The Chauvel Cinémathèque in Sydney launches a three-film retrospective
of Samuel Fuller’s works on January 7, 2013.

Samuel Fuller ran with the toughest crowd of Hollywood mavericks and few would argue that he was the toughest amongst them. His favoured stars were granite-like personalities, such as Lee Marvin, Richard Widmark and Rod Steiger; his inspirations the works of hard-boiled novelist Raymond Chandler and, later in the American director’s career, new-wave leader Jean-Luc Godard. The stories he chose to tell - full-blooded examinations of the darkside of the American psyche - best encapsulate his fearlessness.

An early career in  journalism (first as a cadet crime reporter, then as the youngest ever editor of New York Journal events section) developed Fuller’s  knack for concisely telling hard-truths, which he parlayed into steady script work (It Happened in Hollywood, 1937; Gangs of New York, 1938; Shockproof, 1949). Like many young men of the time, he saw active duty in some of the most hostile conflicts of World War II, including the D-Day invasion. Upon returning stateside, he established a working relationship with producer Robert Lippert, an equally cynical and driven B-movie maven, and Fuller’s debut film, I Shot Jesse James, went before the cameras.

Starring Reed Hadley as the charismatic outlaw and a remarkable John Ireland as the deceitful cohort Bob Ford, I Shot Jesse James confounded critics, who bristled at its bluntly non-traditional depiction of the Wild West, but it was a hit with audiences (the much-told tale was re-imagined in 2007 in Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). Flushed with cash, Lippert gave Fuller freedom to create his own signature storytelling style, resulting in The Baron of Arizona (1950), starring Vincent Price as the immoral land-owner out to snare every tillable inch of the desert state, and The Steel Helmet (1951), a hugely-popular Korean war drama that introduced audiences to what would emerge as one of Fuller’s primary thematic motifs – American society’s complex, often shameful, attitude to race.

The Steel Helmet scene clip]

Though the film’s success had Hollywood calling (studios notice when your US$100,000 picture grosses US$6million), Fuller remained faithful to his outsider origins and continued to make challenging works on the fringe of the mainstream. Fixed Bayonets! (1951) recounted the fate of US platoon Task Force Faith during one the Korean war’s bloodiest battles; Park Row (1952), the story of a publishing loner who fought to establish his own newspaper empire in the 1880s, was a rare commercial dud but certainly Fuller’s most personal film to-date; and, in 1953, the work considered his masterpiece, the noirish espionage thriller Pickup on South Street, starring Richard Widmark as the pickpocket who mistakenly lifts secrets to a Communist spy ring.

[Pickup on South Street trailer

Fuller strengthened ties to the 20th Century Fox studio (distributor of Fixed Bayonets!) and delivered solidly commercial, war-themed works such as Hell and High Water (1954), The House of Bamboo (1955) and China Doll (1957). But the maverick within him would resurface in 1957 with his revisionist Civil War story, Run of the Arrow (aka Run Arrow Run). Daring to deconstruct Hollywood’s negative portrayal of the Native American population at the height of the Western genre’s popularity (and predating the similarly-plotted Dances With Wolves by over three decades), Run of the Arrow follows a Confederate soldier who becomes entrenched in the ways of a Sioux tribe immediately after the Civil War.

A steady stream of well-received films followed (Forty Guns, 1957; The Crimson Kimono, 1959; Underworld USA, 1961; Merrill’s Marauders, 1962) but, like many of the 'outsider’ talents making a living within the powerful studio-based industry, Fuller was taking a keen interest in the emergence of the free-spirited 'new cinema’ of Europe. He had dabbled in a European aesthetic with his German-set political romance Verboten! (1959) and upon learning that his earlier works were especially revered by the likes of Godard and Francois Truffaut, he changed course with his next films, the nightmarish mental institution odyssey, Shock Corridor (1963) and the psychological romantic mind-bender, The Naked Kiss (1964).

[The Naked Kiss scene]
[Shock Corridor trailer]

These films signalled the beginning of the end for Hollywood’s tolerance for Samuel Fuller. The director was spending far more time in Europe, where he became an iconic figure amongst the New Wavers; he appeared as himself in Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965), where he uttered one of cinema’s most famous lines, 'Film is a battleground. Love, hate, violence, action, death. In a word, emotion."

[Pierrot le fou trailer]

Fuller would return to Hollywood for writing gigs and the occasional TV job, but he directed only three more wholly American works: the negligible Burt Reynolds vehicle, Shark (1969); his recounting of the D-Day landing, The Big Red One (1980), , which was so brutally re-edited by the producers prior to release it has only achieved due recognition after a reconstructed version was released in 2004; and, most notoriously, White Dog (1982), a film so steeped in challenging racial arguments, gender definition and brutal acts of violent bigotry that it was deemed all but 'unreleasable’ by Paramount; the studio shelved it for nearly 25 years.

[White Dog trailer]

[The Big Red One scene clip]

Samuel Fuller left Hollywood after the soul-crushing reception to White Dog (ironically, the bleak but brilliant social satire is now considered one of his finest works) and lived most of his autumn years in France, where he would intermittently direct small projects (Les voleurs de la nuit, 1984; Street of No Return, 1989). In 1993, he displayed his ongoing commitment to individual vision in filmmaking by accompanying director Jim Jarmusch to the Brazilian jungle village of Santa Isabel Do Morro to reconnect with the indigenous population with whom he had spent several months in 1955 while scouting for an unrealised project; their journey was captured in Mika Kaurismäki’s film Tigrero: The Film That Never Was. He passed away, having not seen the finished documentary, whilst visiting Los Angeles in October, 1997, aged 85.

[Tigrero scene clip]

- Simon Foster