PULP FICTIONS: THE BEST OF SAMUEL FULLER October 15-30, Cinematheque Ontario, Jackman Hall, Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas West). See Indie & Rep Film, page 109. Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
To look at the astonishing films made by Samuel Fuller in Hollywood from the late 40s to the early 60s and pronounce Fuller a genre craftsman is to miss the point.
A tabloid sensationalist like Phil Karlson (The Phenix City Story, Framed) is a genre craftsman. A topographically elegant western director like Anthony Mann (Winchester '73) is a genre craftsman.
Fuller, a madman with a set of obsessions who comes to filmmaking from yellow journalism and an extended tour in the infantry during the second world war, makes films as if no one had ever made a war movie or a western before him.
Rather than rejecting familiar genre rules, he seems utterly unaware of them and has only a passing acquaintance with conventional film grammar.
He constructs hugely elaborate action sequences, does tracking shots no one had ever imagined and prefers to set fight scenes in long shots and high shots so they can't be faked in the cutting.
His heroes are psychotics, criminals, outsiders who can never be reintegrated into society: prostitutes, cattle barons, reporters. They're emotionally and often physically battered. Jean Peters's Candy in Pickup On South Street (Tuesday, October 19, 6:30 pm) looks like a piece of bruised fruit even before she gets beaten unconscious by the film's villain.
The occasion for the Cinematheque's Fuller series - which includes The Steel Helmet (October 22, 8:30 pm), Pickup On South Street, Underworld USA (October 21, 8:30 pm), Forty Guns (Monday, October 18, 6:30 pm), Shock Corridor (October 21, 6:30 pm) and The Naked Kiss (Friday, October 15, 8:45 pm) - is the release of the restored version of Fuller's The Big Red One (Saturday, October 16, 6:30 pm; Sunday, October 17, 4:30 pm; Monday, October 18, 8:15 pm). His autobiographical story of a rifle squad in the American First Army during the second world war tracks the team from North Africa to Sicily, Normandy and Czechoslovakia. Fuller made the film in 1980 on a shoestring, but his 150- minute cut of the film was trimmed to 105 minutes by the studio. It's been reconstructed to match Fuller's screenplay and editing notes.
At his best, Fuller is a ferociously economical director who gets more out of less than almost any other filmmaker. His minimalist staging of the D-Day invasion, the same in both cuts of the film, demonstrates that facility superbly. The Omaha Beach landing is filmed with perhaps 20 actors, one landing craft offshore and a spread of beach maybe 40 yards wide.
It's of a piece with Fuller's grunt's-eye POV on war - all a foot soldier knows is the man on either side of him. He has no big picture. The longer version of the film works against the conciseness of Fuller's vision. (He'd been toting that script for so long that he really needed someone to come in and help cut it.)
The Big Red One's problems remain the same. Of the four men in the rifle squad, only Robert Carradine as Fuller's surrogate and Mark Hamill as a gun-shy sharpshooter are particularly distinctive. The looseness of the structure, with its narrative imposed by history, allows for little development.
The longer version seems even looser and more artificial. A restored thread about a German officer whose career parallels that of Lee Marvin's aging sergeant feels forced, and scenes with Christa Lang, Fuller's wife and a dreadful actress, have been added.
The long cut has a lot of advocates, but I'm not among them. That doesn't mean it's not worth seeing, but I'm holding on to my DVD of the theatrical cut. Richard Schickel, who supervised the reconstruction, introduces the film on October 16.
Three Fuller masterpieces are readily available on DVD - Criterion editions of The Naked Kiss, Shock Corridor and Pickup On South Street - but the Cinematheque retrospective has three absolute must-sees.
Forty Guns is a jaw-dropping CinemaScope western, with Barbara Stanwyck as an Arizona cattle baroness, the hard-riding woman with a whip of the title song, and it's just as fetishistic as that suggests. Fuller tends to shove subtext to the foreground in his films.
The Steel Helmet is one of the greatest war films, anchored by a hard-bitten performance by Gene Evans as a sergeant (Fuller's military characters rarely reach to the rank of lieutenant) leading his raw troops through Korea. There's a sequence with a sniper that would later be used by the U.S. military in a training film.
Underworld USA is an implacable revenge fantasy, with Cliff Robertson as Tully, who saw his father murdered by gangsters and devotes his life to getting back at everyone responsible. It's a bleak, desperate film that anticipates the epochal violence of Point Blank. I've had the poster over my desk for years.
If the film has you wonder ing whether Godard ripped it off for the final scene in Breathless, the answer is no - the two films were shot almost simultaneously.