Weekly Top Five: "Film is like a battleground"—the best of Samuel Fuller | Bleader

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Weekly Top Five: "Film is like a battleground"—the best of Samuel Fuller

Posted By on 03.17.13 at 09:00 AM

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Shock Corridor
  • Shock Corridor
The Northwest Chicago Film Society enters the final stretch of its winter programming with a screening of Samuel Fuller's classic Park Row. Having spent time as a crime reporter in New York City, a pulp fiction novelist, and a foot soldier in World War II, Fuller is cinema's consummate journeyman, a notorious raconteur whose fiery personality revealed itself in each of his films. Decades of critical appraisal have put Fuller in his rightful place among the very best American filmmakers, yet some of his most vital work, including Park Row, remains underseen.

As the NCFS programmers note in their gazette, "Fuller brought up Park Row with 20th Century Fox production head Darryl Zanuck after convincing him to shoot two rounds of ammunition off the walls of Fox's screening room to prove that bullets really ricocheted off cement walls like in [Fuller's 1951 war film] Fixed Bayonets! Zanuck loved the script, but proposed the picture be shot in color and star Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward. It could even be a musical. 'To hell with Zanuck and Fox!' said Fuller, and funded the whole thing himself."

I know of very few cinephiles who don't adore Fuller. His films are compelling, messy, invigorating, and essential. Selecting my five favorite was a simple but no less fulfilling task. Check them out after the jump.

5. The Baron of Arizona (1950) Fuller's second film, and admittedly not a great one, but it reveals different nuances each time I see it. It's most often labeled a western, but its storyline is centered on historical fact rather than western myth. Its essence lies closer to noir, thanks to some inky black-and-white photography care of the inimitable James Wong Howe. As such, the film seems a perfect example of what Andre Bazin called a surwestern, a western "afraid to be just itself." Vincent Price's central performance borders of camp, which, depending on your taste, can make or break the film.

4. Underworld U.S.A. (1957) Fuller's bleakest film, this surly neonoir plays like Pickup on South Street's more nihilistic cousin. A 14-year-old boy commits to a life of crime just so he can get himself close enough to the crooks who killed his father, but in his quest for revenge, he actively refuses any chance at a normal life. Fuller drives home themes of fate, morality, and obsession with an aplomb only he could muster, making this one of the more thoroughly entertaining films about human deprivation you're likely to see.

3. Shock Corridor (1963) The pulpy pleasures of this frenetic thriller, about a journalist who intentionally commits himself to a mental hospital to find evidence in an unsolved crime, are impossible to deny. Thematically, it features everything Fuller had occupied himself with since beginning his career: obsessed, impulsive protagonists, a sincere distrust of authority, and a pessimistic view of Americanism at the height of the Cold War. It's also got hallucinogenic dream sequences and a roving gang of nymphomaniacs.

2. Park Row (1952) All of Fuller's films are personal in one way or another, but this drama towers over the rest as perhaps his most fully realized expression. Incorporating his love for journalism with a tightly wound narrative ripped straight out of a political thriller, the film bubbles and bursts with his personality. Leading man Gene Evans is a virtual stand-in for Fuller, spouting the virtues of truth and integrity in media and bowling over any and all oppositional forces. A truly unique film.

1. The Steel Helmet(1951) Fuller's first war film, and for my money his most shrewd, ferocious, and socially conscious. The intensity of combat still on his mind after his WWII service, he set to the task of making a film about the Korean War while it was ongoing, indicative of his journalistic inclinations. Above all, the film reads as an ode to the foot soldier, a filmic representation of the classic Fuller quote "Surviving is the only glory in war." The film also marks Fuller's first foray into the contentious world of race relations in America, approaching the topic from a playful but no less sincere place. He'd continue to explore the subject throughout his career.

Honorable mentions: I'd be hard-pressed to think of a single Fuller film I dislike. White Dog (1982) barely missed this list, and I'd also tip my hat to Shark! (1969), The Big Red One (1980), and the brilliant western Forty Guns (1957).

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.

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