Samuel Fuller’s distinct style of filmmaking seems to be clearly informed by his former career and experiences outside of Hollywood. He began his working life in the world of tabloid journalism, which gave his films a punchy, sensationalist, no-nonsense attitude. Later, not long into his career as a Hollywood screenwriter and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, he enlisted in the army and was somewhat of a war hero, fighting in the North Africa campaign, the invasion of Sicily and on Omaha Beach on D-Day and later helping liberate the Falkenau concentration camp. He was decorated several times over, even given a Purple Heart. This experience is reflected in the tough, often violent and masculine (women don’t often get a lot of space in his scripts, though Forty Guns is a good exception to this) style of his films.

Fuller wasn’t held in particularly high regard in America during his most fruitful period of work, between the 50s and early 60s. However, the critics of France’s Cahiers du Cinéma were fans of the writer/director and championed him during the 60s, so his work became reappraised. He is now well respected, though he’s often still thought of as a ‘B-movie’ director. I’ve long been a fan of his work and have covered a great many of his films here, so I couldn’t resist checking out Eureka’s new boxset of films Fuller made at 20th Century Fox. The set is called Fuller at Fox, Five Films 1951-1957 and it includes Fixed Bayonets!, Pickup on South Street, Hell and High Water, House of Bamboo and Forty Guns.

I’ve already reviewed three of the films in the set, so I’ve included links to those reviews and added new reviews of the two I hadn’t seen, Hell and High Water and House of Bamboo. Also, please note that the Forty Guns disc included in this set has been sourced from a newly remastered print.

Fixed Bayonets!

Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller
Suggested by a Novel by: John Brophy
Starring: Richard Basehart, Gene Evans, Michael O’Shea, Richard Hylton, Craig Hill, Skip Homeier
Country: USA
Running Time: 92 min
Year: 1951

My review

Pickup on South Street

Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller
Based on a Story by: Dwight Taylor
Starring: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Murvyn Vye, Richard Kiley
Country: USA
Running Time: 80 min
Year: 1953

My review

Hell and High Water

Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller, Jesse Lasky Jr.
Based on a Story by: David Hempstead
Starring: Richard Widmark, Bella Darvi, Victor Francen, Cameron Mitchell, Gene Evans, David Wayne
Country: USA
Running Time: 103 min
Year: 1954

Hell and High Water is a submarine action thriller that sees Richard Widmark play Adam Jones, an ex-US Navy Captain who is offered a secret mission. He is asked by a group of scientists, businessmen, and statesmen of various nations to take a pair of scientists (Bella Darvi and Victor Francen) to scout out an island they believe to be a secret Communist base housing nuclear weapons. Jones accepts the mission, but is rushed into launching early, finding himself on a poorly refitted Japanese submarine with untested (therefore unsafe to use) torpedo chutes. Along the way to the island they’re spotted by a Chinese sub and Jones also struggles to control his crew’s (not to mention his own) amorous desires towards Denise Montel (Darvi), the attractive young female scientist with them on the mission.

Directed as a favour to Darryl Zanuck, Fuller called Hell and High Water “easily my least favourite picture” and it’s not one of his more critically respected films either. However, I actually quite enjoyed it. The film comes into its own in the action scenes, which are genuinely tense when they’re on the sub and thrillingly explosive when on land towards the end.

It boasts a bigger budget than a lot of Fuller’s films, so looks good too. The production design of the submarine is particularly impressive, with a nicely worn, dirty look adding a touch of realism to an otherwise far-fetched tale. The effects are pretty decent for the time too. The model of the sub when surfacing and submerging looks a little artificial but when it’s floating above or below the surface it holds up very well. A firefight at the end looks fantastic too.

The most eye-catching aspect of the film though is its beautifully wide CinemaScope photography. It was a relatively new system back then and Fuller is believed to be one of the first directors to dare move the camera around, allowing for some dynamic and striking-looking sequences.

Spielberg is reportedly a fan of Fuller and the film. The submarine scenes in Indiana Jones are likely inspired by it and he supposedly carried a copy of Hell and High Water with him whilst filming 1941, so he could watch it for inspiration.

Some aspects of the film aren’t particularly inspiring though. The treatment of its sole female character came under criticism even at the time of its release. Although it’s refreshing to see a woman play an esteemed scientist in a film back then, and the film goes to great lengths to tell the audience how well qualified and important she is to the mission, the over-the-top fawning over her from the crew is frankly ridiculous and cheapens an otherwise potentially strong female character. The men even wait outside her shower room to catch a glimpse of her in one uncomfortable scene. They literally fight over her in another sequence too, like animals.

I wasn’t a massive fan of Widmark’s character either. He’s a mean-spirited, stubborn and unlikeable protagonist. The usually fantastic Widmark wasn’t keen on the film, which might explain his gruff, aggressive performance. As he put it, “they threw the script at Sam, they thought he could do something with it, and he re-wrote it. But it was crap. We all knew it going in”.

Despite the lead and director not being happy with Hell and High Water and the fact its treatment of women is pretty backward, I still found enough to enjoy to recommend the film. It’s an exciting war adventure that perhaps doesn’t break the mould and has some dated elements, but delivers enough thrills to hold its own.

House of Bamboo

Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Harry Kleiner, Samuel Fuller (additional dialogue)
Starring: Robert Ryan, Robert Stack, Shirley Yamaguchi, Cameron Mitchell, Brad Dexter
Country: USA
Running Time: 102 min
Year: 1955

House of Bamboo opens with the audacious hold up of U.S. munitions train in Japan, which results in one American soldier being killed and a lot of weapons and ammunition, curiously including smoke bombs, being stolen. Not long afterwards, a fatally wounded criminal called Webber is caught during a heist involving smoke bombs. The military police question him and, although they don’t discover who he was working for before he dies, they discover he has a secret Japanese wife and is in the possession of a letter from an American named Eddie Spanier, a friend who has been asked to come and join Webber in Japan after his release from prison.

We see Eddie (played by Robert Stack) later arrive in the country and get in touch with Webber’s wife, Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi). Seeing that Eddie has her husband’s picture and knew about their secret marriage, Mariko trusts him. This comes in handy when Eddie gets tied up with a local crime boss, Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan), who takes a shine to him but wants to confirm he’s the real deal first, so checks up on Eddie’s identity and ‘excuse’ of being with a woman making him late for a meeting.

As Eddie works his way into Sandy’s inner circle of thieves, we learn that he’s not what he says he is though. Eddie is, in fact, an undercover military policeman looking to put Sandy away for the munitions robbery at the start of the film. Thus his life as a supposed criminal becomes a dangerous game of deception, made equally complicated when Mariko gets involved and he has a different lie to tell her.

Unlike Fuller’s reluctant obligation to make Hell and High Water as a favour, he was chomping at the bit to make House of Bamboo. The director had long been interested in the Far East, so, when Zanuck asked if he wanted to make a film in Japan, Fuller replied “holy mackerel, Darryl, now you’re talking!” (according to Fuller’s memoirs). The producer further sweetened the dangling carrot by explaining “no major studio has ever made a movie in Japan. Especially since the war”.

Fuller’s enthusiasm shows, with another stunningly shot CinemaScope presentation that’s loaded with local detail. One long shot tracks back a good distance through a large kabuki rehearsal on the roof of a building for instance. Why they’re rehearsing up there in full costume with such a large group is questionable perhaps, but Fuller was never one to let logic get in the way of powerful imagery.

The director was also reportedly inspired by the Japanese cinema he’d watched and you can see traces of Mizoguchi, Ozu and Kurosawa in his frequent use of long wides, low angle shots and finely composed elements within a frame. He makes great use of dividers in his shots too, such as bamboo screens, which represent the masks characters are hiding behind as well as the cultural differences keeping some of them at a distance. There’s a particularly good use of a rice paper wall in one shot, when Eddie is punched through it, providing our first reveal of Sandy behind the wall when it tears open.

This is Fuller we’re talking about here, so don’t expect him to go full Ozu though and offer up a quietly thoughtful, slow-moving family drama. This is a hard-boiled film noir, despite the setting. We get a couple of thrilling heists, as well as a dramatic and visually stunning final showdown on a rooftop amusement park. That said, the film does feel a touch too long though and the Mariko/Eddie love story slows the pace down somewhat. The interracial aspect is pretty bold for the time and the lies and complicated emotions make it interesting, but it isn’t as effectively handled as it could be and feels padded out at times.

Another relationship in the film, or rather love triangle, that’s more eye-opening and unique though is that between Eddie, Sandy and Sandy’s “ichiban” (number one man) Griff (Cameron Mitchell). Back in the 50s in Hollywood you couldn’t have a homosexual relationship shown on screen, but Fuller veils it thinly enough to make it clear to anyone paying attention. Griff is openly very jealous when Eddie comes on the scene and Sandy seems to treat him better than he does his old teammates. There’s even what Fuller calls “a violent love scene between two hardened criminals” towards the end. It’s not quite Brokeback Mountain but paints quite a clear metaphor.

Supposedly Ryan was the only actor who knew about this subtext during the shoot and he plays it very well, taking a soft-spoken approach to his villainous character that doesn’t make him any less menacing but matches his smooth, suave demeanour. Ryan acts the socks off everyone else on screen in fact, stealing every scene he’s in. It goes to show how much of an underrated actor he is. He spent a lot of his career in B-movies and genre fare, but some of the best examples of these and he was always damn good.

All-in-all then, House of Bamboo is a gripping action thriller that’s beautifully shot on a grand scale. The pace may meander a little with some filler that could have been trimmed, but overall it’s a tough, fairly unique spin on the film noir genre that’s sure to appeal to Fuller fans.

Forty Guns

Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Dean Jagger, John Ericson, Gene Barry, Robert Dix
Country: USA
Running Time: 80 min
Year: 1957

My review

Fuller at Fox, Five Films 1951-1957 is out on 11th November on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. You can see my thoughts on the transfers of Pickup on South Street and Fixed Bayonets! on my old reviews. Hell and High Water looks great, with a sharp and detailed picture. The skin tones look a tad artificial, but that’s likely due to the Technicolour process used back then. House of Bamboo boasts a transfer with beautiful textures and colours, though the black levels are a little strong so some darker shots aren’t always as clear or detailed as they could be. I compared the old Eureka release of Forty Guns to this new one and there is a notable, if fairly subtle difference between the two. The older transfer is very good, but the contrast is a little on the heavy side. The new release has a much richer dynamic range, allowing for a more detailed picture. As such, it looks absolutely stunning. The sound on all discs is first-rate too.

You also get a wealth of extra material in the set. This includes:



– LIMITED EDITION BOX SET [2000 UNITS, INDIVIDUALLY NUMBERED]
– All five films presented on Blu-ray in 1080p, with Fixed Bayonets!, Pickup on South Street, Hell and High Water, and Forty Guns presented from Fox’s stunning 4K restorations, with House of Bamboo presented from a 2K restoration
– Original, uncompressed, monaural soundtracks for all films
– Optional English SDH available for all films
– A new video essay by David Cairns covering ALL FIVE FILMS included in this release
– FIXED BAYONETS! audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin
– PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET Interview with critic, filmmaker and programmer Kent Jones [32 mins]
– PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET Interview with critic François Guérif [24 mins]
– PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET “Cinema Cinemas” French TV interview with Samuel Fuller [12 mins]
– HELL AND HIGH WATER Brand new audio commentary by author Scott Harrison
– HELL AND HIGH WATER A documentary on lead actor Richard Widmark [45 mins]
– HOUSE OF BAMBOO Audio commentary with Film Historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman
– HOUSE OF BAMBOO Audio commentary with Film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini
– HOUSE OF BAMBOO A brand new video essay by David Cairns looking at Samuel Fuller’s films produced for Twentieth Century Fox
– FORTY GUNS Audio interview with Samuel Fuller from 1969 at the National Film Theatre in London [80 mins]
– FORTY GUNS Interview with film critic Jean-Louis Leutrat [17 mins]
– FORTY GUNS A Fuller Life [80 mins], a feature-length documentary directed by Samantha Fuller
– Original theatrical trailers for all five films
– PLUS: A 100-PAGE PERFECT BOUND COLLECTOR’S BOOK featuring essays by Richard Combs, Murielle Joudet, Philip Kemp, Glenn Kenny, and Amy Simmons; excerpts from Fuller’s autobiography A Third Face; and rare imagery

My thoughts on the features from previously reviewed titles are in the reviews linked above. As for the others, the Hell and High Water commentary is very engaging, though Harrison spends a lot of time waxing lyrical about how times have changed, talking about how special effects these days are harder to admire now and reminiscing about when widescreen versions of films were hard to track down and films like these were shown pan and scan on TV. I enjoyed the Widmark documentary. It’s got a dated 90s American TV style, but offers a fairly thorough look at the actor’s life and career.

The two commentaries on House of Bamboo are both very good. The Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman track is enjoyable, with Kirgo providing a bouncy energy. She’s clearly a big fan of the film and has a lot to say about it. Alain Silver and James Ursini’s commentary is great too. The pair keep up the momentum throughout with some interesting thoughts on the film. They’re honest about aspects that might come under criticism too, so it’s not a full-on love-in like some commentaries can be. David Cairns’ video essay gives a decent cover-all of the whole set too.

New to this version of Forty Guns is the feature-length A Fuller Life documentary. Directed by Sam Fuller’s daughter, it consists of famous Fuller fans reading from his memoirs.

The booklet is superb. At 100 pages, it’s chock-a-block with interesting thoughts on the films in the set, stories about their production and more excerpts from Fuller’s own autobiography. Interestingly, there’s quite a lot written about China Gate in the various essays, so I wonder if it was originally slated to be included in the set.

All-in-all then, it’s a fine collection of films that are beautifully presented and complimented by a hefty amount of features. Highly recommended.

Fuller at Fox, Five Films 1951-1957 - Eureka
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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