I’ve reviewed a lot of Sam Fuller’s films here over the years. Although his work can often be flawed, largely due to his not particularly subtle, all-guns-blazing approach, I’m always happy to watch anything he’s put his name to. That’s because his films are usually tough and thrilling and often pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable or taboo at the time. He amassed a fairly large volume of work during his near-60 year career as a writer and director (among other jobs in the industry), so there are still plenty of films in his oeuvre I’ve not seen. Indicator are doing their best to remedy that though by releasing the jam-packed box set, Sam Fuller at Columbia 1937-1961. It, as the title suggests, collects all of the films Fuller wrote and/or directed for Columbia during the period. I dove into the set and have provided my thoughts on the films below. Because of the volume of films included, I’m keeping reviews brief, so apologies if I skim over anything.
It Happened in Hollywood
Director: Harry Lachman
Screenplay: Ethel Hill, Harvey Fergusson, Sam Fuller
Based on a Story by: Myles Connolly
Starring: Richard Dix, Fay Wray, Victor Kilian, Bill Burrud
Running Time: 68 min
It Happened in Hollywood sees Richard Dix play a silent movie western star called Tim Bart, who’s particularly popular among children and devotes much of his time out of the studio promoting his work to groups of kids. However, the introduction of sound to moving pictures shakes up Hollywood and Bart struggles to adapt and falls out of the spotlight. He ends up broke as he’d spent all his money on a new ranch, but hides this fact from his good friend and former co-star Gloria Gay (Fay Wray) who is flourishing in the era of the talkies. Bart still has one fan though, young Billy (Bill Burrud), who keeps sending fan mail to the now has-been. Billy’s been in hospital for a long time so doesn’t know Bart is washed up and one day turns up at the actor’s doorstep. Bart doesn’t want to let the sickly child down, so does his best to convince Billy he’s still a big name in Hollywood through an elaborate fake party.
It Happened in Hollywood was only Fuller’s second credit as writer (on the IMDB at least) and he worked alongside another pair of writers from someone else’s original material, so it bears little resemblance to his typical output (if Fuller’s work could ever be called ‘typical’). It’s very light, fluffy and sentimental with little of the tough edge Fuller is known for. However, it’s short, snappy and sweet and provides an affectionately soft early example of Hollywood sending itself up. Particularly memorable is the climactic party scene which sees dozens of stand-ins and look-a-likes come together to create a tribute-act style celebration of 20s and 30s megastars.
Adventure in Sahara
Director: D. Ross Lederman
Screenplay: Maxwell Shane
Based on a Story by: Sam Fuller
Starring: Paul Kelly, C. Henry Gordon, Lorna Gray
Running Time: 56 min
Adventure in Sahara sees Jim Wilson (Paul Kelly) join the French Foreign Legion based out in the Sahara after he hears of the death of his brother there under the cruel command of Captain Savatt (C. Henry Gordon). Wilson is determined to get revenge for what Savatt did and slowly hatches a plan whilst trying to survive under his strict rule. He eventually leads a mutiny with his fellow Legionnaires, who have also had enough of Savatt’s evil methods of command.
This feels much more like a Fuller film, at least in the lean approach and tough subject matter. Fuller fought in WWII and made numerous films about warfare after the experience, although this was made before that, so maybe explains the less realistic approach. It’s rather throwaway and hardly groundbreaking, feeling very much like the B-movie it was, but it is a short, sharp and fairly rousing action adventure nonetheless.
Power of the Press
Director: Lew Landers
Screenplay: Robert D. Andrews
Based on a Story by: Sam Fuller
Starring: Guy Kibbee, Lee Tracy, Gloria Dickson
Running Time: 64 min
Power of the Press opens with New York Gazette publisher John Carter (Minor Watson) reading an editorial from Ulysses Bradford (Guy Kibbee) that damns him and his paper for its one-sided views that abuse the power of the press. Surprisingly enough Carter agrees and decides to change his ways and turn his paper in a new direction. He’s killed before he has chance though, by the goons of his second-in-command Howard Rankin (Otto Kruger), who wants to take control of the paper and keep hold of his interests. However, Carter, in his dying moments, puts the righteous Bradford in charge of the paper. Bradford agrees to take on the role, although he only runs a small local rag, so feels out of his depth at the Gazette. Aided by Carter’s loyal assistant Edie (Gloria Dickson) though, he does his best to keep Rankin at bay and bring the paper back from the gutter.
Fuller’s first career was in journalism, so a number of novels, stories and scripts he wrote during his lifetime were set in the world of the newspaper man. Power of the Press is not a bad example of one of these. It’s too blandly presented and loaded with moralistic speeches to work perfectly, feeling about as subtle as a hammer to the head at times. However, the subject matter and damnation of newspapers using scandal to manipulate public opinion is as relevant as ever in today’s world of ‘fake news’ and venomous rags like The Daily Mail and Express in the UK. Once the film kicks into gear in the second half it races along too, making for a thrilling watch up to its surprisingly twisted finale.
Director: Douglas Sirk
Screenplay: Helen Deutsch, Sam Fuller
Starring: Cornel Wilde, Patricia Knight, John Baragrey
Running Time: 80 min
Shockproof sees Jenny Marsh (Patricia Knight) released from prison after a 5 year stint. She’s put in the care of the tough parole officer Griff Marat (Cornel Wilde), who has strict rules about what she can and can’t do and who she can’t spend time with, particularly her crafty criminal boyfriend Harry (John Baragrey) who he sees as a bad influence. Harry has a plan to get Jenny transferred to a parole officer he can control, which involves her getting cosy with Griff to put him in a position of breaking the parole officer-parolee relationship rules. As she does get closer to Griff though and he lets her into his life, Jenny wonders who she should be listening to. When she finally decides, things take a dangerous twist and she ends up on the lam.
This was the most disappointing title in the set for me. It’s probably better than some of the previous films in terms of technical quality, but the story didn’t grab me. It had a big name in the director’s chair too, Douglas Sirk – the master of melodrama, so my expectations were heightened. It’s certainly not Sirk’s finest hour either though, and I didn’t want so much melodrama from what I felt was quite an interesting setup. The film is diverting enough and the idea of having a female parolee as a protagonist must have been unheard of at the time, but it’s rather over-baked and less engrossing than the other films here.
Director: Phil Karlson
Screenplay: Ted Sherdeman, Eugene Ling, James Poe
Based on a Novel by: Sam Fuller
Starring: John Derek, Donna Reed, Broderick Crawford
Running Time: 82 min
Scandal Sheet sees Fuller once again looking into the cut-throat world of tabloid journalism. Broderick Crawford plays Mark Chapman, the editor of the New York Express, which once was a respectable paper but had turned into the titular rag under Chapman’s watch. Under his wing is the heartless reporter Steve McCleary (John Derek) who will stop at nothing to get a good story. One night, Chapman bumps into his emotionally fragile wife who he’d run away from, assuming a new identity. The two argue and he accidentally kills her after the argument gets physical. He makes it look like an accident to cover his tracks, but he trained McCleary too well, as the intrepid reporter finds evidence of foul play and turns the investigation into front page news Chapman can’t avoid running with.
Now this is more like it. This is the Sam Fuller I know and love. From the offset, which sees McCleary trick a woman whose sister had just been murdered into dishing the details, you know you’re in for a tough and sensational ride. The film is blisteringly paced and gripping from start to finish as McClearly closes in on the truth and Chapman gets more desperate. There’s a bit of preaching here again, largely in the hands of the honest reporter and love interest Julie (Donna Reed), but the speeches are far less ham-fisted here and elsewhere the film is much darker than Power of the Press, so it stands tall as the better film. I really enjoyed it and it restored my faith in the set after a so-so initial handful of films.
The Crimson Kimono
Director: Sam Fuller
Screenplay: Sam Fuller
Starring: Victoria Shaw, Glenn Corbett, James Shigeta, Anna Lee
Running Time: 81 min
The Crimson Kimono opens with the murder of a stripper in the Japanese quarter of LA. The two detectives in charge of the case, Charlie (Glenn Corbett) and Joe (James Shigeta), are good friends and slowly work their way through the suspects, meeting the beautiful artist Chris (Victoria Shaw) during the investigation. Charlie falls hard for Chris, but she grows fond of Joe who reciprocates, forming a love triangle that threatens the detectives’ friendship and distracts them from the case at hand. It also causes Joe to believe he’s been blind to the racism surrounding him.
The opening murder is vividly and thrillingly depicted, letting me know straight away that Fuller was now in the director’s chair. His use of cleverly orchestrated long shots and smart, punchy editing is in full evidence too. The film is full of life, with locations well utilised, sets brimming with detail and some of the characters proving memorable, such as the wild abstract artist Mac (Anna Lee).
Also particularly admirable is the fact that Fuller has a Japanese-American in a lead role and the fact that Japanese culture is so respectfully presented not all that many years after the war. It’s still rare now to have an Asian lead in an American film, so here is a fine example of Fuller breaking down walls.
However, I did find the film let me down a little. After a superb and taut first half, the pace slackens somewhat when the love triangle comes into play. The race angle makes it interesting and more powerful and groundbreaking than it otherwise would have been, but I was enjoying the tough murder mystery side of the film, so was disappointed to see the film become more of a melodrama. There’s much to recommend though, so the change of pace didn’t greatly bother me and it’s still a fine melodrama, even if that’s not what I wanted to see.
Director: Sam Fuller
Screenplay: Sam Fuller
Starring: Cliff Robertson, Dolores Dorn, Beatrice Kay, Paul Dubov, Richard Rust, Larry Gates, Robert Emhardt
Running Time: 98 min
Underworld U.S.A. grabs our attention by opening with the teenage Tolly Devlin (David Kent) ‘rolling a drunk’ before being graphically smashed in the face with a brick by a younger hooligan. Soon after, Tolly witnesses the murder of his father at the hands of Vic Farrar (Peter Brocco) and three of his associates whose faces he doesn’t catch. The angry teenager heads to get revenge on Vic, but learns the killer has been jailed for a different offence. So Tolly puts himself in prison to try and find him. 20 years later (and now played by Cliff Robertson) Tolly finally finds himself face to face with Vic, but he’s now a dying old man so there’s not much need for Tolly to kill him. Before Vic dies though (hurried along by a swift punch to the neck), Tolly manages to get the names of the other men who beat his father to death.
The remaining three on Tolly’s hit list are Gela (Paul Dubov), Gunther (Gerald Milton) and Smith (Allan Gruener). They’ve risen to become the heads of what the tabloids dub ‘Underworld U.S.A.’ – a crime syndicate with a stranglehold over the city. Tolly manages to infiltrate the gang and carefully executes a plan to bring the trio to his own brand of cold, cruel justice.
Underworld U.S.A. ends the set on an exceptionally high note. It’s incredibly tough, and not just for the time. It’s not often you see a villain purposefully run down a little girl who’s innocently out riding her bike. Our protagonist is utterly despicable too. He may have a reasonable reason to want revenge, but the way he goes about it is not particularly honourable and he treats everyone, even the ‘love interest’ Cuddles (Dolores Dorn) and his surrogate mother Sandy (Beatrice Kay), horribly. This may put some off, but in my eyes, when we’re rating a Sam Fuller film, the tougher and nastier the better.
What I found interesting about the film was that when it was released it was behind the times but looking at it now it feels well ahead its time. It was behind the times because it looks and feels like a film noir, but the genre had pretty much fizzled out by the late-50s and we were a while away from the neo-noirs that came in the 70s onwards. It feels ahead of its time though in its raw, uncompromising depiction of the criminal underworld and the details of how government officials and politicians were in the pockets of the syndicate. Indeed the story beats when Tolly infiltrates the gang feel familiar now, but I can’t think of many films prior to 1961 that followed a similar thread.
Fuller’s mastery of atmosphere, tension and excitement are as strong as ever too. There are plenty of striking long and complicated shots again, as well as some moody noir photography. I loved the music too.
It’s a stunning end to a fantastic set. Yes, a few of the titles are not what you’d call great, but none are without their merits and they chart the progression of Fuller’s work and demonstrate how his material really flew when he was in the driving seat. This final title is cold, near-nihilistic and ahead of its time. It set a benchmark for crime dramas to come and remains bold, and hard-hitting to this day. Like most of Fuller’s work, it may not be subtle but who cares when his punches are thrown so masterfully and with such impact.
Sam Fuller at Columbia 1937-1961 is out now, released by Powerhouse Films on Blu-Ray as part of their Indicator label in the UK. The picture and sound quality on all films is superb, particularly considering the age of the earliest titles.
There are plenty of special features included in the set:
- High Definition remasters of all seven films
– Original mono audio
– ‘The Typewriter, the Rifle & the Movie Camera’ Rushes Tapes 01-12 (1996, 406 mins): almost seven hours’ worth of unedited interview footage of Sam Fuller in conversation with actor Tim Robbins, recorded for Adam Simon’s classic documentary
– All-Star Party (2018, 6 mins): a who’s who of the ‘stars’ and their impersonators in the climactic party scene from It Happened in Hollywood
– Sam Fuller’s Search for Truth with Tim Robbins (2009, 7 mins): the celebrated actor explores Fuller’s time as a reporter
– The Culture of ‘The Crimson Kimono’ (2009, 10 mins): an analysis by filmmaker Curtis Hanson
– Switch-Hitting Between Three Triangles (2018, 15 mins): a new audiovisual essay on The Crimson Kimono by Cristina Álvarez López
– Sam Fuller Storyteller (2009, 25 mins): insightful documentary with contributions from Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders, as well as Fuller’s wife, Christa, and daughter, Samantha
– Sam Fuller on Henry Chapier’s Couch (1989, 22 mins): archival interview from French TV in which Fuller answers questions about his life
– Martin Scorsese on ‘Underworld U.S.A.’ (2009, 5 mins): the acclaimed director discusses the impact and legacy of Fuller’s film
– Barry Forshaw on ‘Underworld U.S.A.’ (2018, 10 mins): a critical analysis by the author of American Noir
– Sam Fuller Masterclass with Wim Wenders (1993, 62 mins): archival audio recording of the two friends and collaborators in conversation at the Arri Cinema, Munich
– Original theatrical trailers
– Image galleries: publicity photography and promotional material
– Limited Edition exclusive booklets containing newly commissioned essays by Jeff Billington, Pamela Hutchinson and Lindsay Anne Hallam, archival interviews with director Sam Fuller, historic articles, a critical anthology, and full film credits
– World Blu-ray premieres of It Happened in Hollywood, Adventure in Sahara, Power of the Press, Shockproof and Scandal Sheet
– UK Blu-ray premieres of The Crimson Kimono and Underworld U.S.A.
– Limited Edition Box Set of 6,000 numbered copies
It’s another impressive array of features from Indicator with ‘The Typewriter, the Rifle & the Movie Camera’ Rushes proving to be the real highlight of the package. Due to its length (close to seven hours!) and raw nature it can be rambling and maybe won’t hold your full attention in the same way a standard doc would, but there’s a veritable wealth of great material here as Fuller waxes lyrical about his life, work and world views. The masterclass with Fuller and Wim Wenders works in a similar way too, keeping things loose but focusing more closely on Fuller’s thoughts on writing for the screen. The shorter featurettes are all excellent too and I can never stress enough how brilliant Indicator’s booklets are, helping maintain the company’s fine reputation for quality Blu-Ray packages they’ve enjoyed from their first release.
* Please excuse the stills used in this review – they were all I could find online and are not indicative of the picture quality of the Blu-ray.