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Tag Archives: Samuel Fuller

The Steel Helmet (Feb. 2, 1951)

The Steel Helmet
The Steel Helmet (1951)
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Lippert Pictures

This movie is a good example of why placing films in their proper context is so important. When I first watched Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (I rented it on VHS many, many years ago) I couldn’t get past the cheapness of the production or the amateurish acting by some of the cast. The exteriors are clearly filmed in California and the interiors are a combination of cheap sets and obvious soundstages. I don’t even think I finished watching it.

Flash forward to right now. For the last several years I’ve immersed myself in the films of the 1940s, and now that I have a really good sense of how war movies told their stories during and right after World War II, I can confidently say that The Steel Helmet is a groundbreaking film. Not only was it the first film made about the Korean War, but its depiction of the toll of combat is raw and uncompromising.

It also features an incredible lead performance by Gene Evans as Sgt. Zack. Evans was an actor who’d appeared in bit parts in a bunch of B-movies prior to this, but had never had a lead role before. (He get an “introducing” line in the credits.) Incidentally, one of those B-movies was Armored Car Robbery (1950), which also featured Steve Brodie, who plays the idealistic and naive Lt. Driscoll in The Steel Helmet.

Brodie and Evans

In The Steel Helmet, Fuller casually tackles huge issues like the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and racial segregation back home, all with his uniquely blunt sensibility. He throws in oddball characters like a soldier with alopecia who can’t stop applying hair tonic to his bald head, depicts the enormous statue at the heart of a Buddhist temple with a reverence that borders on frightening, and portrays combat as an unending series of horrible events that will continue long after the movie’s runtime is over.

At his heart, Samuel Fuller was always a pulp novelist. His writing was often hackneyed and he assembled his films from crude materials. At first glance, his movies look no different from countless other low-budget productions. But once you really start to investigate the man’s work, you see that his films overflowed with ideas that most other filmmakers wouldn’t dare touch, and whatever their shortcomings, they have an impact that most Hollywood big-budget productions never will.

The Steel Helmet made almost 20 times its original budget at the box office, and opened doors in Hollywood for Fuller. His next film was another movie about the Korean War, Fixed Bayonets! (1951), made for 20th Century-Fox.

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The Baron of Arizona (March 1, 1950)

The Baron of Arizona
The Baron of Arizona (1950)
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Lippert Pictures

Samuel Fuller didn’t suffer from sophomore slump when he directed his second picture, The Baron of Arizona. It’s every bit as good as his first film, I Shot Jesse James (1949), and boasts a great lead performance by Vincent Price and gorgeous black & white cinematography by James Wong Howe.

James Wong Howe is arguably the greatest cinematographer of black & white films of all time, and Fuller was lucky to get him at a low rate. The Baron of Arizona had a small budget and was shot in just 15 days, but it looks like an “A” picture. The cinematography is a big part of this, and Price’s pitch-perfect performance as a louche swindler is another.

Price plays James Addison Reavis, a real historical figure who attempted to defraud the U.S. government by forging land grants in order to take possession of more than 18,000 square miles of the central Arizona Territory and the western New Mexico Territory in the late 19th century.

Vincent Price is best known today as a horror icon, so many people forget that he wasn’t always associated with the horror genre. I always enjoy watching his early performances (and listening to him play “The Saint” on the radio), and the character he plays in The Baron of Arizona is perfectly suited to his talents.

Price was an actor who always seemed to be chuckling at a joke that none of the other actors in the film were privy to, and that quality works perfectly for the character he plays in The Baron of Arizona.

With just two films as a director under his belt, Samuel Fuller was already establishing himself as a filmmaker who could make entertaining, fast-moving, low-budget pictures that had hidden depths. Just like I Shot Jesse James, The Baron of Arizona uses the tropes of the western to turn an American myth on its head.

The Baron of Arizona takes the classic American idea of the “self-made man” and draws it out to its most audacious and unethical conclusion.

Vincent Price

I Shot Jesse James (Feb. 26, 1949)

I Shot Jesse James
I Shot Jesse James (1949)
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Lippert Pictures / Screen Guild Productions

If a story doesn’t give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes, throw it in the goddamn garbage. —Samuel Fuller

Maverick filmmaker Samuel Fuller was shopping scripts around Hollywood when he met producer Robert L. Lippert. Lippert admired Fuller’s 1944 pulp novel The Dark Page and gave Fuller his first crack at directing.

The result was I Shot Jesse James, a low-budget but brilliant revisionist western starring John Ireland as Robert Ford, the member of the James gang who killed Jesse James and collected the bounty.

Fuller had a flair for the dramatic, and when shooting began on I Shot Jesse James, he discharged a round from his Colt .45 into the air instead of yelling “Action.”

Fuller made three films for Lippert, I Shot Jesse James, The Baron of Arizona (1950), and The Steel Helmet (1951). The budgets were tiny and the shooting schedules tight, but Lippert gave Fuller the freedom to make exactly the kind of movies he wanted.

Fuller wrote the script for I Shot Jesse James, and based it on an article by Homer Croy in American Weekly magazine. It’s a sympathetic portrayal of a roundly reviled historical figure (even if you have no sympathy for Jesse James, it’s hard not to instinctively dislike a man who shot his unarmed friend in the back for reward money).

John Ireland

John Ireland plays Robert Ford as a lovesick man who’s tired of life on the run and just wants to marry his girl, the beautiful actress Cynthy Waters (Barbara Britton). He’s tempted by Missouri Governor Thomas Theodore Crittenden’s offer of amnesty for any member of the gang who turns in Jesse James (Reed Hadley), dead or alive.

Fuller depicts the relationship between Jesse and Bob Ford as deeply homoerotic, although the stolid Hadley doesn’t seem aware of anything strange about sitting in a bathtub and asking his friend to scrub his back for him. It’s the tortured Ireland who appears to long for Jesse, and perhaps by killing him he’s killing a part of himself that he despises.

Nothing good comes from it, of course. When Ford tells Cynthy that his killing of Jesse James was legal, she responds in horror, “It was murder.”

He walks through the rest of the picture with a haunted, desperate look on his face. He appears in a stage show in which he reenacts the killing of Jesse James, he dodges bullets from glory-hungry gunmen, and he desperately tries to repair his relationship with Cynthy.

This film explores a lot of the same territory as Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), which starred Casey Affleck as Robert Ford and Brad Pitt as Jesse James. The most poignant parts of both films show Ford facing his own terrible legacy, such as when he appears in the onstage reenactment or confronts a troubadour who sings hymns to his cowardice.

I Shot Jesse James has stock music and its minuscule budget is pretty obvious, but it’s a great portrait of a complicated historical figure. Samuel Fuller would go on to have a long and iconoclastic career, and while I Shot Jesse James is never numbered among his greatest works, it’s his opening salvo as a director, and it’s a powerful one.

Shockproof (Jan. 25, 1949)

Shockproof
Shockproof (1949)
Directed by Douglas Sirk
Columbia Pictures

This review originally appeared earlier this year at Film Noir of the Week.

Real-life married couples can have strange chemistry when they appear together in a film. For every Bogie and Bacall there’s also a Cruise and Kidman. Just because two actors want to tie the knot and spend the rest of their lives together (or in most cases, several years of their lives together before separating), it doesn’t mean their real-life chemistry will translate to the big screen.

When Patricia Knight and Cornel Wilde starred together in Shockproof, they had been married 11 years. It was the only film they made together.

In Shockproof, Knight plays a woman named Jenny Marsh who has been paroled after a five-year stint in prison for murder. She committed the murder to protect her lover, Harry Wesson (John Baragrey). Jenny grew up in poverty, neglected by her parents, and the smooth-talking, wealthy Wesson swept her off her feet. The problem is, he’s a criminal through and through.

Jenny’s parole officer, Griff Marat (Wilde), believes that all she needs is to spend time with normal, decent people, and she’ll straighten out her life. Griff is a “hands-on” parole officer, and he nominates himself (along with his mother and adorable kid brother) as the most suitable decent people for Jenny to spend time with, and his romantic notions carry the force of the law.

As an actor, Wilde’s line delivery was never as impressive as his physique, but in his scenes with Knight he still comes off as the more seasoned thespian. Knight’s face is lovely in an angular sort of way, but her performance is the stuff of high camp. Whatever sparks existed in their real-life relationship, they’re hard to see in Shockproof.

Knight and Wilde

Shockproof was also an intersection for two men whose best work lay ahead of them: Samuel Fuller and Douglas Sirk.

Sirk, the director of Shockproof, was born in Europe and made several films there before immigrating to the U.S. in 1941. He would go on to direct some of the most acclaimed American films of all time — the lush Technicolor melodramas Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), and Imitation of Life (1959) (which, to be technically nitpicky, was filmed in Eastmancolor, not Technicolor).

At the time he made Shockproof, however, his Hollywood filmography amounted to a number of well-made potboilers that had a gloss of European sophistication; Hitler’s Madman (1943), Summer Storm (1944), A Scandal in Paris (1946), The Strange Woman (1946) (The Strange Woman was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, but Sirk also did some uncredited directorial work on the film), Lured (1947), and Sleep, My Love (1948).

Samuel Fuller, the screenwriter of Shockproof, was a newspaperman (he got his start as a copy boy at the age of 12), a pulp novelist, a screenwriter, a ghostwriter, and a veteran of World War II who had served with the 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division. Fuller would go on to become an acclaimed screenwriter and director of cult films like Pickup on South Street (1953), Shock Corridor (1963), and The Naked Kiss (1964).

Shockproof is the only collaboration between Sirk and Fuller. Fuller’s screenplay was originally called The Lovers, and it told the story of a man and woman doomed by their love for each other.

Knight and Wilde

Fuller’s screenplay for The Lovers was the film Sirk signed on to make, but it wasn’t the film that ended up being released into theaters. Co-producer Helen Deutsch rewrote the script and tacked on a ridiculous happy ending. (If you’re a connoisseur of trashy cinema, Deutsch’s best work also lay ahead of her, since her last film credit was the screenplay for Valley of the Dolls, which she co-wrote with Dorothy Kingsley.)

Deutsch’s rewrite makes the entire film feel pointless, since it undercuts all of the ethical lines that Griff crosses because of his love for Jenny. It also neuters any sense of doom or tragedy that was present in Fuller’s original script. Even the change of title from The Lovers to Shockproof feels wrong. The term “The Lovers” recurs throughout the film, and it’s what Griff and Jenny are dubbed by the tabloid press. What does “Shockproof” even mean in the context of this film?

Even though Sirk and Fuller never met, Shockproof has Fuller’s fingerprints all over it. It’s a choppy, uneven film, but like everything that Fuller wrote, there’s a nasty passion always bubbling beneath the surface. It doesn’t matter so much why people are doing things, just that they’re doing them and going for broke, pedal to the metal, damned and proud, racing toward oblivion.

Of course, to pull this off successfully a film needs to have actors who are utterly convincing no matter how contrived their actions are, as well as a script that has the courage of its convictions. Unfortunately, Shockproof has neither of these things, and while there is much that’s good about it, ultimately it’s an interesting failure.