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Battleground of Film

Director Sam Fuller knew that there was more to life--and the movies--than good guys and bad guys

By Richard von Busack

Ever since the landmark success of Star Wars, the battle between good and evil has been the sturdiest of movie clichés. From the evidence of his movies, the late director/writer Sam Fuller, who died Oct. 30, never had much faith in such a battle--probably because of his experiences as an infantryman in a real-life battle between good and evil.

Fuller was last seen by movie audiences in a cameo as Gabriel Byrne's elderly father in The End of Violence. If he'd been at his full powers, how Fuller would have laughed at Wim Wenders' notion that there might be such a thing as an end of violence.

Fuller may not have had faith in white angels battling red devils, but he did believe in conflict. "Film is like a battleground," he said in a cameo as a filmmaker in Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou--and the statement does sum up Fuller's often shocking melodramas of the 1950s and 1960s.

In Fuller's movies, there's no good guy/bad guy structure--there's just antagonist/protagonist. Richard Widmark, the oily pickpocket in perhaps Fuller's best movie, the 1953 Pickup on South Street, turns undercover agent without being cleansed in his soul. By contrast, a boozy old snitch (indelibly played by Thelma Ritter) faces death with the bravery of a samurai.

His first directoral effort, the 1949 I Shot Jesse James, memorialized the story of an ex-outlaw shooting another outlaw in the back. I've never seen White Dog, the 1982 movie Fuller made from Romaine Gary's didactic novel (which was preachy enough to be published in Life magazine when it came out). An attack dog trained to attack black people is retrained by a black man to attack only whites. It must have been Fuller's answer to Lassie; the moral equanimity of the story alone must have attracted the director.

Fuller was a crime reporter during the 1920s on Bernarr McFadden's New York Evening Graphic, nicknamed "The Pornographic." It was a newspaper that made the National Enquirer looks like the Wall Street Journal. The Graphic invented "The Cosmograph," which it used on its tabloid covers: a fumetti (photo-funny) with word balloons for dialogue over the doctored photos. (One great moment in the paper's history was the Graphic's headline about a criminal's death in the electric chair: "ROASTED ALIVE.") Fuller's movies are full of the old yellow-journalist's desire to rub your nose in corruption, racism and injustice; his heroes are often reporters (as is the ill-advised journalist who poses his way into a straight jacket to expose a madhouse in Fuller's amazing 1963 Shock Corridor).

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FilmZone's review of The Typewriter, The Rifle and the Movie Camera, a documentary about Sam Fuller.

Interview with director Adam Simon on Fuller.

Capsule reviews of several Fuller films.

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Despite a small and devoted fan base, Fuller was never regarded as an important director in Hollywood. This was mostly because money equals prestige, and his budgets were always low and mostly free of stars.

But to an observer of late-'40s and 1950s films, it's the peripheral works that are often the most interesting. Monster movies, flying saucer movies and gangster movies tell (vividly) of the social disorder, fear and hypocrisy that the smooth, bland big-studio releases omitted.

Fuller's movies are, everyone of them, brilliantly overstated. But if Fuller has a bigger audience now, it's maybe because there are more people willing to acknowledge that Fuller's vision of the world as a fight between bad cats and bad rats has more of a basis in real life than most people's grand, archetypal myths.

In his last years, Fuller was a father figure to a host of unlikely filmmakers, one of them being Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man), whose films are notably free of tension and conflict. In a documentary recently, Jarmusch brought a camera into Fuller's office. He panned along the shelf near Fuller's desk, showing a five-foot shelf of unproduced scripts--biographies, actioners, war movies. Obviously, we haven't heard the last of Sam Fuller.

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