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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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Creature Contact

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

Sam Fuller visited the Seattle Film Society the weekend of May 8 and, among many other things that happened within 46-and-a-half exhilarating, excruciating, mind-boggling, adrenalin-jagging hours, he told a story about Lazslo Kovacs and The Last Movie, in which Fuller played a movie director for director-of-the-movie Dennis Hopper:

“We were shooting The Last Movie and Lazsi Kovacs was shooting the film. It was a scene where I was directing a camera in the movie, but Kovacs had the real camera, and he was shooting me and my crew shooting … you know, the kind of movie-within-a-movie thing you’ve seen hundreds of times. I’m directing my camera and we’re tracking this way and I’ve got these people and horses running down this thing—I’d said to Hopper, ‘What am I gonna direct?’ and he said, ‘Anything! You’re the director!’, so I really had these people running, it was a big scene—and all the time Kovacs is shooting us. But I’m getting this shot and I swing my camera crew around this way, and there’s Kovacs and I wave and say ‘Get your equipment out of the way!’ and he says, ‘What?’ and I say ‘Get outta there!’ So he starts moving his camera out of my way—but he’s shooting the real film, see, and when he moves his camera away he’s shooting blanks! Nothing! Somebody says, ‘What the hell are you doing? You’re supposed to be shooting this scene and you’re moving out there shooting nothing!’ And he says, ‘Well, I got excited….”

If it’s hard not to get excited with a Sam Fuller movie in front of you, it’s impossible not to get excited around Sam Fuller. Excited and engaged. Nobody is out of the scene. I showed up to meet Fuller at his hotel prepared to arrange to take him to dinner several hours later, or to comply if perchance he should say, “OK, I’ll be there to talk to the audience whenever you say, and what I do in between is my business.” Nothing remotely like that ever got said. Fuller spotted a NO CIGARS PLEASE sign on the lobby desk and carefully buried it under a stack of tourist guides. Then he and five of us piled into an elevator, an anecdote got started, and it was all over for anything else that afternoon. Within 45 minutes of meeting him I had been cast as Fritz Lang (in a comparing-pot-bellies contest—Lang and I lost), a machine gun (I fired the first shot of World War II), and a pregnant woman’s leg (that is a very complicated story…).

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