Judge Ben Saylor is changing his name to Griff.
"Film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word…emotion."— Samuel Fuller, Pierrot Le Fou
The films of writer-director Samuel Fuller have been enjoying a home video renaissance of late; the Criterion Collection has released four of his films on DVD as of 2009 (seven if you count the Eclipse series The First Films of Samuel Fuller), and Sony and the Film Foundation have teamed up to introduce two more of Fuller's films to the format, The Crimson Kimono and Underworld U.S.A.. The set in which they are included, The Samuel Fuller Collection, also boasts five films that Fuller did not direct but was involved with to one degree or another.
Facts of the Case
It Happened in Hollywood: Silent film cowboy actor Tim Bart (Richard Dix) is the hero of many a youngster. But with the arrival of talkies and a subsequent focus on "indoor pictures," Bart finds that he is no longer wanted in Hollywood. Not wanting to disappoint his young fans by playing a gangster, Bart decides to pull up stakes. Before he can leave, however, Billy (Bill Burrud), a young boy Bart met during a personal appearance, turns up on his doorstep. Unwilling to let the boy down, Bart stays on and, with the help of his loyal co-star Gloria Gay (Fay Wray, King Kong), turns his life around.
Adventure in Sahara: Pilot Jim Wilson (Paul Kelly) joins the French Foreign Legion, not out of a sense of adventure or duty, but to get revenge on the man he holds responsible for his brother's death: Captain Savatt (C. Henry Gordon), the draconian commander of the Agadez outpost in the Sahara desert. Wilson leads a mutiny against Savatt and drives him out of Agadez, only to find that his troubles are just beginning.
Power of the Press: When small town newspaper editor Ulysses Bradford (Guy Kibbee) publishes a withering editorial about the journalistic practices of the New York Gazette, John Cleveland Carter, publisher of the Gazette, has an attack of conscience. But before he can make a public mea culpa, Carter is gunned down by henchmen of the scheming Rankin (Otto Kruger, Murder, My Sweet), who wants to use the Gazette for his own nefarious agenda. In his will, Carter leaves his share of the paper to Bradford. But can the small town editor, with the help of Carter's loyal secretary Eddie (Gloria Dickson), put a stop to Rankin's truth-smashing tactics?
Shockproof: Jenny Marsh (Patricia Knight) has just been paroled after serving five years on a murder rap. Griff Marat (Cornel Wilde, The Greatest Show on Earth), her tough-as-nails parole officer, orders Jenny stay away from troublemaker old flame Harry Wesson (John Baragrey). But Harry isn't easily deterred, and the situation becomes even more complicated when Griff begins to fall for his parolee.
Scandal Sheet: New York Express Executive Editor Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford, All the King's Men) runs his newspaper with few scruples, aided and abetted by ruthless ace reporter Steve McLeary (John Derek, Knock on Any Door). But when Chapman accidentally kills the wife he abandoned years ago, he finds himself in an awkward and increasingly dangerous position as McLeary and features writer Julie Allison (Donna Reed, From Here to Eternity) dig deeper and deeper into the story.
The Crimson Kimono: A burlesque dancer is shot dead in the middle of a Los Angeles street. In the course of investigating the murder, LAPD detectives Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett) and Joe Kojaku (James Shigata) meet Christine Downs (Victoria Shaw), a beautiful art student. When both detectives begin to fall for Chris, the ensuing love triangle threatens to tear their long-running friendship apart.
Underworld U.S.A.: Safecracker Tolly Devlin (Cliff Robertson) witnessed the murder of his father at age 14. Since then, he's desired nothing but revenge on the four mob bosses who participated in the slaying. Quickly ingratiating himself with his targets, Tolly begins a dangerous game of manipulation and double crosses. The only thing Tolly didn't plan on was Cuddles (Dolores Dorn), a woman he meets and falls for during his quest for vengeance.
The Samuel Fuller Collection begins with a pair of trifles in It Happened in Hollywood and Adventure in Sahara. Fuller shares writing credit (the second of his career) with Myles Connolly and Harvey Fergusson for Hollywood, a mildly enjoyable if very slight film. Clocking in at 67 minutes, Hollywood uses the same period on Hollywood history that Singin' in the Rain would cover with so much success years later. One of the film's more memorable moments is a party thrown by Bart that is attended by doubles for many of Hollywood's biggest stars. The look- and sound-alikes of Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields and Mae West are very fun to watch, and although the sequence runs a little long, it's still the highlight of the film. In Hollywood's closing sequence, life imitates art when Bart goes to a bank with the intention of robbing it. The bank is the same one where Bart filmed a holdup scene for the gangster picture on which he walked out. Although the resolution of this scene (and the film as a whole) is corny and ridiculous, it's also kind of fun in a daffy, surreal way.
Fuller has story credit on Adventure in Sahara (as "Sam" Fuller), which is basically Mutiny on the Bounty with sand standing in for water. Running four minutes shy of an hour, Sahara has little to offer in the way of surprises for the viewer, and only picks up momentum during the film's allotment of battle sequences. That's hardly enough to redeem this forgettable B-movie, which would probably not have received a DVD release without Fuller's name in the credits.
The set becomes more interesting with Power of the Press, which boasts another Sam Fuller story credit. Given Fuller's own training as a journalist, it's not surprising to see a work like Power of the Press in his filmography. What makes Power of the Press distinctive, however, isn't its journalistic milieu so much as it is the film's wartime setting; Robert Hardy Andrews' screenplay is anti-isolationist propaganda all the way. References to Nazism abound, and a key part of the plot concerns a man falsely accused of hoarding supplies. The ending also features a stirring and progressive speech by Bradford on the importance of freedom and equality.
Power of the Press also has a strong female protagonist in Edwina "Eddie" Stephens. Although it's Bradford who assumes control of the paper in the end and makes the big closing speech, Eddie is the real hero of the film. It is Eddie who persuades Bradford to take over the paper, and her attacks on Griff Thompson (Lee Tracy), a Gazette editor who goes along with Rankin's schemes, are bold and impassioned. One gets the sense that the paper would be a lot better off if she were in charge; Bradford has good intentions, but he doesn't have Eddie's drive.
Fuller shares screenplay credit with Helen Deutsch for Shockproof, which pairs Fuller with renowned filmmaker Douglas Sirk (Magnificent Obsession). The result is a well shot and entertaining melodrama that shoots itself in the foot with a ridiculous (penned by Deutsch, not Fuller) ending in which Griff and Jenny, on the lam because Jenny shot Harry, decide to turn themselves in. Not only does Harry (who survives the shooting) refuse to press charges against Jenny, but the police don't pursue Jenny for jumping parole because she was in the "custody" of her parole officer—whom she illegally married—the entire time.
Still, Wilde turns in a solid lead performance as Griff (a frequent character name in Fuller films), as does then-wife Patricia Knight as Jenny. There's also some fun dialogue like this early exchange between Griff and Jenny:
Griff: Well, you see, I'm the teacher. You're the pupil.
Another doozy comes when Jenny gets snippy with a doctor: "Put that in your test tube, doc, and what do you see?" Moments like these go a long way toward making Shockproof worth watching, cop-out ending notwithstanding.
Scandal Sheet is based on a Fuller novel called The Dark Page. (Ted Sherdeman, Eugene Ling and James Poe wrote the screenplay.) Like Power of the Press, the plot involves questionable newspaper ethics, ethics that are (again, like Power of the Press) questioned the most stridently by a strong female character; in Scandal Sheet's case, Donna Reed's Julie Allison.
The similarities between the films pretty much end there. Scandal Sheet, under the direction of Phil Karlson (The Silencers), is a more accomplished and absorbing work than Press. The film's 82-minute runtime maintains interest not only with Chapman working desperately to cover up his crimes, but also with the interplay between McLeary and Allison. Without tipping the movie into a romantic melodrama, the filmmakers give the relationship between the reporters just enough of a spark (or the potential for one) to keep things interesting. Their relationship also creates a nice moral/ethical dilemma for McLeary, who loves Chapman and his way of doing business but at the same time realizes that Julie's anti-Chapman tirades have some truth to them. This comes to a head at the end of the film, when McLeary and Julie learn the truth about Chapman. The editor, holding a gun on McLeary, relents, saying, "We're just too close, kid." It's a great moment for the characters and a terrific closer for the film.
The Crimson Kimono immediately draws the viewer in with its static title sequence depicting a painting of a kimono-clad woman. In the sequence that follows, a stripper is gunned down in the middle of a Los Angeles street. After watching the other films in this set and then viewing this sequence, it's not hard to tell that this is the work of Fuller-as-director.
The story that ensues is not so much a murder mystery or police procedural than it is a relationship drama between Chris and the detectives and the detectives themselves. Charlie and Joe work together and live together. Both are veterans, and Joe even gave blood to save Charlie. But when Chris comes into the picture, Joe's feelings for her trigger a powerful self-loathing that makes him lash out at Charlie and push Chris away.
Fuller's script has the solving of the murder coincide directly with Joe coming to terms with his identity as a Japanese-American, which is conveyed by some rather on-the-nose dialogue from the murderer as she dies in Joe's arms. Better is the line Charlie says to Joe during their final exchange of the film: "I'm just as glad as you are that you finally wrapped up your own case."
The Crimson Kimono is a great-looking film; Fuller's mobile camera records long takes instead of constantly cutting back and forth between characters, and the action is also well done. The film is also very progressive racially; Fuller never looks down on any of the characters, and instead approaches the film's material and characters in a powerful but sensitive fashion.
Sony saves the best for last (well, and chronologically speaking it works out that way) in Underworld U.S.A., which has become one of my absolute favorite Fuller works. As with The Crimson Kimono, the picture has a grabber of an opener as an teenaged Tolly (David Kent) rolls a drunk, runs from a beat cop and promptly gets robbed of his ill-gotten gains. For the sequence, Fuller repeatedly cuts between the action and an extreme closeup of young Tolly's eyes, and you know you're in for a white-knuckle crime film.
The rest of Underworld U.S.A does not disappoint. Buoyed by an insolent and deceptively cocky lead performance from Cliff Robertson, Fuller allows the revenge plot to unfold at a measured pace that makes time for action sequences (including one particularly disturbing scene in which a hood runs down a little girl) and character work with Tolly and Cuddles as well as Sandy (Beatrice Kay), ex-bar owner and surrogate mother for Tolly. (The maternal figure appears often in Fuller films; the character of Mac in The Crimson Kimono is a good example.) Sandy knows what's best for Tolly, and it's not getting revenge on a bunch of gangsters. The smitten Cuddles similarly tries (and succeeds, albeit too late) to get through to Tolly, despite boozily-and rightly-intuiting that their fates won't be happy ones.
Like The Crimson Kimono, Underworld U.S.A. boasts crackling camerawork and hardnosed lines of dialogue such as, "You still smell cop to me," and "If I'm gonna have my head blown off, it's not gonna be because you're on a revenge kick." In short, this and The Crimson Kimono are the main events in this set.
The technical presentation of the films in The Samuel Fuller Collection is quite good, especially considering that the youngest film in the set is nearly 50 years old. None of the transfers has perfect sound and image, but each is good enough that there's really no need to break down the set one by one. I will say that there is an appreciable jump in quality with the Underworld U.S.A. disc.
For extras, Sony has included a handful of featurettes. The first, "Samuel Fuller's Search for Truth with Tim Robbins," is a 7-minute interview with Robbins that is packaged with Power of the Press. Although clips from that film are shown throughout, Robbins never mentions it by name and doesn't seem to be referring to that film specifically. His remarks about Fuller are interesting, but I think Sony was kind of reaching when they interspersed so much footage of Power of the Press into this featurette.
The biggest extra can be found on the Scandal Sheet: a featurette called "Samuel Fuller Storyteller." Running 24 minutes, the doc has interviews with filmmakers Wim Wenders (who cast Fuller in several of his films), Tim Robbins, Martin Scorsese, and Curtis Hanson, along with Fuller's widow Christa and daughter Samantha. The participants share some fascinating insights (Christa Fuller remarks that her husband always wanted to make a comedy), but this featurette could hardly be considered comprehensive; I think the only non-box set title that is mentioned here is The Big Red One.
On The Crimson Kimono, a nine-minute featurette called "The Culture of The Crimson Kimono" is included. In it, writer-director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), who collaborated with Fuller on the latter's White Dog, covers a surprising number of subjects considering the featurette's short length, making this extra well worth watching.
For Underworld U.S.A., a disappointingly short (about five minutes) featurette with Martin Scorsese is included. Scorsese clearly knows what he's talking about, and it's shame his remarks are so brief. It's also a shame that what is by far the best film in the set gets such short shrift on extras.
Of the seven movies here, only The Crimson Kimono and Underworld U.S.A. are essential and, by themselves, they're almost worth the price of the set. Fans of Samuel Fuller will no doubt appreciate the inclusion of so much of the filmmaker's early work, but honestly, I doubt I'll be revisiting the other five films in this very often (if ever). This set merits an easy rental recommendation, but I would say a buy depends on your level of interest in Fuller.
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Scales of Justice, It Happened In Hollywood
Perp Profile, It Happened In Hollywood
Distinguishing Marks, It Happened In Hollywood
Scales of Justice, Adventure In Sahara
Perp Profile, Adventure In Sahara
Distinguishing Marks, Adventure In Sahara
Scales of Justice, Power Of The Press
Perp Profile, Power Of The Press
Distinguishing Marks, Power Of The Press
Scales of Justice, Shockproof
Perp Profile, Shockproof
Distinguishing Marks, Shockproof
Scales of Justice, Scandal Sheet
Perp Profile, Scandal Sheet
Distinguishing Marks, Scandal Sheet
Scales of Justice, The Crimson Kimono
Perp Profile, The Crimson Kimono
Distinguishing Marks, The Crimson Kimono
Scales of Justice, Underworld U.S.A.
Perp Profile, Underworld U.S.A.
Distinguishing Marks, Underworld U.S.A.
• IMDb: It Happened in Hollywood
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