Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Directors, Film Reviews, George Romero, Horror

Review: The Crazies

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

A hand unscrews a series of lightbulbs. A switch is flicked on and the room stays dark. Shadows and forms dart out of vision before they can be made out. A pretty little girl clutching a stuffed toy protests, “Billy, you’re trying to scare me!” Then there appears on the wall the shadow of a man lifting a tire iron, about to strike, and we are suddenly back in that riveting, unpredictable world of Night of the Living Dead, where make-believe horrors quickly give way to unspeakably real ones. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. For the first couple reels George A. Romero’s The Crazies builds overwhelming suspense, and teeters its audience breathlessly on the brink of the kind of shock orgy that made Night of the Living Dead so memorable. But what is threatened never actually materializes—at least not in any way that makes The Crazies a successfully affecting horror movie.

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Posted in: by Rick Hermann, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Film Reviews, Sam Fuller

‘Run of the Arrow’: Birth Pangs of the United States

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

As with many of Fuller’s films, Run of the Arrow is finally about nothing less that the United States, even though it is “just” a Western. As a matter of fact, it is perhaps the most conventionally “Western” of Fuller’s Westerns, the only one that really utilizes the redrock and sagebrush landscapes that one associates with the West of directors like Mann, Ford, and Walsh (compare, for instance, Colorado Territory‘s forbidding geography to the contours of real and potential space that encompasses a quest in Run of the Arrow), and the only one that is in color—vivid color, bright with eye-catching primary hues that become motifs on the political and historical canvas of Fuller’s story. Blood is red, and so are the stripes of the American Flag that O’Meara (Rod Steiger), a bitter Confederate soldier who leaves his home after the war. and seeks out a viable identity as a Sioux Indian, initially rejects and later accepts as his. The uniforms and wagons of the cavalry are blue, and so are the feathers on the lance of Blue Buffalo (Charles Bronson), the Sioux chief whose tribe defeats that band of cavalry; so, for that matter, are the blueprints for a new fort to go up in the middle of the Sioux nation most definitely blue, creating an analogy between plans for this specific outpost and the manifest destiny blueprinted in the more encompassing vision of an America moving ever westward.

The film’s themes, which intertwine, support and counterpoint each other, operate on this dual level of significance; the personal crises of identity and the more far-reaching problems of national unity are the components of Fuller’s vision, a cumulatively dark picture of the forces that drove men west to expand the boundaries of their country. The story itself has a sinister way of revolving in ever tightening circles around the antagonism between O’Meara and Driscoll (Ralph Meeker), the Yankee officer whom O’Meara wounds with the last bullet fired in the Civil War. They meet up again out West, Driscoll as the leader of a detachment of cavalry commissioned to guard some Army engineers who intend to build a fort in Sioux territory, O’Meara as a scout for the Indians. A parallel conflict springs up between Driscoll and Captain Clark (Brian Keith), the latter a stabilizing force in a world that balances the self-hating O’Mearas against the vicious opportunists like Driscoll. Clark’s strength becomes the most reliable core of value in the film, shoring up the foundations of a reasonable patriotism that will endure beyond both the reactionary ethics of the old Sioux scout Walking Coyote (“I don’t know what this world’s coming to,” he says as a party of young bucks get drunk and prepare to string him up) and Driscoll’s incipient fascism. Clark’s spiel to O’Meara questioning O’Meara’s rejection of home and flag and ending with the parable of Philip Knowland, the man without a country (done all in one breathless take, the only movement being an honest and unashamed nudge to a slightly closer shot when the legend of Knowland is invoked) is eloquent enough to rise high above the platform jingoism of a flag-waving patriot, and is indeed infused with an almost Fordian sense of privileged participation. It counterpoints the more patly violent and potently chaotic aspects of Fuller’s films, offering us an openness and resilience that seems as essentially Fullerian as his attention-grabbing visual style and volatile worldview.

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Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Film Reviews, Sam Fuller

The Steel Helmet: “I’ve got a hunch we’re all going around in circles”

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

There are two kind of people in The Steel Helmet: those who are dead and those who are about to be; men who have ceased to move anywhere and mean anything, and those whose idiosyncratic, even crazy energy keeps them in motion until they too are stopped by an arbitrary bullet or knife. Dead men are just corpses, places where you can shop for extra sulfa powder, guns, helmets and boots, or get blown up by a booby trap. The Steel Helmet is dedicated to the United States Infantry, but this branch of the military has little of the look of a recruiting poster once it’s been refracted through the very particularized and peculiar directorial lenses of Samuel Fuller. A stranger to Fuller might echo the gum-chewing officer who disbelievingly confronts the film’s survivors—bald, black, yellow, and crazy—with “What kind of outfit is this?” The outfit is mankind and the Korean police action just another chapter in a story, a battleground that has no end, that is existence itself.

A steel helmet marked by a bullethole fills the screen during the film’s credit sequence. That helmer is like a slowmotion stone dropped into the pool of our perception; for the image expands in ever widening circles until it has eroded our literal vision away like a series of figurative dissolves, and that pierced hemisphere becomes a metal microcosm, the world itself, the world under fire. When the helmet is seen to be inhabited, when Sgt. Zack’s (Gene Evans’) eyes appear warily beneath it, the world shrinks to the confines of the fragile circle of a human skull. Not much later in the film, another soldier hits the dirt, jarring off his helmet to reveal the almost obscenely vulnerable nakedness of a hairless head. Here, baldness against earth evokes man’s fate as food for worms. In The Naked Kiss, the denuded pate of a prostitute possesses a perverse sexual allure. In both cases, the loss of that taken-for-granted covering and protection spells a primal vulnerability which both attracts and repulses. That the bald soldier’s head should be massaged with dirt to make his hair grow back completes some dark cycle in The Steel Helmet. When Baldy (Richard Monahan) is assured that “things will be sprouting in no time,” he has every right to querulously inquire, “What things?” Zack barks “Eat rice!” at his South Korean protégé whenever the enemy is encountered. The black medic, Thompson (James Edwards), reports that his officer is “fertilizing a rice paddy with the others,” and Sgt. Zack sloppily crams melon into his mouth as he advises his less cynical lieutenant (Steve Brodie) to stop worrying about a dead American’s dogtags: “A dead man’s nothing but a corpse. Nobody cares who he is now.” Three shellshocked soldiers sprawl against and around a pillar surrounded by the bodies of their entire patrol: “I’m hungry.” “Me, too.” “First we’ll eat, then we’ll bury them.” Rice is nourishment for the living, but in this violently topsy-turvy environment, eating rice means hitting the dirt, avoiding the grave by playing dead. Rice gets fertilized by the truly dead, but the rich earth will make Baldy’s hirsute helmet grow again. Men who are still on their feet eat to keep putting one foot in front of the other, so that they don’t get pinned down, immobilized, dead. Once dead, burial must wait for the living to take sustenance. Man eats so that he has the energy to run toward whatever death is waiting for him. Then he becomes food for other men on the run. A profoundly pessimistic vision? Perhaps. But the momentum and eccentric style of man’s run, his sheer bullheaded energy and endurance equally fascinate Fuller.

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Posted in: by Rick Hermann, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Film Reviews, Sam Fuller

“When it’s night time … “: Myth and the Geography of the Unconscious in ‘I Shot Jesse James’

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

“I wanted the camera to tilt slightly in one direction and the picture to tilt in another. So when it evens out, we have death. I wanted something weird in the beginning, but when it’s over, dead men are usually horizontal, and everything is simple, on one line.”

-Sam Fuller, discussing the murder scene in I Shot Jesse James

Sam Fuller does not really seem too preoccupied with the Jesse James story as Western myth. In all of his movies he is too busy delving into the dark corners of human nature to indulge in the more abstract enterprise of mythmaking (or its iconoclastic obverse in films like The Ballad of Cable Hogue and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) à la John Ford, Leone, or Peckinpah. I Shot Jesse James, Fuller’s first film as a director, does partake of mythic qualities, but primarily as they arise in conjunction with the psychological dissolution and imminent mortality of Robert Ford (John Ireland), emphatically the man who shot Jesse James. The term “psychological Western”—rife with Freudian undertones—seems a dangerous description, an oversimplification of Fuller’s complexly human drama; Fuller’s people are people rather than symbols. He gets at their humanness through an intensely subjective narrative, emphasizing, through an environment of airless closeups, the interior space of Bob Ford’s informing consciousness. In the process, Jesse James, the legendary outlaw, is not only de-romanticized (Reed Hadley’s abbreviated appearance as Jesse definitely makes it hard to sympathize with him)—he gets pretty much ignored. The angst of a confused man who would shoot his best friend to gain amnesty for himself is much more compelling subject matter for Fuller. The title of the film itself is a sign of this agonizing subjectivity, suggesting both confession and advertisement, the ordinate axes of guilt and potency that delineate the planes of Robert Ford’s inner struggle.

John Ireland as Robert Ford

Fuller has said that he modeled the shooting scene after a version of the legendary betrayal that most people were familiar with from pictures showing Jesse straightening a picture on the wall while Ford calmly plugs him in the back. That image becomes the core of the movie, but in an interesting and unexpected way that allows Fuller to create a delicate interplay between myth and artistic creation by introducing Kane (J. Edward Bromberg), a travelling impresario who stages “heartwarming dramas” with Cynthy (Barbara Britton), Ford’s girlfriend, as his leading lady. Fairly early in the film there is a brilliantly economical and. subtly motivated scene in which Robert Ford and Mr. Kane are in Cynthy’s dressing room playing a simple game of cards for a quarter a hand. As Ford talks on and on about legendary figures like the Dalton gang and some other Western gunslingers, Kane loses hand after hand. Finally we see Kane draw an ace of spades; he glances at Ford and says, “Four.” Ford has a nine. He picks up another two bits and tells Kane that it looks like a real streak of bad luck. Kane agrees and asks if he can see that .45 now—the .45 that killed Jesse James. As he fondles it, he says, “You know, that gun’ll probably go into a museum one day.” “Not while I’m alive to tote it,” Ford replies. While the allusions to Ford’s growing mythic status accumulate (his invoking the Daltons gives us a context of legend from which to view Ford’s ascension to that very same plane of reputed existence), the actual business of the scene—hidden somewhere behind Kane’s dissembling face when he drew the ace and called out a four—still brews unseen, until Cynthy walks in, Kane goes out, and Ford tells her that Kane is going to make him a “special added attraction” in the show. Each night, he will play out onstage the way he murdered Jesse.

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Posted in: by Richard Thompson, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Interviews, Sam Fuller

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.

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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…).

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Posted in: by Rick Hermann, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: The Missouri Breaks

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

More than a fair share of iridescent, long-shadowed mornings and ghostly blue, otherworldly evenings mark the twilight of an era in The Missouri Breaks, Arthur Penn’s end-of-the-West Western. Penn’s Little Big Man was also an elegy of sorts, an iconoclastic and morally allegorical taking-apart of a corner of Western legend that has turned into (as in Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) an artifact consigned to a past made all the more poignant and irredeemable when contrasted to the poverty of a present trying to understand it. In Missouri Breaks, though, Penn and Thomas McGuane seem to be dealing their hands from within the form of the Western, letting the conventions subvert themselves, allowing a marked dissipation of generic coherence (a quality central to Penn’s Night Moves), to leave Penn’s world almost uninhabitable for the people left to muddle out the riddles of life within it. Missouri Breaks unfolds in a country that seems just at the peak of ripeness, ready to go to rot, thick with the flora of a virgin country and yet violated within minutes of its unveiling by a rather nasty hanging that seems a grim but nearly extraneous afterthought to a throng of onlookers gathered socially out in this green world, singing “Oh Susanna” and arguing politely about who ought to kick the horse out from underneath the condemned man. It’s a voracious landscape, even if Samuel Johnson does claim that a blade of grass is just a blade of grass.

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Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: Shoot

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

Guy starts his movie with loving closeups of a ramrod squeezing oil down a rifle bore and a hand stroking off the outer barrel, he’d better have either a sense of humor or a deep enough fetishistic commitment to justify the indulgence. Harvey Hart, a Canadian director who did several seasons of American TV and a couple of U.S. feature films in the mid-Sixties, apparently possesses neither, but he’s consistently displayed a predilection for hanging his camera in pointlessly odd places and cluttering up his foregrounds as sententiously as possible. Since Shoot is based on a premise at once pretentious and preposterous, he’s the last man I’d have nominated to save it—and whaddaya know, I’d have been right.

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Posted in: by Ken Eisler, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

by Ken Eisler

It just so happens that I was one of that lonely number who actually liked Mel Stuart’s One Is a Lonely Number some five years back. Couple of Sundays ago I caught up with Stuart’s children’s-pic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, made at about the same time, and I like this one even better. It was fun, too, being part of an audience this time (at a children’s matinee) which patently appreciated the strengths of Stuart’s style. Both One and Wonka are characterized by a peculiar blend of sentiment and acerbity. At times, the sentiment in One tipped over into sentimentality. It was the acerbity, according to report, that got out of hand in Stuart’s contemporaneous feature, I Love My … Wife, a vehicle for the too-busy Elliott Gould of that time. Willie Wonka, a few cloying patches apart, strikes an admirable balance, it seems to me. It’s Gene Wilder, at the top of his form, who makes this uneasy amalgam work, but Stuart must surely deserve some of the credit for setting off and perhaps controlling this actor’s talents. He got an exceptionally good performance from Trish van Devere in One,plus a hilarious character bit from Janet Leigh. Wilder, cast as chocolate factory owner Willie Wonka in this one, doesn’t appear until the movie is at least half over, but his star turn more than repays the long wait.

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Posted in: by Robert C. Cumbow, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: Robin and Marian

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

A lot of things work against Richard Lester’s new film Robin and Marian. In the first place, as two of England’s most treasured heroes, those ur-Communists Robin Hood and Little John, Lester has cast (horrors!) two rowdy Scots, Sean Connery and Nicol Williamson. In the second, he has allowed the film itself to take a back seat to the heavily flacked return to the screen of Audrey Hepburn. Further, he has settled for an always inappropriate and often downright bad film score from John Barry which threatens to sabotage some of the film’s best moments (one keeps wishing period music had been used). And, worst of all, he has accepted from James Goldman a selfconscious and often labored screenplay that, in attempting to capture the conflict between a man’s mortality and the timelessness of myth, is at best adequate, and at worst overwritten with an embarrassing sappiness (Marian’s final profession of love to Robin falls somewhere between Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s counting of the ways and Maria von Trapp’s enumeration of a few of her favorite things). In fact, Goldman’s screenplay bears some uncomfortable similarities to that other Goldman’s script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: the image of the fair-fighting hero debunked with a kick to the balls; two heroes in a hesitant jump from a high place (cf. “I can’t swim!” with “We might hurt ourselves!”); and the woman eternally fond of them both, but desperate to dissuade them from following the suicidal course of reckless adventurism.

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