy film. During the war, he placed himself behind the camera for the first time by shooting on 16mm the liberation of the concentration camp in Sokolov. It wasn’t until independent producer Robert Lipper commissioned him to write three screenplays and that Fuller agreed to take the job only if he was allowed to direct them (with no additional charges) that he took the leap towards film directing. It was with the last of these films, The Steel Helmet (1951), one of the first movies about the korean war, considered to be pro-communist and anti-american, that Fuller got the major studios’ attention, which eventually led him to an association with 20th Century Fox. He made seven movies with Fox, most of them were made on extremely low budgets and treated controversial subjects such as racism (Run of the Arrow), sadism (Pickup On South Street) or repressed homosexuality (House of Bamboo).
Initially little appreciated by film critics, after his contract with Fox expired in 1957, Fuller was consigned to B movies. He continued making movies in a more independent fashion but always with the same characteristic style: direct, expressive, provocative, in the words of Manny Farber, maybe the first critic to acknowledge his work, “blunt and abstract”. Despite the limitations, some of his best regarded films are from this period: The Crimson Kimono (1959), Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964). Even though all of them are genre movies, Fuller had a very personal approach, always positioning himself between raw emotion and complex dialectics. This is made obvious in his now legendary declarations in Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (1965) where, in a conversation with Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character, he explains that “a film is like a battleground.
There’s love, hate, action, violence, and death. In one word: emotion”.
After almost a decade without touching a camera, Fuller came back with what is today considered his magnum opus: The Big Red One (1980). A violent film about the survival of five WWII soldiers, led by a paternal, nameless sergeant played by Lee Marvin. The film is particular in many ways, from the thematic treatment, that of a group of soldiers, moved only by fear and the drive for survival, to the directing method, in which Fuller would fire a gun loaded with blanks to start a take and cut it by disapprovingly yelling “forget about it!”. Nevertheless, The Big Red One was the film that consolidated him as one of the greatest directors of our time.
Sam Fuller always felt uncomfortable with the cult status he achieved and genuinely worried about young filmmakers, seeing himself as their “benevolent father”. In the eighties, many of them such as Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders, Martin Scorsese or Mika Kaurismäki seeked him out for guidance, and he would always respond faithfully to his vision of filmmaking: “If a story doesn’t give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes, throw it in the goddamned garbage.”