A Fuller Life: The Story of a True American Maverick

His daughter’s documentary shows why Samuel Fuller’s brash movies made him a ‘poet of the American idiom’ and a cult hero in France

May 14, 2015

Source: Getty

Front line: reporter in an unscripted line in a cameo in a Jean -Luc Godard film, Sam Fuller summed up cinema as ‘a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. In one word, emotion’

A Fuller Life: The Story of a True American Maverick

Directed by Samantha Fuller
Starring Robert Carradine, Tim Roth and Jennifer Beals
On general release in the UK from 15 May 2015

His contempt for conventional morality and cynical view of human motivation ran him into trouble with the studios, which preferred clear-cut heroes

The film director Samuel Fuller (1912-97) was sometimes described as “an American primitive”. He directed 30 films (including television work), almost all of which he scripted himself, between 1949 and 1990. He also wrote about a dozen novels, ghostwrote a good many more and scripted some 20 movies for others to direct. His unproduced scripts filled several shelves of his chaotic, overflowing office, presided over by a bust of Mark Twain.

In the 1960s, Fuller would become a cult hero to the nouvelle vague in France, and was seen as a key practitioner of their cinéma des auteurs. In 1965, he appeared, playing himself, in a party scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou. Asked by Jean-Paul Belmondo, “What is cinema?”, he responded with the unscripted reply: “Film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. In one word, emotion.” Fuller would go on to appear in a couple of dozen more films over the next 30 years, some directed by himself and others by such directors as Wim Wenders, Steven Spielberg, Larry Cohen and Aki Kaurismäki, but as an actor he never bettered that first spontaneous line.

As his formula might suggest, Fuller’s range as a film-maker was deliberately narrow. Comedies scarcely featured in his output (although humour wasn’t absent), nor did romances, still less fantasy. His were the classically masculine genres: westerns, war movies, crime films and spy dramas. His plots drive forward with unrelenting vigour; ambiguity rarely figures. At his best – and often indeed at his worst – his films have the immediacy of a punch in the face. “In truth,” wrote the critic David Thomson in A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema, “he is barbarous and that is why he is unique. No other director has described American experience with such unremitting and participatory relish for its competitive corruption…There is a vulgarity in Fuller that would move swiftly from the impulsive to the ponderous if he once listened to his best critics.”

Born to immigrant Jewish parents in Worcester, Massachusetts, and brought up in New York, Fuller started out in the newspaper business, selling papers on the streets of Manhattan at the age of 12 and working his way up to fully fledged crime reporter at the New York Evening Graphic by the time he was 17. He paid affectionate tribute to these formative experiences in his film Park Row (1952), set in the New York newspaper world of the 1880s. In many ways, a newspaperman was what Fuller remained; many of his films, brash and peremptory, have the lapel-grabbing immediacy of a tabloid front page, and invite the old studio publicity cliché “Torn from Today’s Headlines!”

After two years on the Graphic, Fuller cut loose, wanting to see more of America. As a roving freelance reporter he travelled all over the country, living in shanty towns, meeting Al Capone, witnessing the violent 1934 General Strike in San Francisco and attending a Ku Klux Klan rally in Little Rock, Arkansas, which left him with a visceral loathing of racism. Inevitably he gravitated to Hollywood, where he found he could make vastly more money selling scripts than he ever could as a reporter.

His movie career was progressing well when the Japanese air force attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Fuller promptly enlisted, joining the 1st US Infantry Division, commonly known from its badge design as the Big Red One. Refusing all invitations to become an official war correspondent, and never rising above the rank of corporal, he fought in the North Africa campaign, in the invasion of Sicily and on Omaha Beach on D-Day and, pushing on into Germany, helped liberate the Falkenau concentration camp. He was awarded several decorations, including a Purple Heart.

Back in Hollywood after the war, Fuller poured all this rich life-material into his scripts. When they were rejected or watered down by cautious producers, he resolved to direct off his own bat. His debut feature, a mini-budgeted western called I Shot Jesse James (1949), did unexpectedly well, and Sam Fuller the director was up and running. Over the next 40 years he created a body of work that made up in pungent energy what it lacked in aesthetic refinement. Morality, in Fuller’s films, is relative: his protagonists are for the most part corrupt and ruthless, and there’s often little to choose between the good guys and the bad guys. In Underworld U. S. A. (1961), the crime bosses behave like businessmen while the guy who sacrifices himself to bring them down is a vengeance-seeking crook. In Shock Corridor (1963), an investigative journalist pretends to be mad in order to infiltrate an asylum; by the end of the film, he’s incarcerated for good, more deranged than any of the inmates. In Pickup on South Street (1953), a mercenary pickpocket is the nearest on offer to a hero.

Fuller’s contempt for conventional morality, and his cynical view of human motivation, repeatedly ran him into trouble with the studios, which preferred clear-cut heroes and uplifting endings. He pugnaciously fought his corner, but didn’t always win. For 25 years he struggled to make his epic war movie, The Big Red One (1980), a tribute to his old unit; when he finally succeeded, the studio lopped more than two hours off the running time before releasing it. His anti-racist polemic White Dog (1982) so alarmed Paramount – which bizarrely thought it racist – that it would never receive a full theatrical release in the US. Disgusted, Fuller quit Hollywood; his last three films were made in Europe and are rarely seen.

All this and more Fuller poured into his autobiography, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking (2002), left almost finished at his death and completed from notes by his widow Christa Lang-Fuller and his friend Jerome Rudes. Written in fluent, punchy prose, it’s as compulsively readable as his films are watchable. Occasional inaccuracies – a Verlaine poem attributed to Rimbaud, the MGM lion oddly gifted to Warner Bros – scarcely matter. And it is this book that provides nearly all the material for the film A Fuller Life. Very much a family affair – it was directed by Fuller’s daughter Samantha, produced by Christa and provided with a hot jazz-based score by his nephew Paul – it consists for the most part of excerpts from A Third Face read to camera by 15 actors and film-makers, most of whom either appeared in Fuller’s films or in whose films he acted.

There’s an affectionate, spoken-to-camera introduction from Samantha Fuller, describing her father as “a poet of the American idiom”, and then come the readings. These all take place in Fuller’s study, which is packed with books, posters, unproduced scripts, the bust of Twain and his beloved manual typewriter. Some of the readers (the men, mostly) emulate Fuller in chewing a huge stogie while they read. The quality varies: in the best, like those of Tim Roth, Robert Carradine and Constance Towers, the participants recognise that Fuller’s writing speaks for itself and deliver it straight. Wim Wenders, in white suit and bouffant hairstyle, gives an oddly camp rendition, and actor Bill Duke hams it up rather too much.

Clips from Fuller’s films punctuate the readings, as does some of the 16mm footage he shot during his combat years. This raw real-life footage, rarely seen publicly, qualifies as the most valuable element in the film – especially the scenes shot at the Falkenau death camp. That apart, though, fans of Fuller, and anyone wanting to capture the full flavour of the man, might do better to read the book.

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