Writing and Directing
Hats Off (1936) marked Fuller's first credit as a screenwriter. He wrote many screenplays throughout his career, such as Gangs of the Waterfront in 1945. He was unimpressed with Douglas Sirk's direction of his Shockproof screenplay, and he made the jump to writer/director after being asked to write three films by independent producer Robert Lippert. Fuller agreed to write them if he would be allowed to direct them as well, with no extra fee. Lippert agreed. Fuller's first film under this arrangement was I Shot Jesse James (1949) followed by The Baron of Arizona with Vincent Price.
Fuller's third film, The Steel Helmet, established him as a major force. One of the first films about the Korean War, he wrote it based on tales from returning Korean veterans and his own World War II experiences. The film was attacked by reporter Victor Riesel for being, as Riesel saw it, "pro-Communist" and "anti-American." Critic Westford Pedravy alleged that Fuller was secretly financed by "the Reds." Fuller had a major argument with the U.S. Army, which provided stock footage for the film. When army officials objected to Fuller's American characters executing a prisoner of war, Fuller replied he had seen it done during his own military service. A compromise was reached when the Lieutenant threatens the Sergeant with a court martial.
After the success of The Steel Helmet, Fuller was sought out by the major studios. He asked each of them what they did with the profits from their films. All gave him advice on tax shelters, except for Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century-Fox, who replied, "We make better movies," the answer Fuller was seeking. Zanuck signed Fuller for a contract for seven films, the first being another Korean War film, Fixed Bayonets!, in order to head off other studio competition copying The Steel Helmet. The U.S. Army assigned Medal of Honor recipient Raymond Harvey as Fuller's technical advisor.
The proposed seventh film, Tigrero, based on a book by Sasha Siemel, is the subject of a 1994 documentary by Mika Kaurismäki, Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made, that featured Fuller and Jim Jarmusch visiting the proposed Amazon locations of the film. Film Fuller shot on that location at the time was featured in his Shock Corridor.
Fuller's favorite film was Park Row, a story of American journalism. Zanuck had wanted to adapt it into a musical but Fuller refused. Instead, he started his own production company, with his profits to make the film on his own. Park Row was a labor of love and served as a tribute to the journalists he knew as a newsboy. His flourishes of style on a very low budget led many critics to call the film Fuller's version of Citizen Kane.
Fuller followed this with Pickup on South Street (1953), a film noir starring Richard Widmark, which became one of his best-known films. Other films Fuller directed in the 1950s include House of Bamboo, Forty Guns and China Gate, which led to protests from the French government and a friendship with writer Romain Gary. After leaving Fox, Fuller made Run of the Arrow, Verboten!, and Merrill's Marauders. In 1959, he wrote and directed The Crimson Kimono.
Fuller's films throughout the 1950s and early 1960s generally were lower-budget genre movies that explored controversial subjects. Shock Corridor (1963) is set in a psychiatric hospital, while The Naked Kiss (1964) features a prostitute attempting to change her life by working in a pediatric ward.
Between 1967 and 1980, Fuller directed only two films, the Mexican-produced Shark (1969) and Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (1972), which featured his wife Christa Lang. Fuller asked the Directors Guild to remove his name from the credits of Shark. He returned in 1980 with the epic The Big Red One, the semi-autobiographical story of a platoon of soldiers and their harrowing experiences during World War II. The film won critical praise but failed at the box office.
"Shelve the film without letting anyone see it? I was dumbfounded. It’s difficult to express the hurt of having a finished film locked away in a vault, never to be screened for an audience. It’s like someone putting your newborn baby in a goddamned maximum-security prison forever ... Moving to France for a while would alleviate some of the pain and doubt that I had to live with because of White Dog."—White Dog: Sam Fuller Unmuzzled, Samuel Fuller, as quoted by J. Hoberman, Criterion Collection
In 1981, he was selected to direct the film White Dog, based on a novel by Romain Gary. The controversial film depicts the struggle of a black dog trainer trying to de-program a "white dog," a stray that was programmed to viciously attack any black person. He readily agreed to work on the film, having focused much of his career on racial issues. Already familiar with the novel and with the concept of "white dogs," he was tasked with "reconceptualizing" the film to have the conflict depicted in the book occur within the dog rather than the people. He used the film as a platform to deliver an anti-racial message through the film's examination of the question of whether racism is a treatable problem or an incurable disease.
During filming, Paramount Pictures grew increasingly concerned that the film would offend African-American viewers and brought in two consultants to review the work and offer their approval on the way black characters were depicted. One felt the film had no racist connotations, while the other, Willis Edwards, vice president of the Hollywood NAACP chapter, felt the film was inflammatory and should never have been made. The two men provided a write-up of their views for the studio executives, which were passed to producer Jon Davison along with warnings that the studio was afraid the film would be boycotted. Fuller was not told of these discussions nor given the notes until two weeks before filming was slated to conclude. Known for being a staunch integrationist and for his regularly giving black actors non-stereotypical roles, Fuller was furious, finding the studio's actions insulting. He reportedly had both representatives banned from the set afterwards, though he did integrate some of the suggested changes into the film. After the film's completion Paramount refused to release it, declaring that it didn't have enough earnings potential to go against the threatened NAACP boycotts and possible bad publicity.
After Fuller's move to France, he never directed another American film. He directed two theatrical French films, Les Voleurs de la nuit in 1984 and Street of No Return in 1989. Les Voleurs de la nuit was entered into the 34th Berlin International Film Festival. He directed his last film, Madonne et le dragon, in 1990, and he wrote his last screenplay, Girls in Prison, in 1994.
With his wife, Christa Lang, and Jerry Rudes, Fuller wrote an autobiography A Third Face (published in 2002). This was the culmination of a long career as an author. Among his books are the novels Test Tube Baby (1936), Make Up and Kiss (1938) and The Dark Page (1944); novelizations of his films The Naked Kiss (1964) and The Big Red One (1980; reissued 2005); and 144 Piccadilly (1971) and Quint's World (1988). A book-length interview of Fuller by Jean Narboni and Noel Simsolo, Il etait une fois ... Samuel Fuller (with a preface by Martin Scorsese) appeared in 1986.
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“Often I think writing is a sheer paring away of oneself leaving always something thinner, barer, more meager.”
—F. Scott Fitzgerald (18961940)