As chronicled in the riveting biography A Third Face, Sam Fuller had already lived several eventful lives before emerging as one of America's most ferociously iconoclastic directors. He toiled in the trenches as a newspaperman, fought in World War II as part of an infantry division affectionately dubbed "The Big Red One," and worked as a studio screenwriter. Each of these professions influenced his writing and directing, as evidenced by the three scruffy but ambitious low-budget dramas included in Criterion's The First Films Of Samuel Fuller box set.
In the first two films, 1949's I Shot Jesse James and The Baron Of Arizona, Fuller follows his newsman's nose for a good story into true-life tales from American history. The noirish Western James plunges into the existential dread of Robert Ford (played by John Ireland), who found glory and ruin, fame and infamy, in killing one of his best friends and America's most notorious outlaws. Fuller plays up James' strangely avuncular domesticity to an almost comic degree: "No sir, nothin' quite like putterin' around a home," are James' less-than-iconic last words before the guilt-ridden Ford shoots him in the back as he straightens a picture frame. Ford expects James' death to free him from the pressures of outlaw life and the looming specter of the law. Instead, it seals his doom. Ford can't escape his dark deed or his destiny, and as he stumbles toward his day of reckoning, Fuller proves himself a sure hand at exploring the darkness of the tormented criminal psyche.
A decidedly mixed bag, 1950's The Baron Of Arizona stars Vincent Price (fun!) in an unusually restrained lead performance. (Not so fun!) He anchors the larger-than-life story of a historic swindle of nearly unprecedented proportions (exciting!) rooted in meticulously forged land-grant documents. (Not so exciting!) Arizona strains to overcome groaning exposition and a clunky framing device in which Price's arch-nemesis relates the story of his epic misdeeds to a group of bemused fat-cats celebrating Arizona statehood. Fuller's surprisingly stiff drama only truly comes alive during the thrilling climax, where an outraged lynch mob breaks into the prison holding Price, who dares them to string him up. That exhilarating moment anticipates the white-knuckle pulp thrills of later Fuller masterpieces like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss.
Fuller drew extensively on his wartime experiences for 1951's The Steel Helmet, a haunting, economical war film that delves into the haunting paradox of Japanese and black soldiers fighting for a country that treats them as second-class citizens. A performer so grizzled he probably emerged from the womb chomping a stogie and sporting a shaggy beard, Gene Evans stars as a grunt who teams up with a misfit infantry division and finds temporary refuge in a Buddhist temple that eventually comes under attack. Like the rest of Fuller's work, Helmet is informed by a tough-minded, practical patriotism that bluntly acknowledges our nation's hypocrisy, iniquity, and racism, yet oozes love for the red, white, and blue all the same—especially for the forgotten Army men who live and die in its name.
Key features: Brief yet engaging essays on each film.