Documentary pays tribute to director Sam Fuller

Movie clips and interview share same blunt quality

July 02, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Sam Fuller approached few things lightly. And that definitely included his movies, regardless of whether he was making them or talking about them.

That much becomes clear in tonight's TCM premiere of The Men Who Made the Movies: Samuel Fuller, in which the venerated action director, who specialized in making movies that were both on the cheap and on the mark, makes a series of marvelously pithy observations on his movies and the conditions in which he was forced to film. Fuller, whose cult has only broadened since his death in 1997 at age 86, comes across as a passionate, no-nonsense craftsman with a sardonic tongue, a fatalistic world view and an eye for distilling complex emotions down to their essence.

Time movie critic Richard Schickel, who filmed this interview with Fuller in Paris in 1989, remains off screen throughout, wisely letting his subject do all the talking. The gaps are filled in through narration, provided by Sydney Pollack, and brief film clips from Fuller's films.

Maybe it's because Fuller was a big believer in keeping things uncomplicated, but few directors seem better suited to having their work dissected in this way. When he wanted to say something on-screen, he'd just say it; "Don't talk about it," he says at one point, describing his credo as a director. "Show it." To heck with soft-pedaling the message or obfuscating it with layer upon layer of symbolism.

The clips are great, as blunt and as frills-free as anything Fuller says; in an age when people are urged to come right out and say what they mean, it's easy to see why Fuller's star has risen so steadily. There's a clip from House of Bamboo (1955), with gunman Robert Ryan nonchalantly pumping a chamberful of lead into a guy taking a bath; only after he's finished and the guy's slumped over, dead, does Ryan bother to start asking questions. Even better, there's Richard Widmark in Pickup On South Street (1953), reacting violently to Jean Peters' seemingly innocent question about what made him a pickpocket. "Things happen, that's all," he screams.

Best of all, there's Fuller, playing himself in Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot Le Feu (1965), given the rare opportunity to put forth his philosophy of filmmaking directly. "A film is like a battlefield," he says in response to a disinterested Frenchman's rote question. "There's love, hate, action, violence and death. In one word, emotion."

Fuller started his professional life as a reporter; at 13, he was a copy boy on the old New York Journal. Even following his success as a film director, it was clear his heart remained with the muckraking, high-octane life of a print reporter; nothing, he says in the documentary, can match the thrill of seeing your byline in print.

Fuller paid tribute to his early days with Park Row (1952), the tale of a crusading newspaperman's efforts to start up his own publication in the late 19th century. The film was financed by $200,000 of Fuller's own money, and he lost it all when the film flopped (contemporary critics were not always kind). But it and 1980's The Big Red One, with Lee Marvin as the sergeant in command of a unit of nameless grunts just trying to not get killed while doing their jobs, stand as Fuller's most personal films. Thankfully, The Big Red One proved at least a marginal commercial and critical hit.

The Fuller documentary airs at 8 p.m., followed by an evening of Fuller films: Shock Corridor (1963, 9 p.m.) stars Peter Breck as a crusading journalist trying to feign his way into an insane asylum; 1964's The Naked Kiss (midnight) stars Constance Towers as a prostitute trying to reinvent herself in a small Midwest town; Rod Steiger and Ralph Meeker are Civil War adversaries who refuse to let go of the past in 1957's Run of the Arrow (1:45 a.m.); at 3:15 a.m., it's Park Row, followed at 4:45 a.m. by Verboten!, a drama centering on the American occupation of Germany after World War II.

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