Hey, Mom, Where’s My Suicide Note Collection?

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

Sam Fuller: “You can always tell about a leaper by the distance his toes are from the edge of either the window or the ledge of the roof he’s threatening to jump from. If you’re covering it, watch those toes. If they stick out, he’s not a fraud, he’s going, and he’s going fast. They usually make a silly speech.

“See that still of a girl in the picture of me at the typewriter? The suicide? I had collected a lot of suicide notes. When you cover a story, you ask the coroner, ‘Can I have the note?’ Ironically, 90 percent of the notes end with: ‘God forgive me.’ No matter what the hell they are, they always say that: that’s really right before they’re going to die. It’s a fear complex. They have no one to turn to, so they turn to the only commodity sold to them and forced down their goddam young throats—’God.’ It’s silly.

“So I decided I’d write a book called God Forgive Me—God Forgive Me, and write about all these characters, and also reprint their notes in the book. I left the notes with my mother and went to Frisco. By God, she lost them. She was very panicky about it, it was just a terrible thing. It was my fault, I kept them all in a paper bag. The best note I had was this girl who killed herself. She wrote it with an eyebrow pencil on a small paper bag. ‘This is my Independence Day. Here is the way I am celebrating it. God forgive me.’

“My mother said, ‘How can you even hold on to these?’ It depressed her. Every one of those little pieces of paper. One of them: three old maids, sisters, between 70 and 85 years old; they were panhandlers, beggars, they worked the subway entrances for money. Then they decided they had nothing to live for. They had eight or ten cents when the cop found them. They pooled their money and bought nightgowns and stuffed all the goddam cracks and gassed themselves to death. And that’s when my mother said, ‘I don’t want to see any more of these notes, they’re horrible, they’re horrible. In your story you said you found out from the landlord that they had nothing to live for. Well, a lot of people have nothing to live for. Why did they kill themselves?’

“And I said, ‘You oughtta be on the night desk instead of my editor, because he never asked me that.’ She said, ‘I don’t understand this. We know a lot of people who said, “Oh, it’s terrible going on, this existence,” so why didn’t they kill themselves? You didn’t get the story.’ And she was right. And I said, ‘How the hell am I going to get it from three old, OLD maids’—that was my lead, by the way: ‘Three old, old maids joined the young in heaven yesterday.’ My night editor liked that very much.”

Q: What strikes me is not so much that they killed themselves but that they were so organized as to do it together.

SF: “And also in new nightgowns. I wrote that up beautifully: ‘They came in clean and they wanted a clean exit.’ I really went to town on it. The only thing I didn’t like was my mother’s comment.”

Q: There’s nothing worse than a critic who’s right.

SF: “And especially when in my heart the landlord’s statement, that they had nothing to live for, was ridiculous. If they were panhandlers, certainly they had nothing to live for. And my mother brought that home very, very strongly.”

Q: So for you the question was, What did they have to die for?

SF: “They had one thing to die for: Escape. Relief.”

Q: Why did they wait so long?

SF: “I don’t know. They were virgins according to the coroner. That’s pretty unusual for that age. So that means they were three nutty old maids.”

Fuller was 12 when his father died and he moved with his mother and brothers to New York City from Worcester, Mass. There he continued his vocation: newsboy. “My mother did nothing-she was a mother.” His brothers—one an excellent cartoonist—are now dead.

He could hear the presses of the New York Evening Journal from the distribution dock where he picked up his quota each day. Finally, the pressroom foreman, Tom Foley, let him in to see the presses; later, he took him up to the seventh-floor cityroom where Fuller met Joseph V. Mulcahy, the editor, who advised him that in order to become a 12-year-old copy boy he’d have to tell the Working License Commission he was 14. This done, Fuller signed on for $12 a week, working 4 p.m. to midnight. At 14 1/2, he became Arthur Brisbane’s private copy boy, going everywhere with Brisbane, then Editor-in-Chief of all Hearst papers. Fuller even rode to work in Brisbane’s car, which was equipped with a dictaphone upon which each day’s page-one editorial was dictated. (Brisbane once gave little Fuller a chicken to take home but cautioned him not to carry it into the cityroom; Fuller did, and lost it to the hungry news sharks.)

At 17, Fuller wanted to be a police reporter. Brisbane said no; one had to be a good 20. The New York Graphic called, looking for a head copyboy; Fuller demurred, saying he wanted to be reporter. The Graphic countered with an offer of higher wages and a quick rise to reporter. Brisbane advised Fuller to stay put: “No matter what sort of yellow journalism The New York Journal is, we’re the top paper in the city—in the country—in circulation; the other one is just a pornographic paper, that’s why it’s called The Graphic.”

Fuller quit anyhow. The man who hired him away was Emile Gavreau, who inspired the play and the film Five Star Final. As head copyboy, Fuller wrote every chance he got; he’d hand it in and they’d throw it away “without interrupting the flow of the movement of their arms.” Finally he was promoted to police reporter at $38.50 a week, $5 expenses. Then on The Graphic were columnists Winchell and Sobol, sports editor Ed Sullivan, photographer Artie (Mr. Kitzel) Auerbach, radio reviewer Jerry Wald, and second-string drama critic Norman Krasna. The paper was owned by health maniac Bernarr MacFadden, who had hoped for a more wholesome publication. Gavreau was on board because he’d been editing a paper in Connecticut and had occasion to hide a murderer in the cityroom (see The Front Page for further details) and left town to “avoid a jam.” Per Fuller, The Graphic was full of crime and gossip. At any rate, Fuller learned to write different styles for different papers.

He still thinks of himself as a newspaperman, and he still speaks with the sound of New York. The interview took place April 4, 1976, at Fuller’s home above Laurel Canyon, where he lives with his wife, the actress Christa Lang Fuller, and their 16-month-old daughter Samantha, Fuller’s first child. Fuller works—and interviews—in the large converted garage of his home called The Shack, surrounded by about 300 completed scripts, all as yet unfilmed. He adds six or so a year to the list.

Fuller became a director after selling several stories and screenplays “…to get the stuff on the screen the way I saw it. I thought it would be a new sensation to actually see on film anything I thought up, hearing and seeing.”

Q [discussing the still of Fuller before the Park Row linotype]: Where’d you find the replica? Or did you build it?

SF: “I went to Mergenthaler Co., I met the son—wonderful man called Herman, he’s dead now—he tipped me off to a man who had an old lino machine here in L.A., and with a little mock-up, he recreated the original blower, the forced-air machine that blew the matrix. The actor, Bela Kovacs, looked just like Ottmar Mergenthaler, that’s why I used him. I actually fooled around with the machine in the back to make sure it would work and I got all dirty—that’s why I have gloves on.”

Preparing Park Row, Fuller corresponded with the Mergenthaler Co., whose lawyers wrote back repeatedly trying to discourage him from dramatizing their namesake.

SF: So finally I got a handwritten letter from Mergenthaler’s son. He was then about 70. He said, ‘Don’t get angry and all that, this is just a matter of course, the lawyers do it automatically.’ He wanted to subside my anger. I wrote him a letter telling him I don’t want anybody’s permission, including his. He was lucky by birth—he could have been born the son of a gas station attendant or some orangutan in the goddam zoo, it makes no difference, it was just by luck that he was connected with Mergenthaler. Then he wrote me another letter saying, ‘Your anger interests me, you must think a lot of my father.’ So I wrote him and said, ‘I wouldn’t have gone through all this unless I thought a lot of your father, and I’m going ahead with this project and I don’t want any further communication about it.’ I was pretty sore. So he wrote me and said, ‘I’m inviting you to New York, come and see me.’

“So I went to New York. He explained how people change characters around and after all, it is his father, and there’s a certain funny feeling: if I were to make a movie about your father, there might be one little mannerism that you wouldn’t like, one weakness, one deceitful shrug, something. You can understand how he felt about it, even though the man was dead. I said, ‘I can’t and won’t let anyone read the script, that’s ridiculous. All I know is that I’m using him and if I do anything wrong you can sue the hell out of me.’ He said, ‘Not only that, I’ll give you all the information you want.’ I said, ‘I don’t want any information. I’ve known the character I want since I was a kid: I’ve read about him, I’ve heard about him, that’s all I want.’ He said, ‘Fine.’

“When the picture was shown for the American Newspaper Publishers’ Association—that’s an annual get-together of all the editors and publishers representing the dailies in this country—it was an unusual evening. The four Hearst sons were there with George Sokolsky, the very famous reactionary columnist for Hearst; and also, Douglas MacArthur, who was just fired by Truman and the next day was to go to Congress to make his famous ‘Old soldiers never die’ speech. And former President Herbert Hoover. [Fuller shows a still of himself with these luminaries at the event.] I refused to let them release any publicity, including this picture—it’s a great shot. Hoover, MacArthur, the four Hearst boys, and me, you understand, it’s great publicity, it’s green—MacArthur was page one, they were talking about running him for President. Let’s say he was a Democrat, let’s say they were all liberals, I would have to say no. I didn’t want this picture Park Row … in my mind, newspapers are supposed to be above politics. They’re not, of course. To me, it’s something that will continue when all these parties are dead and there are new names and they’re all forgotten. Who today can stand on a street corner and talk for two hours about the Federalists? It’s all forgotten. But newspapers continue. So I said no. I was told by a friend of mine that I’d made a tremendous mistake—it would have made page one. It did hit page one, but not the picture with me.

“The important thing is we ran the movie for them and when it was over—naturally the newspapermen liked the picture, but that’s not important—when it was over, Herman Mergenthaler came over to me, grabbed me, hugged me, he was crying: he loved the way his father was portrayed. He gave me his bust of his father. So I want to show you: the whole thing because of a lawyer. Isn’t that unbelievable?

“The thrill of that film was to have as much as the money would allow for the reconstruction of that street, Park Row. I had to shift a few different papers because when I was on the paper, they had moved. The only fictional addition to that whole damn set was the paper I created owned by the woman, Charity Hackett. Everything else was exactly the same.

“In 1963 I went back down there, and even The World was gone, with the big dome, next to the Brooklyn Bridge. The only building remaining from when I started as a copyboy is The New York Journal; it’s now a Federal warehouse on Williams Street, right off the Bowery, around the corner from Park Row. When I was a kid and I saw The World, if you used your imagination and thought of Pulitzer walking in and out of that door during the days of the young Hearst—three blocks away and taking over The Journal, and right beyond them was Greeley and Bennett and Dana of The Sun and Thomas of The Times—Jeezus it’s a thrill when you’re a kid if you know that these fellows all were here. So I always wanted to make a picture of these men, but you couldn’t: you’d need to have $25 million and do a biographical vignette running an hour, hour-and-a-half each, and compile it, a history of journalism. So I thought it’d be interesting just to make a composite. My thrill was having that streetcar—we really had cobblestones and really laid tracks—I even had the second or third floor built on the set. My cameraman said We won’t see it, we’re not going that high, and I said I don’t care, as long as I can see it I don’t mind.”

Q: Where did you shoot it? One of the rental studios?

SF: “I think it was General Services. It was a U[nited] A[rtists] release and we opened in a theatre I didn’t want to open in: my ego said yes; in my heart, I knew it was the wrong house, because this was a very small black-and-white picture, not a normal picture, and you open this kind of picture in a small house. It opened at Grauman’s Chinese. I moved the linotype into the forecourt, and when you bought your ticket you could have the man knock out your name on it. It died. Wherever it played, it died immediately. It went on TV and did very well. It was revived and did much better theatrically. For me, a flop. They didn’t lose money, I lost. ‘Cause it cost nothing; I shot it in 15 days.”

Q: You broke Hollywood’s rule and used your own money?

SF: “I sure did. Not all of it, but a lot of it. I don’t regret that. If I had gone to UA or whoever would have financed it, they would never have OK’d, for instance, that street set; they’d have OK’d part of it. You’re only supposed to build what you’re going to shoot.

“At 20th Century–Fox I had a chance to do it under another title, in color. Zanuck had a title called In Old New York. He said, “We’ll make this into a big, big Technicolor picture with Peck, Susan Hayward, Dan Dailey… “—fine cast; Dailey would be Steve Brody and Mitzi Gaynor would be the barmaid and there’d be a few musical numbers.”

Q: I’ve noticed in your career how partial you are to musical numbers.

SF: “Yeah. Well, I did have a song in I Shot Jesse James and I’ll never do that again; a girl singing ‘Beautiful Dreamer’—it just kills me every time I think of it. I only put it in because it was germane to that period, but it’s wrong. Wrong because saloons at that time did not have entertainment of any kind. They had nothing but bums hanging around in the daytime—most people worked. You walked into any saloon in a movie in the middle of the day and it’s packed with people and there’s a musical number.

“Anyway, I turned it down. I’m not saying it’s wrong or it’s right, and I like Peck and Hayward, that’s their class team, would have been a very expensive picture in those days. I didn’t like the title, I wanted Park Row.

“I was approached by a man and wife music-and-lyrics team to do Park Row as a Broadway musical. You can do a musical about anything. Cain and Abel: [sings] ‘Would you druther / Kill your brother’—You know.”

Q: Why is Park Row so dark, with the characters materializing from shadows and disappearing into them?

SF: “Oh, I wanted that because illumination in those days was very, very dark; they didn’t have electricity, they had gas or a lamp and everything was dark. They all had Rembrandt lighting, everyone of them, just black, black with a certain grey. I wanted that. If it’s bad photography it’s my fault. If it had been made at 20th, it would have been very very bright, it would have been in color, the whole mood would have been different.

“To answer your question, I thought that that would be right. You just couldn’t see too much in any of those offices. I just told the cameraman, whatever your source of light, that’s up to you but—for instance, when a man walks into a set and lights a match, I don’t want four lights to come up. We tried it: I darkened the stage, I lit a match. Well, he said, that’s pretty weak. I said OK, use just a little stronger, but not much. And I thought it was an effective thing to give a feeling that you have something that we take for granted, which is light. I don’t understand, in those days—I don’t know how many candles Balzac had, maybe two or three—why in hell didn’t everybody go blind? During the war, when you hit a barn and you really feel sealed—no light—we had Coleman lanterns. The slight touch of light inside gave us a warmth and a feeling of safety, that’s because we could see each other. If you don’t see each other, you feel each other, but it’s much nicer to see. From a filmmaking point of view, pictorially, it’s important to catch that feeling.

“I had a very funny experience with Lucien Ballard, who photographed Fixed Bayonets for me. The scene took place in a cave. Well, I’ve been in caves and they’re dark; that’s why they’re caves, especially if you get away from the entrance. Here it is, I told him, this is the scene, but no light. Whattaya mean, no lights? That’s your headache, you’re the professional. Just a joke, I walked away leaving a bit of egg on his face.

“You are faking something that can disturb an audience. I’ve seen scenes where someone says “Kill the light!” and they do, and you still see them very plainly. You have to, because you have to see their reactions, but that to me is not good motion picture making. There I don’t mind depending on sound, whether it’s heavy breathing or a whisper, or the sound of feet shuffling: to me, that’s much more dramatic.”

Q: Have you seen Bruce Surtees’s very dark cinematography, particularly in The Beguiled?

SF: “Oh yes. The best photography I’ve seen in that vein was William Clothier in my picture [Merrill’s Marauders]. Believe it or not, I had just had an attack on the side of a mountain, and I set about 36 flags for explosions and it’s about 11 at night, no moon, people were carrying lamps so they could talk to each other, one or two worklights for operating the equipment. Then I said, ‘All right, kill the lights. All I want to do is: when I set off the explosions, that’s when we’ll see the men.’ And it worked beautifully. No lights, not one. And some of them you didn’t even see, they were too far away and the explosion wasn’t that powerful. You’d see the men falling down and fighting and running and all that. That’s the way it is. He loved it. Any cameraman would like that. Generally you don’t get an OK to do that.

“I don’t know anything technically about a camera, I really don’t; the cameramen know. I tell them what I would like, and they give it. In Jesse James, the first time I ever directed, the first shot I did was the last shot in the picture—ten-day picture. The last shot is where the assassin who had shot Jesse in the back, Ford, now is advancing on the back of the man who took his woman away, Preston Foster. They said ‘day for night’ and I didn’t know what they meant, I didn’t care; but I told Ernie Miller, who photographed it, I want it so black that there’s only a little bit of moonlight coming—Western towns; when the moon is at a certain area, it’s all dark, and only between a couple of houses when there’s a shaft of light would it hit the street. I didn’t want it where the moon was high, I didn’t want that effect. I wanted black silhouettes all over. And he did it and I liked it, but it wasn’t perfect because he was still doing day for night. He filtered it, he did things with it, and I think it’s wrong and it’s not important, but I still think it’s wrong.

“You see on TV automobiles pulling up right past the camera and there’s no shaft of light—they’re shooting day for night. When you do have a real shaft of light, you’ll see things in the air—dust, raindrops, things flying around—you’ll see it in a room, including a hospital room; they’re all filled with dust. When the light hits it a certain way, ooh, it’s horrible, for certain people; they’d have a hemorrhage, hypochrondriacs would go crazy. That’s what I miss in a night shot with a car. If there’s no dust, it means it’s a set. If it’s a real set, nothing’s going to happen.”

Q: How do you organize your shots visually—the composition, the blocking, the camera moves, the editing?

SF: “It’s like writing a story. If I were writing a scene about you and you shook your head just then and you smiled, I’d have to maneuver that camera in such a way—I don’t want to cut—so that if my camera’s moving, I can be on your eyes as you twinkle while you shake your head. That’s the important thing, it’s not the shaking the head, because if the camera’s over there you can shake your head and we’ll still see it, but we won’t know whether you are laughing to yourself or whether you’re planning to shoot me. You have to be that close—that camera’s very effective that way. So I judge it for the emotional reaction, right there, little things … I like shock cuts, and I love the idea of eliminating dissolves. I think it’s very poetic, it’s very nice, and highly boring to me unless there’s an essential reason for a dissolve. Lots of time has been replaced—the dissolve replaced the intertitle, ‘The Next Morning.’ Then they went in for clocks and sky and sun and moon and raindrops, snow, flowers, a dog, a full bowl, an empty bowl, all that nonsense. You don’t really need that because visually, if you can go from one image to another and within two or three seconds—even on a pullback—establish for someone that there is it lapse of time by what he is saying or what he has done…. For example: A man kills a man CUT TO a water faucet, he’s wiping the blood off his hands CUT TO a car, he’s leaving. Visually it will progress. If you tell a story with a camera the way you tell a story at home, ‘You know what this man did? He killed this fellow, and you know he just went in and washed his hands and drove off in his car.’ That’s exactly what you would say. Why not show it? But the old-fashioned way—ooooooh, that’s terrible.

“I hate car chases.”

Q: No wonder you don’t work for TV.

SF: “The closest I’ve come to a car chase was in Dead Pigeon [on Beethoven Street]: I had one shot of a car chasing a car down along the Rhine. And the second shot is through a bower. That’s all. Even then I tried to cut that down and I couldn’t. I timed it and it was four seconds.”

Q: What’s your objection to car chases?

SF: “To me, there’s no dramatic stuff involved, there’s no inventive stuff involved, it’s saturated. I don’t like a car chasing a car unless something is different, something original.”*

Q: What about the way Gene Evans, the newspaperman, operates in Park Row? He’s not just reporting the news; some of the time he’s making the news.

SF: “He has to. He explains that for competition, since he doesn’t have a staff, he steals news, which they always do, they still do. He sends the fellow out for The World and The Times and The Herald and The Trib, remember, and he told him, ‘Use what you can and just change it enough …,’ and he didn’t have to finish the sentence before the other man said, ‘I know what you mean.’ They all do anyway. And a lot of writers do that in books and in poems. Except to an editor, he doesn’t feel that he’s really plagiarizing. He is usurping and utilizing someone else’s facts, but not invention: that’s the big difference between stealing from a newspaper and rewriting it. If you can’t afford AP or UPI today, all you do is just read it and you say, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to rearrange this thing?’—’cause AP costs an awful lot of money every year.

“By making the news—which is, in his particular instance, not exactly creating it—he is continuing it or making sure it progresses. For instance, he didn’t start a circulation war but he says he’ll make it into something. You can start news like a drive for the Statue of Liberty, and someone else can take that drive and turn it into a mess. What I’m trying to bring out is that every editor has his own approach and his approach was—I hate like hell to use the word ‘honest’—it was a legitimate approach.”

Q: But telling that blowhard to jump off the bridge

SF: “Well, I’ll tell you what I think was funny. Since in history he kept telling everybody he was going to jump off the bridge, I thought it would be funny for a guy to say, ‘OK, jump.’ And I knew in advance that it would be all right, because we all know he did jump off the bridge and he lived to tell about it. That to me is a delineation of that kind of newspaperman, whereas Charles Dana of The Sun would not only discourage him but would be a little reluctant about how in hell to handle the story because to him that was a vivid, exploitable, almost distasteful kind of copy. That’s why the paper was shown as The Old Lady of Journalism, The New York Sun. That’s the opposite, that’s all.”

Q: You frame your stories up in terms of extremes, opposites: having the crusading editor beat the man’s head to a pulp against the noble words carved on Franklin’s statue.

SF: “Well, I thought that was legitimate; the statue’s there.”

Q: But implicit in that is: that the statue’s there for beating heads on.

SF: “Yes, but that’s the same as saying: in a Western the horses are there, and when there’s a fight, you take advantage of the legs of the horses, you shoot through them; or if there’s a fight in the pressroom, or, the best example in the world, if there’s a firefight going on in a war, it struck me that so many times we would fight in a graveyard, and the reason had nothing to do with dramatic contrasts or shock value, nothing. The general run of stones there gave us excellent cover; we would instinctively, like animals, head to any place, especially stones, assuming bullets would not go through them. And then it dawned on all of us how ironic it always was that we were killing people where the people were already dead. We don’t let them rest, we don’t let them lie.”

footnote

* Later, in Seattle, Fuller described his version of a chase scene in Alamo Charlie, a project subsequently abandoned for lack of funds. He would do it with trucks, one truck would be literally hijacked by a helicopter, and the trucker on the road would do his damnedest to escape the threat of the first truck being dropped on him. –Ed.