Stylish noirs hold Fuller pleasures Independence: Gutsy American director Sam Fuller made distinctive B-movies that deserve to be seen


July 17, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

I came late to the pleasures and dangers of Sam Fuller. The famously feisty director, who died last October at the age of 86, never attained the name-recognition among filmgoers that such contemporaries as John Huston, John Ford and Sam Peckinpah did.

But as I started writing more about film, Fuller's name would come up, usually from critics and fans I admire most (the critic Andrew Sarris, in his book "The American Cinema," called Fuller "an authentic American primitive whose works have to be seen to be understood"). I first learned about him from film students, who admired him for his fierce independence and autonomy (he wrote, directed and produced most of his films).

Later, I watched two great documentaries about the late filmmaker. With "Tigrero: a Film That Was Never Made," Fuller acolyte Jim Jarmusch resurrected unused film that the director shot in South America and took Fuller back to the continent to visit the tribes he had filmed. The resulting film was a vivid, often bizarre portrait of the man. In 1995, Tim Robbins made a more straightforward biographical film, "The Typewriter, The Rifle and the Movie Camera," which went into more detail about Fuller's early life as a journalist and his seminal experience as an infantryman in World War II. Together, the films provide a wonderful portrait of one of America's most valuable iconoclasts. "Film is like a battleground," Fuller tells Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Luc Godard's "Pierrot Le Fou," "love, hate, action, violence, death In one word, emotion."

As ashamed as I am to admit it, I had to move to Baltimore before I would see my first Fuller film, "The Crimson Kimono," a stylish film noir set in 1958 Los Angeles, which showed at the Orpheum in Fells Point in January. Thanks to the good offices of the Charles Theatre and its B-Films series, I saw the gorgeous-looking camp classic "Forty Guns" (a cheap Western starring Barbara Stanwyck as a ranchwoman with a bevy of male cowboys and a way with a whip).

But the high point came last weekend, when a few lucky filmgoers got to see Fuller's classic, "Shock Corridor."

The film stars Peter Breck as a journalist who, determined to win the Pulitzer Prize, has himself committed to a mental hospital in order to solve the murder of a patient. The fact that his stripper-girlfriend (Constance Towers, star of another Fuller classic, "The Naked Kiss") poses as his sister adds to the movie's sexually subversive subtext. Once in, the writer confronts a variety of troubled men (a frustrated opera singer, a soldier who became a Communist informant in the Korean War, an infantilized nuclear scientist, a black man convinced he's in the Ku Klux Klan) as well as some patrons of the women's ward ("Nymphos!"). Eventually, the reporter falls prey to his environment, leading to one of the all-time great lines in the American cinema: "What a tragedy. For an insane mute to win the Pulitzer Prize!"

Filmed with high-contrast intensity by Stanley Cortez in 1962, "Shock Corridor" recalls the Cold War paranoia and edgy style that made "The Manchurian Candidate" -- released that year -- an enduring classic. "Shock Corridor" deserves at least equal stature among its B-brethren. Like the best of the B's, "Shock Corridor" operates on two distinct parallels. Made on the cheap, as always, its low budget shows in its uneven performances, and its dialogue is often howlingly, if unintentionally, funny.

But the film is also gorgeously filmed by Cortez (a hallucination of a rainstorm inside the hospital is breathtaking), and some of its supporting performances are delivered with shocking power, especially that of Hari Rhodes, as an African-American man whose internalized racism still resonates.

And woven into its more lurid elements of sex and madness are some surprisingly astute observations. Kudos to Fuller for making bigotry, anti-Communism, nuclear escalation and racism forms of insanity, and even more kudos for putting careerism in their ranks.

"Shock Corridor" returns to the Charles for a week's run today. And Saturday, to finish up its outstanding B-Films series, the Charles will present "Park Row," Fuller's rarely screened 1952 film about a 19th-century newspaper war that was reportedly the director's personal favorite. "Park Row" will be shown at 11: 30 a.m. Saturday and again at 7: 30 p.m. Monday. See these films, and find out what gutsy moviemaking is all about.

Cinema, live

The Red Room at Normals Bookstore carries on the work of Skizz Cyzyck's Mansion Theatre on Saturday when it plays host to the filmmakers of Orgonne Cinema and Archive, the Pittsburgh-based film collective whose experimental cinema programs are internationally renowned. Using found footage and innovative projection, Orgonne will create a one-of-a-kind cinematic happening. The show starts at 8: 30 p.m.; admission is free, but a donation of $5 is encouraged. Normals Bookstore is located at 425 E. 31st St.

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