Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Sam Fuller

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…).

It is not precisely correct to say that one story follows another when Fuller is talking. One story is in progress, a momentary digression is made, the first story resumes in progress, the digression is extended and suggests another, the first story moves almost to its conclusion, the second digression is picked up and elaborated parallel to the first digression, which has by now become a full-fledged anecdote, and then the punchline of the initial story is delivered, its impact charged in inexplicable ways by the energy and vibes and peripheral information the digressions introduced. Sometimes, like the upshot of a political dialogue in a Fuller movie, this leaves you snapping your head and saying a silent Huhhh?!. But sometimes—rather more frequently—you feel a prickling at the back of your neck and know you’ve been slanted into a perspective you never dreamed existed, and for a few moments it’s difficult to believe that any alternative point-of-view would make nearly as much sense. Certainly it would make nothing like the same kind of sense.

As Kathleen Murphy suggests in her Steel Helmet article, a lot of the sense that Fuller makes he makes in terms of people. Creature contact is clearly very important to him, and he seeks it as if it were the most natural thing in the world, even if a lot of the world around him thinks it isn’t. Fuller spoke between showings of two of his films, then moved into the hallway outside the auditorium. About half the audience followed, and very little of their attending had to do with how-can-I-get-into-pictures. Another film program was playing in the auditorium nextdoor, and when it broke, Fuller stepped over to intercept the passersby and buttonhole male, female, young, old: “Was it a good show? … Did you like it? … That’s great!” (He knew, by the way, it was another audience, not the one from his own films.) It was the sort of thing he said every time someone mentioned a movie; even when he criticized a film, a scene, a thesis, he was careful—without lapsing into showbiz boosterism—to make clear he was casting no aspersions on the people who had, for whatever reasons, created it. Twice over the weekend I referred to obscure players one sees often in Fuller movies but scarcely anywhere else. He was delighted, told stories about them (of course!); and an hour later he might pause in the middle of some entirely different subject, squint over his cigar and say quietly, “I’m very glad you asked about Neyle Morrow.”

* * *

Sam Fuller likes to sit and talk-although, to be sure, he spends a lot of his talking time in motion, framing closeups against his interlocutors’ temples—and he has no hesitation about letting the people in his movies sit and talk, too. Rick Hermann has referred to one of several remarkable single-take talk scenes in Run of the Arrow, the one wherein Capt. Clark talks of “the man without a country” with O’Meara, newlymade Sioux, late private in the Virginia Infantry. A wonderful scene, and a lovely characterization by Brian Keith (whom Fuller used in a lighting test shortly after Steiger had been signed for the lead, and discovered that Keith would have made a better O’Meara …). Throughout the take, Keith plays with enameled blue coffee cups on a roughhewn table, scowling into one, then another, finally selecting two, tossing the slops aside, and pouring himself and Steiger fresh cups of what is apparently cold coffee; delivering his final line—”Let’s get one thing straight: Lee’s surrender was not the death of the South—it was the birth of the United States”—he finally tries the coffee, scowls more vehemently than before, and throws it away. End of scene.

But something interesting happens before that. (At least two somethings: I must get back to the other one eventually.) Clark walks over to the location for this discussion and finds O’Meara seated on a wagon tongue, waiting for him, ill-at-ease over recent events he can’t get cozy with in his headset. He starts to speak—and above and behind him, a coat which has been draped over the wagonbox suddenly slips and falls to the ground. Either O’Meara or Steiger notices, turns immediately, restores the coat, and resumes speaking. Did the coat just fall—I mean, as a prop, placed there carelessly, succumbing as the force of gravity overrode the friction of surfaces and giving way at the least opportune moment, i.e. after the camera was turning? Did a prop man out of sight behind the wagon give it a twitch and make it fall? For the moment is not that inopportune, really; the accident adds a nice touch to O’Meara’s already precarious hold on the scene. So, again, did O’Meara pick up the coat or did Rod Steiger, thinking Oh Christ! what do I do, ignore it and hope nobody sees or act like it’s just one of those things, yeah, better pick it up and—nobody hollered cut—get on with it, huh? Whichever way, maybe Fuller liked it. John Ford didn’t reshoot it in 1917 when Hoot Gibson rode into the river so hard he fell off his horse (Straight Shooting), or in 1964 when “Sol” Mineo figured he botched his pony mount after playing an angry scene (Cheyenne Autumn): “Completely in character.” Howard Hawks didn’t reshoot it in 1936 when Joel McCrea walked into Edward Arnold’s office carrying the new paper drinking cup he’d just developed, and not holding it firmly enough, so that the wind of his walking suddenly carried the cup away onto the floor behind him as Arnold said “What have you got there?” and McCrea, retrieving it, said “Well, if I can manage to hang on to it…” (Come and Get It): why should a director who celebrates professionalism order a retake when, after all, things like that do happen “in life” and the actor saved the moment so casually? The one nagging question: did Fuller have to weigh whether he could afford to reshoot?

A good deal of Fuller’s filmmaking has been in the B area. Even when shooting CinemaScope pictures for major-studio release he clearly worked on a frayed shoestring budget. And one of the most fascinating aspects of Fuller appreciation has to do with the interface between budgetary necessity and the director’s genius for translating poverty-row artificiality into dynamic abstraction, and through that abstraction achieving a directness so palpable it becomes … concrete.

The writers of the preceding articles on Fuller films have stressed the effects and meanings (the categories are scarcely separate) of the dislocations that occur so frequently—dislocations in the viewer’s perceptions and interpretations, dislocations in the development of time and space we prefer to obey more fluid patterns. Just before the G.I. is atomized by booby trap in Steel Helmet, Fuller frames a three-way conversation in terms of independent closeups: the doomed trooper, the lieutenant, the combat-seasoned sergeant. The trooper and the sergeant are both seen more or less conventionally (although Zack is quite picturesque about mashing the melon into his choppers), but Lieut. Driscoll’s takes are bizarre: standing in three-quarter-rear profile talking to the offscreen private, he occupies the sort of awkward screen space we customarily experience with individuals who used to be part of a CinemaScope two-shot before a scan process turned them into isolatos on a TV screen. But Steel Helmet is a pre-Scope movie and the framing is purposeful: when Driscoll turns facing out and says firmly, “Get his dogtags” (i.e. those of the corpse on the nearby knoll), we add up the piecemeal space and conclude that Driscoll is addressing Zack—as, in every respect save the issuing of the direct order, he is: the contest of wills and values has nothing to do with the offscreen G.I. who’s about to die for nothing.

Steve Brodie’s (Driscoll’s) closeups look normal enough, texturally; he was actually photographed as framed—his shots were not re-composed after the fact by optical closeup. But there are instances in Run of the Arrow where the reverse appears true—at least, to the extent one can determine from the wildly erratic 16mm color prints in circulation. O’Meara’s scene on the bridge with his mother (Olive Carey) and his meeting with the drink-sodden Walking Coyote (another “dead” man who initiates the second phase of O’Meara’s story, as another “dead” Lieut. Driscoll initiated the first) both look as if they were achieved in single takes (although a slight change of angle in the bridge scene suggests it may be a composite of two attempts at the same integral-take setup). In both sequences “cuts” occur, but these cuts to closer angles are invariably accompanied by a falling-off in color saturation and sharpness, and, especially in the Walking Coyote scene, when only one character is visible he is seen from an oddly flattened perspective one-shots hardly ever display. I tried to ask Fuller about these, wondering whether he’d decided to use some closer shots well after abandoning the locations, or whether some editor or distributor insisted on “breaking up” at least some of his integral-take scenes; he either misunderstood my question or preferred to misunderstand, addressing himself to a separate problem of color quality in the film.

There are other problematical shots in Run of the Arrow. During a treaty meeting between Chief Red Cloud (Frank DeKova) and Gen. Allan (Tim McCoy), Fuller fills the screen much of the time with separate closeups of various participants, not only the two commanders but also Capt. Clark, Lieut. Driscoll, O’Meara and the renegade Crazy Wolf. Fuller makes stunning use of craning camera movements throughout the film that repeatedly stress that we are watching a dramatic story involving particular people and also an allegorical rehearsal of national growth traumas; this sequence begins with Red Cloud’s arrival at the conference site, the camera observing him from on high, descending—on line with an American Flag–bearing pole—to meet him, and in the process eventually peering over Gen. Allan’s shoulder; Fuller cuts to a high-angle looking down over Red Cloud’s shoulder as the two leaders, both sane and honorable men, size up and recognize each other. But this auspicious opening is undercut by the visual fragmenting of the conference itself—an effect that is increased when Fuller begins to cut in shots of Crazy Wolf smiling as if in half-mad daydream while the leaders speak of peace and treaty-keeping. Yet there is even more to this: the shots of H.M. Wynant (Crazy Wolf) are at variance in tone and lighting with the other closeups; and there is something in the actor’s bearing (I realize I’m venturing on highly subjective terrain here)—a sheer want of concentration, perhaps, of knowing he’s doing a pickup shot with no “scene” occurring offcamera—that contributes to the strangeness of the assemblage. A similar disjunctive quality informs the CUs of Steiger and Driscoll a moment later when O’Meara is presented as the Indians’ chosen scout, Clark and Driscoll are perfunctorily introduced to him (remaining at attention in the background of the main action and barely nodding toward O’Meara), O’Meara recognizes the man he shot with the last bullet fired in the Civil War—and smiles, lingeringly, in a privileged recognition so private and so darkhumored that we can only dissolve away from any attempt to sustain the public political spectacle. None of these effects is “smooth” and all resemble the accidental, we-can’t-take-time-or-money-to-fix-it-up manifestations of a hundred clumsy-bad B movies. Yet this works here—and works so vividly on several levels of perceptual and conceptual experience that I can’t believe ironing out these “flaws” would make Fuller’s film better. Quite the reverse.

The point has been made, I hope, yet I can’t resist quoting another treasured example, in the 1960 Underworld U.S.A. In the backroom of Sandy’s Elite Bar which economically, improbably, and ever-so-rightly becomes the location of several key scenes in the protagonist’s life and criminal career, Tolly Devlin (Cliff Robertson) is crouched in a closet cracking a safe he knows like an old pal. Suddenly, in the outer room a mobster appears and makes a phonecall. Tolly stops work and opens the door a crack to eavesdrop; in the process, a bar of light crosses his face (as at so many crucial points in the narrative and over the years). The phone message is instructions for the mobster to rub out a party girl who has displeased his higher-ups. A moment later the girl herself arrives. What we see is: (A) medium shot of door swinging open, with girl visible and about to enter; (B) closeup of girl through partially opened door, the door not moving; (C) resumption of (A) with the door continuing its swing and the girl proceeding to enter. The stationary door in the cutaway shot (B) obviously violates the normal laws of continuity. One flashes on Lillian Ross’s Picture and John Huston realizing that he’ll have to retake that MCU of the odd-looking extra because it has to be cut in with the dolly shots of the whole troop crossing the river and he forgot to dolly the first time. Yet if Fuller had Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’d his shot-sequence, he and we should have lost a great deal. The girl, Cuddles (Dolores Dorn) , is making her entrance into the film and into the life of Tolly Devlin. She’s to become a crucial part of both, and the shaft of light that hits her—framed by dark door and jamb—as she hovers outside the room virtually betrothes her, stylistically, to Tolly. (He resists the betrothal until it’s too late.) That jarringly static closeup, lit with the monumentality of a Langian Kriemhild in her mid-apocalyptic mode, does something to the nervous system of the viewer and the stylistic system of the film that is indispensable to the impact and experience and meaning of Underworld U.S.A.

It isn’t really inconsistent with Fuller’s more “normal” jarring montage, as, for instance, in the death of the sergeant in Fixed Bayonets (1951). A group of American soldiers is huddled in a Korean ice cave and also in a group shot. The sergeant (Gene Evans once again) squints at an ice cliff opposite and allows as how if he were a Red he’d set himself up right over there, fire into the cave, and trust to ricochet to wound somebody. The film is as good as his word: a shot rings out, a bullet is heard to scream about the enclosure, all the men duck save the sergeant, who goes on sitting where he was. The others rise and decide that no one has been hit. The sergeant matter-of-factly contradicts them twice until they realize he’s caught the bullet. A corporal (Richard Basehart) who has watched fearfully as officer after officer was killed off, knowing the position of command was descending his way, kneels before the sergeant confident that nothing can kill this last war-horse. Fuller intercuts closeups of sergeant and corporal as the latter busies himself with tending the wound. The sergeant tells him, “Never mind, I’m dead.” The corporal scoffs up into his face. Cut to Evans, who repeats, “I’m dead.” Cut to Basehart, grinning and lowering his gaze, then looking back suddenly at Evans. Evans’ closeup is repeated, identical with the previous except that instead of saying he’s dead, he is dead. The moment is a powerful one—the sergeant’s professional expertise tersely confirmed to the last, the likeness of Evans-in-life and Evans-in-death more deeply chilling than any blood gush—but perhaps more important than these considerations is the macabre humor of the moment, a humor that finds even wilder expression in the disembodied smiles of Wynant and Steiger, or in … that other interesting something back in the coat-dropping, coffee-drinking scene between O’Meara and Capt. Clark.

What’s bothering O’Meara is that a Yankee cavalryman (Chuck Roberson) who expressed his mortal distrust of O’Meara and his Indian wife and son earlier in the day has just been killed saving the Indian boy’s life. A complete state of death it was: the boy was mired in quicksand and the sergeant, having just pulled him free and tossed him safely ashore, fell headfirst into the bog and—gone. Cut from that scene to Capt. Clark approaching the camera, hailing a noncom, complaining about the discomfort of a McClellan saddle that provides no support for the rider’s rump, and asking him to “do something about it—fill in that hole. See if ya can’t make it easier on the … disposition.” Explaining jokes is a dubious pastime, but the memory of that second, grotesquely dissimilar and trivial hole waiting to be filled in hangs over the ensuing discussion of O’Meara’s coming to terms with the birth of the United States. And the first filling-in of a hole vacated by O’Meara’s adopted son was indeed a step toward easing the renegade Reb’s disposition—the sergeant’s death one more among many actual, threatened, postponed or ultimately consummated deaths necessary to birth O’Meara back into the Union.

What an odd and awesome formality these perverse shocks generate! Watching a Fuller movie, we never know when we may ricochet into metaphysical absurdity by way of sour G.I. humor or a species of poetic violence masquerading as B movie flummery. But the most volatile styles require the most rigorous control, and in recent years Fuller hasn’t had enough opportunities to keep his hand in. His latest completed film, Dead Pigeon on Beethovenstrasse, suggests both that the mad, once-deceptively-anarchic touch is in danger of trivializing itself and that the most eerily adventurous reaches of the Fuller style have yet to be explored. Some of it is very, very silly (“We were just having a ball,” Fuller recalls). Some of it displays with a vengeance the telltale signs of cheapjack European-based filmmaking (an overhead street scene pieced throughout the film is aflash with electrostatic lines). Some of it thumbs its nose at conventions that one can’t afford to be contemptuous of if one’s even pretending to work in the thriller genre (Glenn Corbett, who can’t duel a lick, is matched against master swordsman Anton Diffring, and in a quick series of shots that absolutely refuse to cut together, even according to a private system of coherency, Corbett somehow defeats Diffring). And yet, climbing out of parentheses now, one begins to take back the criticism. This looks like Fuller’s Godard movie—hence a lot of the auteur-flaunting, genre-mangling silliness, and egregious japes with Stéphane Audran putting in a one-scene appearance as a Dr. Bogdanovich, and a performance by Fuller’s wife that is weird in its utter disregard for histrionic niceties—yet (I need to see this one again, damn it!) it just may be that Fuller was blowing up the tough-private-investigator genre as insidiously as Altman about the same time. The opening is a bang-up montage in which the title assembles itself word by word as guns go off and a dead pigeon and a dead man and a wounded assassin all fall down in Beethovenstrasse in fist-in-the-kisser images slammed into the jaggedest rhythm this side of non-narrative cinema. And in the finale, the images themselves—along with love, lust and loyalty—literally shatter onscreen, and fall.

* * *

Maybe it was a good weekend to be away from the business; maybe it was a bad. Since the distributor doublecross on Caine (also Shark and, postJaws, Maneaterthe film was recut and Fuller wanted his name taken off) and the flap about Riata (Fuller was canned by Warner Bros. and Barry Shear finished the film as The Deadly Trackers), a fellow needs to get going again. Work was stalled on Alamo Charlie, a trucker/lumberjack picture shooting in Oroville, Calif., and it remained to be seen, in the next week or so, whether a guy who said he had the money to finish it had the money to finish it. (He hadn’t; the picture has been shut down.) There wasn’t the slightest sign Fuller was dispirited. He ran through scene after scene for film after film he wants to make. There was a joy, a richly life-enhancing thrill in watching them that way, being directed eyes and mind and nerve-endings by the director himself, seeing it all on the screen of his imagination. But we haven’t seen the last of Fuller on that other screen either. I had to be a machine gun and a pregnant woman’s leg because the Big OneThe Big Red One, to be specific, the story of Fuller’s infantry division from Africa to Czechoslovakia—is looking very on for late this summer in Europe. It won’t say


because Peter Bogdanovich is producing. But it will say the other two, the two that matter the most. Lazslo Kovacs will be cinematographer, and there is every likelihood he will get excited again.

Samuel Fuller provided the photographic materials on Park Row and also, of course, the photograph reproduced on page one. Stills from The Steel Helmet and Run of the Arrow were obtained from the Museum of Modern Art Film Stills Archive. The pictures of Sam Fuller on pages 20-21 and 24-25 were taken by Ray Pierre during Fuller’s appearance at the University of Washington, sponsored by the Seattle Film Society and the UW Cinema Studies Program, on May 8.
The invaluable assistance of Richard Thompson in coordinating the Fuller visit and consulting on this issue of MOVIETONE NEWS is gratefully acknowledged. Thanks also to Robert C. Cumbow for a transcription of some Fuller remarks at the UW, Rick Hermann for proposing to bring Fuller to Seattle in the first place, and Kathleen Murphy for suggesting a special MTN issue on Fuller.

© 1976 Richard T. Jameson

A pdf of the original issue can be found here