Judge Ben Saylor always sees the glass as half-Fuller. And if Sam Fuller were alive, he'd kick Ben's butt for that awful pun.
What do a mopey outlaw, a would-be royal, and dinged-up headgear have in common?
The Criterion Collection's Eclipse label offers up the first three films of celebrated director Samuel Fuller. All three are low budget works that were made independently for Lippert Productions, Inc. While there is no doubt that these are beginning works, it is fascinating to chart Fuller's progression from the modest-but-promising I Shot Jesse James to the decent The Baron of Arizona to his breakout picture, The Steel Helmet. In these films it is easy to find harbingers of the director who would make such masterpieces as Pickup on South Street and The Big Red One.
Facts of the Case
I Shot Jesse James: Outlaw Robert Ford (John Ireland, All the King's Men), driven by the dual promise of exoneration and riches that will allow him to marry longtime sweetheart Cynthy (Barbara Britton, Bwana Devil), shoots his friend and leader Jesse James (Reed Hadley, Racket Squad) in the back as he adjusts a picture in his home. However, things don't go so well for Ford after the killing; the reward money is not what was promised. Moreover, Cynthy's feelings toward him cool considerably and another suitor named John Kelley (Preston Foster, Kansas City Confidential) gives Ford competition for her affections. A teenager shoots at him for the fame that would come from shooting the man who killed Jesse James. Throughout it all, Ford is haunted by guilt over shooting his friend.
The Baron of Arizona: In late 1800s America, enterprising schemer James Addison Reavis (Vincent Price, House of Wax) visits the home of Pepito Alvarez (Vladimir Sokoloff, Scarlet Street), informing him that the young girl under his care is actually descended from Spanish aristocrats who were given the land comprising the Arizona territory by the king of Spain. Reavis raises the girl and begins forging documents and records in order to establish her as the heir to Arizona. After spending many years abroad, Reavis returns home to find the girl, Sofia de Peralta (Ellen Drew, MY Favorite Spy), fully grown. He marries her and declares himself the Baron of Arizona, daring the United States government to prove otherwise. However, he doesn't count on John Griff (Reed Hadley), a handwriting expert who investigates Reavis's claim.
The Steel Helmet: During the Korean War, gruff Sergeant Zack (Gene Evans, The Rhinemann Exchange) narrowly escapes getting slaughtered by North Korean troops. He reluctantly befriends a South Korean child (William Chun), who he dubs "Short Round." The pair soon encounters a ragtag unit of soldiers assigned to establish an observation post at an abandoned Buddhist temple. The inexperienced Lieutenant Driscoll (Steve Brodie, The Caine Mutiny) asks the veteran Zack to help lead his men there safely, which he agrees to do (albeit very reluctantly). Once there, the soldiers face challenges both small (a bald private tries to re-grow his hair) and large (North Korean soldiers attacking the temple).
I Shot Jesse James is a modest first film. While it's not chock-a-block with Fuller trademarks like crackling dialogue and kinetic camerawork, there are still glimmers of what is to come.
The beginning of the film is audacious; Fuller quickly pans from a "wanted" poster of James to James himself, in the midst of a robbery. With this opening sequence, Fuller hits the ground running. The writer/director doesn't coddle his audience, and even gives them subtle and not-so-subtle harbingers of James's demise; he has James adjust a portrait several scenes before Ford shoots him (although Ford himself isn't in the scene). Also, in a scene where James is taking a bath, Ford draws a bead on his leader's exposed back, before deciding against shooting him. Even though the film is a Western, Fuller still manages to include some of his pulpy dialogue that is hardly realistic but is sure a hoot to hear, like Cynthy's question at the end of this exchange:
Cynthy: If you'd listened to me three years ago, we could have been married.
You're a good farmer.
Fuller allows the proceedings to get a tad maudlin with the Ford-Cynthy-Kelley love triangle, and these scenes are the film's least interesting moments. Fuller is on more solid ground when focusing on Ford. Ford, in this film, is fairly complex. On the one hand, he's clearly a bad man; he shoots his best friend in the back, and not only wrongfully accuses Kelley of theft but also threatens to kill him. On the other hand, one almost feels sorry for him; all he wants out of life is a fairytale ending for himself and Cynthy, but nothing turns out the way it's supposed to. One gets the sense that Ford has always gotten a raw deal; sometimes because he makes bad choices, sometimes because he's just that unlucky.
Fuller also makes sure we see Ford's conflict over killing his friend. Ford makes a lot of talk about how he doesn't regret doing the deed and that it doesn't bother him that he shot an unarmed man in the back, but his face tells otherwise. Just watch the scene when a wandering guitar player performs "The Ballad of Jesse James," not knowing he's singing to Ford. When Ford identifies himself, the musician stops and apologizes, but Ford makes him go on. Ireland's performance as Ford works well for the film; his face conveys the outlaw's inner turmoil very effectively, and Fuller gives the viewer plenty of close-ups to highlight this.
Ireland (who was also in the classic Red River), as was stated earlier, gives a solid performance in the film, managing to convey rage, frustration, and regret very well. Hadley comes off as too aristocratic and gentlemanly for the outlaw James; he feels out of place in his fancy suit as he studies getaway maps in a little cabin. Perhaps James really had a sophisticated air, but in this film, that trait stands in sharp contrast to the rugged quality of the other gang members. No one else in the cast is really of note except J. Edward Bromberg, who plays Cynthy's boss and friend, Harry Kane. Bromberg's performance supplies the film with some welcome humor. He also comes off as a wise man who wants what's best for Cynthy.
Stylistically, beyond the aforementioned pan and the close-ups of Ford, there isn't much to note in this film, although Fuller does move his camera a fair amount of the time.
The Baron of Arizona is probably the least successful film in this set, although it is by no means bad, especially considering it was only Fuller's second time out as a director. As was written in the liner notes to this disc, the newspaperman in Fuller was undoubtedly drawn to the real-life story of Reavis. Fuller uses newspaper front pages in both James and Baron. In the latter, note how he places the story about Reavis's conviction at the very top of the front page, but relegates the notice about his release from prison at the very bottom of the page in a tiny item. As a journalist myself, I appreciated this little detail.
Visually, the film looks great, as Fuller was able to obtain the services of revered cinematographer James Wong Howe; although, as in James, there isn't a lot in the way of exciting camerawork. But every composition is skillfully lit, from the bright outdoor scenes for the Arizona exteriors to the interiors of the darkened monastery where Reavis sneaks around to get the records book he needs to alter.
According to Eclipse's liner notes, Reavis was one of Price's favorite roles. He certainly does seem to be having fun as the smooth swindler who has no problem duping a young woman (and eventually a grown adult) into thinking she's royalty. He uses several other women to further his pursuits, and even poses as a monk for several years in order to gain access to a crucial records book. Reavis does just about everything but murder to achieve his goals. Price is perfectly cast in the role, and his performance is commanding without being overbearing. Price's Reavis is cocky, deceitful and callous, although Fuller takes care not to make him into a completely unsympathetic monster. He goes a little too far that way, however, by making Reavis repent at the very end and confess his misdeeds.
As for the rest of the cast, Hadley is much better here than in James; he makes for a good adversary for Reavis, and I wish he had been given more screen time. Drew doesn't work at all as the Baroness, and I found it somewhat ridiculous that she continued loving him even after learning that she'd been living a lie nearly all of her life and that Reavis only married her as part of his plan. It is this love that causes Reavis's change of heart. This makes the conclusion awfully mushy, especially for a Fuller film. Other parts of the movie are also silly, like an over-the-top musical cue that plays when Reavis learns there's another record to forge that he had not counted on, as well as some awkward scenes involving a Gypsy woman Reavis seduces to aid in his scheme.
Fuller also gives Baron a poor opening, with the newly minted governor of Arizona, Griff and other important men sitting around, smoking and musing to themselves. Eventually, Griff begins narrating Reavis's tale. However, this sequence is dragged out way too long, and begins with a curiously distant, static shot of the men that is not only uninteresting but makes it all but impossible to figure out who is speaking. My last complaint with the film is that Price doesn't seem to age a day, even as Sofia goes from a little girl to full-grown adult. Even a little graying of the hair would have gone a long way.
While it is easy to see why Fuller might have been drawn to the material, of all the films of his I've seen, this one is the oddest fit with his body of work, and certainly one of his lesser efforts.
The Steel Helmet is by far the strongest film in the set. This is the one where Fuller really comes into his own as a director, and is also where he begins to examine some of what would become his most common themes: war and racism.
The happy, redemptive ending of Baron is left far behind in Helmet, the first movie to address the Korean War. It opens with Zack wriggling on the ground, trying to untie his hands. The sole survivor of a North Korean attack, Zack is cut loose by a young South Korean child, who Zack almost immediately refers to as a g***. He is corrected by the boy, who Zack dubs "Short Round." This bluntness is trademark Fuller, a characteristic he would retain throughout his career.
Helmet is steeped in the harsh realities of war. An American soldier who goes to retrieve a fallen comrade's dog tags is blown up in a booby trap; details like that are undoubtedly taken from Fuller's own combat experience (something also noted by Eclipse in this package). Similar details would crop up again in his films, particularly The Big Red One. Fuller is also clearly concerned about the effect of war on children, personified by Short Round in Helmet and several unnamed children in One.
Fuller doesn't pull any punches, and he's not afraid to make the American soldiers look bad. When a North Korean prisoner of war says something nasty, Zack retaliates by shooting him several times. An earlier scene with the POW has the captive reminding a Japanese-American soldier of the U.S. government's interment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. This particular scene, according to Eclipse's liner notes, got Fuller in trouble with the federal government.
Fuller's treatment of racism undoubtedly ruffled some feathers too. In addition to the aforementioned Zack-Short Round exchange, Zack tells the boy to "eat rice" when he wants him to get down. He refers to a Japanese-American soldier as "Buddha-Head."
There is also the character of Corporal Thompson (James Edwards), a black medic, whose character is strongly written and acted. Thompson is a tough soldier, just like his comrades, and has gone through the same experiences they have. He is subservient to no one, and at one point vehemently challenges another soldier's theory for how Thompson ended up being the only survivor of his previous unit. When asked why he fights for America when he can't even sit where he wants to on a bus back home, he gives a very interesting response. Fuller approached this character very sensitively and progressively, especially considering this film was made in the early 1950s.
This film is also a stylistic improvement over the other two films in this set. Although limited by a $100,000 budget and shooting schedule of 10 days (with exterior shooting at L.A.'s Griffith Park), Fuller really mounts an impressive, small-scale war film. The film's opening is striking: Following a brief shot of some soldiers trudging through a gateway, Fuller cuts to a close-up of Zack's helmet. A whistling shell is heard and explodes as the title appears on screen. Throughout the film, Fuller often keeps the camera low to the ground, just as the soldiers are often pinned down by enemy fire. He keeps the camera moving in most of his scenes, and the shots, like one near the end where Fuller moves the camera across a row of North Korean soldiers firing at the Americans, are very effective.
Evans is great as the no-nonsense Zack. He's a hard case most of the time, but when he does let feelings seep through that bearded, squinty exterior, it feels genuine. There's a great scene where Zack reacts to a loss, and walks right up to the camera, head down, trying to hide his tears from the men. Fuller also does an excellent job portraying his and Short Round's relationship; like Zack's crying scene, it's believable without feeling too sentimental. Chun is fine as Short Round, and Edwards was mentioned earlier. The rest of the cast is fairly anonymous, but look for Richard Monahan (a.k.a. Private Baldy) to appear—along with Evans—in Fuller's follow-up to Helmet, another Korean War movie, Fixed Bayonets!
There are still a couple hiccups here. A scene where a North Korean soldier knifes an American in the back is so drawn out it almost seems like a parody—which it's not supposed to be. The ending, where a handful of American soldiers manage to kill what appears to be several dozen North Koreans, stretches believability.
Those minor quibbles aside, this is the standout film in the set. Eclipse's liner notes say that this movie was a box-office hit, and punched Fuller's ticket to big studio filmmaking. Helmet and Bayonets! would make a good double bill, given their considerable differences. It's a little disheartening to see some of Fuller's edge dulled in the latter (not surprising, given he was now working for 20th Century Fox and not a Poverty Row studio). With Bayonets!, he appears to have more of a budget, and was able to get Richard Basehart in the cast, but it still feels like a more generic war movie than Helmet.
All three films have solid transfers; each has instances of scratches or some kind of damage, but overall, this is probably as good as we're ever going to get these movies. The sound was fine on all three, or at least as fine as can be expected from low-budget movies from the late 1940s/early 1950s.
As this is the Eclipse series, there are no extras on this set. The discs each have their own slim plastic case, all of which fit inside a cardboard sleeve. On the inside of each case, liner notes are printed on the back of the label. They are very informative and help compensate for the lack of the usual great essays found in Criterion releases.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Beyond the minor issues discussed in the evidence, it's hard to find fault with this set.
The First Films of Samuel Fuller is just that; beginner's work from an enormously talented filmmaker. For fans of Fuller, this set is a no-brainer; for those unfamiliar with the man's work, it might be advisable to watch one of his greater works, like Pickup on South Street, Forty Guns, or The Big Red One, before picking up this set.
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Scales of Justice, I Shot Jesse James
Perp Profile, I Shot Jesse James
Distinguishing Marks, I Shot Jesse James
Scales of Justice, The Baron Of Arizona
Perp Profile, The Baron Of Arizona
Distinguishing Marks, The Baron Of Arizona
Scales of Justice, The Steel Helmet
Perp Profile, The Steel Helmet
Distinguishing Marks, The Steel Helmet
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