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DVD: ‘The Samuel Fuller Film Collection’

A year after its landmark release of Budd Boetticher’s “Ranown” Westerns, Sony showcases another great maverick filmmaker. Samuel Fuller spent most of his career in B pictures, creating ultrapersonal, formula-defying films that got little notice from workaday reviewers but impressed sharp critics like Andrew Sarris and Manny Farber. His streetwise worldview, his voice, his advisedly jarring style were so distinctive that when American film criticism underwent a major shakeup in the 1960s, Fuller was singled out as an exemplary “auteur.” The French New Wave revered him and he became an inspiration to later generations of American independents. (Martin Scorsese once invited him to come see “my new movie,” but what hit the screen was Scorsese’s print of Fuller’s Run of the Arrow.)

Fuller was a writer long before he added directing to his résumé: New York City crime reporter, at age seventeen, in the Twenties; pulp novelist (Test Tube Baby?); and a screenwriter at Columbia by the late Thirties. So it’s fine that The Samuel Fuller Collection, almost uniquely among filmmaker box sets, should include some movies directed by others but based on Fuller scripts or stories; there are five of them, along with two all-Fuller productions. His early film involvements were minor. He was one of four writers on It Happened in Hollywood (1937), the tale of a Tom Mix–like Western star whose career flames out when takies arrive. There’s droll business as the hero (Richard Dix) and his longtime leading lady (Fay Wray) attempt the transition from buckskin and gingham to tuxedo, gown, and drawing-room dialogue, and one party scene features a raft of star cameos—actually, star-lookalike cameos. Adventure in Sahara (1938) started life when omnivorous reader Fuller, invited to make a pitch to a Columbia exec, improvised on the spot: “William Bligh meets Victor Hugo!” The whiplash-inducing melodrama that resulted has Paul Kelly joining the Foreign Legion to avenge his kid brother’s death, caused by the sadistic commandant (C. Henry Gordon) of Fort Agadez, “the Inferno of the Sahara.” So there’s our Captain Bligh, ripe for mutiny; the Victor Hugo part, a variation on a chapter in Hugo’s ’Ninety-Three, comes when Kelly and his fellow mutineers decide to … well, the cockamamie picture’s just 56 minutes long—see for yourself.

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Legends of the Fall, 2011: Another noir season at SAM

Ella Raines looking far from her usual all-American girl self in an especially atmospheric moment from Robert Siodmak's "Phantom Lady"

“Desperate men and dangerous women, smooth talk and barbed wisecracks, cheap perfume and gun smoke, dreams and dead ends. The night, shaped like movies. The world’s longest-running film noir series celebrates its thirty-fourth season with an opening night feast of black and white doughnuts, courtesy of Top Pot Doughnuts.”

The words and the address are inimitably Greg Olson’s; he’s been Seattle Art Museum film programmer for more than those 34 years. This autumn, for “Heart of Darkness: The Film Noir Cycle,” Olson’s managed to retrieve a night from the SAM powers-that-be, who last year cut back his series from ten films to eight. 2011’s noirfest features nine titles, to run Thursdays from Sept. 29 through Dec. 8 (omitting Oct. 14 and Thanksgiving), at 7:30 p.m. in the museum’s Plestcheeff Auditorium.

It’s the best batch in several years, starting off with two pungent classics from noir’s golden age. Fact is, I used to open my own University of Washington film noir classes with Phantom Lady (Sept. 29), the 1944 Robert Siodmak picture that Telluride Film Festival co-founder Tom Luddy once called “the Citizen Kane of B-movies.” Based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, it’s a feverish hour-and-20-minutes in which sweltering urban heat, the pervasive cheapness of Universal production values, and director Siodmak’s jaggedly Germanic style combine to create a near-hallucinatory experience. A respected engineer (Alan Curtis) is accused of his wife’s murder; his only alibi is a nameless woman with whom he shared an innocent evening at the time the crime was committed. Washington-born Ella Raines plays the loyal, and of course secretly adoring, secretary who embarks on a quest to locate the woman and save her boss. Have no doubt that she gets herself into sundry seamy and queasy situations—none seamier and queasier than an after-hours flirtation with a leering jazz drummer, an indelible portrait by Elisha Cook Jr. Others in the cast include Franchot Tone, Thomas Gomez, and Fay Helm (in the title role). Longtime Alfred Hitchcock associate Joan Harrison produced.

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