TERRY GROSS, host:
The maverick screenwriter and director Sam Fuller, who died in 1997, influenced filmmakers as different as Jean-Luc Godard, Wim Wenders and Quentin Tarantino. Martin Scorsese said of his work, if you don't like the films of Sam Fuller, then you just don't like cinema. A new seven-disc selection of his work, �The Sam Fuller Collection,� has just been released by Sony Pictures.
Our critic-at-large John Powers says Fuller's work embodies what's most enjoyable and enduring about pulp fiction.
JOHN POWERS: There was a famous scene in Jean-Luc Godard's film �Pierrot le fou.� When the hero meets a big shot American movie director and asks him to define cinema. The director replies, film is like a battleground - love, hate, action, violence, death - in one word, emotion. The man saying, and clearly meaning, those words was Samuel Fuller, one of the most colorful characters in movie history. Born in 1912, Fuller was a crime reporter at age 17, and became a pulp novelist and screenwriter in his 20s. By 37, he'd become a Hollywood director who told tales of soldiers and crooks, lunatics and cops, hookers and Wild West outlaws.
In the process, he revealed himself to be a distinctively American figure, the seeming barbarian who proves to be an artist. Although Fuller is now an icon, renowned for his raspy voice and cigars the size billy clubs, much of his work has been hard to find on home video. That's one reason I was so happy to see �The Samuel Fuller Collection,� which brings seven movies to DVD. The earliest five were written or co-written by Fuller, and like on his work they're boosting with extreme situations. A parole officer falling for murderess, or a tabloid editor who kills his ex-wife, only to have this star reporter try to solve the crime.
Although none of these movies is great, they're all very entertaining. And the two pictures directed by Fuller are more than that. The better of the two is �Underworld U.S.A.,� a grippingly unsentimental revenge story from 1961, starring Cliff Robertson as a hood who monomaniacally devotes his whole life to avenging the murder of his father. But I'm personally fonder of �The Crimson Kimono,� a 1959 crime drama that begins in spectacular fashion with a stripper running down a gaudy neon-lit street, only to be gunned down. Her murder is investigated by two L.A. cops, one Caucasian, played by Glenn Corbett; and one Japanese-American, that's James Shigeta in a wonderful performance.
Good buddies, they both fall for the same woman, Chris, played by Victoria Shaw. And suddenly, �The Crimson Kimono� becomes something unexpected, a sharp-eyed look at subterranean racism and the complexities of Asian-American identity. Here, Shigeta's character talks to Chris about his horror at seeing racist feelings on his partner's face for the very first time.
(Soundbite of movie, �The Crimson Kimono�)
Mr. JAMES SHIGETA (Actor): (as Detective Joe Kojaku) You can't feel for me on this, you are me. Take a good look, Chris. Do I look different to you than I did yesterday? Did my face change?
Ms. VICTORIA SHAW (Actor): (as Christine Downs) Joe, don't say.
Mr. SHIGETA: (As Detective Joe Kojaku) I got to say it. I never felt this in the Army and the police, maybe it's 5000 years of blood behind me busting to the front. For the first time, I feel different. I taste it right through every bone inside me. For the first time, I catch myself trying to figure out who I am. I was born here. I'm American. I feel it, and live it and love it, but down deep, what am I? Japanese-American, American-Japanese, (unintelligible) what label do I live under, Chris? You tell me.
POWERS: Fuller cut his teeth on the tabloids - their speed, their passion, their pop. And he brought those same qualities to his movies. This was not a man humbled by subtlety. His dialogue was overripe, his storylines cartoonish, his actors often coarse. Godard once called Fuller's technique cinema fist, and it really is in your face - whether it's one of his eye-popping traveling shots, or a close-up so potently huge it's like a bird smacking in your windshield. And he used his style to put across stories unlike anyone else's. Weird goulashes of a right-wing fantasy morality tale, liberal propaganda, vigilante violence and anti-war sentiment.
Like a pulp Dostoevsky, he created characters who were driven, conflicted, extravagant, sometimes even sociopathic. Because his films really were battlegrounds, they were first admired more in Europe, which is always had a condescending fondness for American primitives. Here, his B-movie sensibility was long reckoned unrespectable, although it allowed him to explore things that Hollywood did not: the psychopathy of seeming heroes in �Fixed Bayonets,� the absurdity of even good words and �The Big Red One,� the dangers of American power in �China Gate,� and the inescapable corruptions of authority in all of them.
That's one reason my Fuller's work still seems utterly alive, while so many Oscar winners now seem dull, old-fashioned and laughably couth. In fact, the real lesson of Fuller's career is that in popular culture, visceral power trumps good taste or artistic nicety. That's why I can imagine him digging the crime novels of James Elroy, or the new movie, �Precious,� which is in many ways exploitative. It's at once manipulative and preachy, degraded and inspirational. It keeps you riveted and stays in your head. You see, when it came to movies, Fuller really did believe that old line from William Blake, the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic at Vogue. You can read his blog, Absolute Powers at vogue.com. You can download Podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter@freshairnpr.
I'm Terry Gross.
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