Because writer-director Sam Fuller tried his best to skirt the Hollywood system, his filmography tends to be scattered, erratic, and difficult to collect. Sony’s 7-DVD box set The Samuel Fuller Collection features only two movies that Fuller directed (The Crimson Kimono and Underworld U.S.A.), along with two he merely co-scripted (It Happened In Hollywood and Shockproof), and three based on Fuller stories. The latter three range from the dry Foreign Legion plugger Adventure In Sahara to two punchy portraits of the tabloid media: Power Of The Press and Scandal Sheet. It’s an eclectic batch overall, covering nearly 25 years of Fuller’s filmmaking career, and though it doesn’t contain any of his truly great work, The Sam Fuller Collection gives a fair overview of what interested the man: tough guys, hardened pros, and two-fisted conflict in nearly every scene of a picture.
The least blatantly Fuller-esque movies in the set are the three he worked on prior to fighting in World War II. Adventure In Sahara is a wholly forgettable 1938 desert brawler, noteworthy mainly for predating Paths Of Glory in its story of field grunts righteously defying wrong-headed French officers. Still, the movie is too light on specific details of Legion life, and too clean-looking for a story set in sand. It’s easier to latch onto 1937’s It Happened In Hollywood, which stars Richard Dix as a silent Western star who has trouble adjusting to the sound era because he won’t play gangster roles. The movie features an odd interlude where Dix throws a party populated by celebrity look-alikes, and it has a corny plot twist in which Dix becomes a viable star again by showing real-life courage, but for the most part, It Happened In Hollywood is a smart inside-showbiz story, likeable and even insightful. The same could be said of 1943’s Power Of The Press, a curious little melodrama about a crusading editor who takes over an isolationist anti-war tabloid and tries to introduce “fairness” (which to him tracks as “a pro-war slant”). The movie is heavy-handed but crazily entertaining, and fascinating as one of the few films of the ’40s to deal with the nation’s bitter internal debate over whether to get involved with the war.
While Fuller was serving in the infantry, his novel The Dark Page was published stateside, winning acclaim as one of the most hard-hitting, truthful stories about crime reporting ever published. The 1952 film version Scandal Sheet—directed by B-movie master Phil Karlson—is almost a counter to Power Of The Press, replacing the former’s gentleman hero with a sweaty, unscrupulous editor who murders his ex-wife, then tries to keep his intrepid reporters from breaking the story. Scandal Sheet is a straightforward noir that expresses more faith in the bullpen than the bosses, and it’s well-handled by Karlson, who like Fuller was always drawn to outsized personalities—whether they were solving crimes or committing them. Fuller is less of an exact match with director Douglas Sirk, who turns 1949’s Shockproof into a dreamy, lurid tale of unexpected love between a stubborn ex-con and her idealistic parole officer. Studio interference robbed Fuller (and Sirk, reportedly) of Shockproof’s intended tragic ending, but before the plot contrivances kick into overdrive, the movie does offer a tough look at how prideful people sabotage themselves. It’s also gorgeous—maybe too gorgeous for a film with Fuller’s name on it.
Legend has it that Fuller was so annoyed with what happened to Shockproof that he leveraged his status as an in-demand writer and structured deals that let him direct his own scripts, for no extra fee. Behind the camera, Fuller proved crude but efficient, favoring long takes with moving cameras because that allowed him to do fewer setups per day. He also kept the action coming fast and furious, because that allowed him to drop in his little truths about how the world worked without testing the audience’s patience. The 1959 cop drama The Crimson Kimono, for example, begins with a murder in a strip club, though the mystery plot really sticks to the periphery while Fuller deals frankly with mid-20th-century race relations via a love story involving an artist and two cops—one Caucasian, one Japanese-American. And in 1961’s Underworld U.S.A., Fuller takes a clever revenge story about one ruthless young thug (well-played by Cliff Robertson) and turns it a proto-Goodfellas, documenting the power structure of the mob and the police. More than anything, what set Fuller apart as a writer and director is that he lived a colorful life filled with colorful people, and always used his movies as an opportunity to tell people what he knew, as honestly as he was allowed.
Key features: A useful half-hour appreciation/analysis of Fuller’s work from famous fans, plus short bonus interviews with Curtis Hanson, Tim Robbins, and Martin Scorsese.
Grades: It Happened In Hollywood: B; Adventure In Sahara: C-; Power Of The Press: B; Shockproof: B; Scandal Sheet: B+; The Crimson Kimono: B; Underworld U.S.A.: B+