There are two schools of thought on what makes a good box set. The first is what you might call the blockbuster principle: just assemble as impressive a collection of hits as you can. Certainly, that works – there’s a reason there are so many anthologies of Hitchcock and Coen brothers films on the shelves. The second might be dubbed the curatorial principle. Here, it doesn’t matter so much whether the films are hits, deep cuts, even outright misfires so long as, considered as a whole, they give you a rewarding overview of the genre, actor or director the box set is dedicated to. Indicator Films take the latter approach with their Samuel Fuller at Columbia 1937-1961 Blu-Ray collection. The result is a more satisfying, well-rounded experience than you might expect.
Two films in the collection are written and directed by Fuller, and these – The Crimson Kimono and Underworld USA – are reviewed on Episode 165 of Cinema Eclectica. This review rounds up the ones a Fuller auteurist might have missed, ones where the great man has a screenwriting credit, a story credit, or even just a “based on the original novel by” credit. You might be forgiven for feeling apprehensive. Samuel Fuller is one of those directors, like John Waters or Tim Burton, whose signature style eagerly embraces elements which, in another director’s hands, would be straightforwardly bad. He can take a familiar plot and make it feel mythic, take a one-note performance and make it feel monumental. Surely, though, it’s too much to ask other directors to perform this alchemy?
Not so. The biggest challenge to Fuller’s auteur personality comes in the shape of 1949’s Shockproof, in which Fuller’s script is filmed by a director who, on paper, couldn’t be further away from him – the king of Technicolor weepies, Douglas Sirk. Shockproof, though, finds the perfect subgenre to bridge their differences. It’s part of the first cycle of lovers on the run noirs, predating Bonnie and Clyde but a contemporary to films like Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once and Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy. These are films about mad love, which suggests an obvious division of labour between Fuller and Sirk; Fuller does the mad, Sirk does the love.
In fact, the collaboration was more complex than that. Despite being a black-and-white crime film rather than a luminously colourful melodrama, Shockproof shows off plenty of Sirk’s strengths. His attention to costume, staging and composition is just as effective in this genre, and the central theme – the price of breaking with social norms – is essentially that of Imitation of Life. Fuller is slightly tamed, though. His original, insurrectionary ending was rewritten by National Velvet‘s Helen Deutsch into the unconvincingly tame conclusion Sirk filmed. There’s plenty of sharp Fuller dialogue for connoisseurs, though. Asked if he’s married by Patricia Knight’s Jenny, Cornel Wilde’s Griff deadpans “I’m Italian and I’m over 21, what do you think?” (In reality, Wilde and Knight were married to each other when they made this)
1952’s Scandal Sheet feels like Fuller through and through, which is surprising considering he probably had less involvement with this than any other film in the box set. It’s adapted from his novel The Dark Page, without any evidence of him working on the script, but in the hands of director Phil Karlson it fits snugly alongside Underworld USA. Karlson was one of those rare directors from the original noir era whose career lasted long enough to catch the 1970s wave of neo-noirs, enjoying a notable late career hit with Walking Tall. As was the case with Fuller himself, part of the reason why Karlson lasted is because his films still feel tough despite the censorship restrictions of their time. The murder scene that Scandal Sheet revolves around still has the power to make you wince today, simply through forceful blocking and editing.
Scandal Sheet is one of two films in this set inspired by Fuller’s time as a journalist. The second one, Power of the Press, suffers from Lew Landers’s stagey direction, but watching it alongside Scandal Sheet you do notice a lot of the Fuller touches that might have gone unnoticed otherwise. For sure, Guy Kibbee’s Ulysses Bradford isn’t much of a Fuller protagonist – a folksy, ageing op-ed writer, he feels like a refugee from a late-period Leo McCarey film. Politically, though, the film is interesting and eerily relevant. Made shortly after America entered World War II, it accuses isolationists of abusing America’s free press in order to support regimes which actively work against free speech. The phrase “fake news” is uttered more than once.
Scandal Sheet, made after Fuller established his directorial career, feels like it benefits from having a template to draw on. Fuller’s project involved taking usually reactionary mediums – cop thrillers, tabloid journalism, war movies – and turning them into vehicles for challenging, progressive ideas. Scandal Sheet pulls this off very well, even if it does have a naïve faith in the press’s ability to investigate itself. Power of the Press feels a bit more contradictory. Minor Watson’s newspaper boss John Cleveland Carter has many fiery, passionately delivered speeches denouncing isolationists as traitors in hock to foreign governments – yet this is exactly the kind of rhetoric real-life isolationists like Charles Lindbergh and Charles Coughlin used to decry Roosevelt’s entry into “Europe’s war”. Is this the solution – turning their own divisive rhetoric back on them? Fuller as a director might have contrived some elegant solution to this; Fuller as co-writer doesn’t have the space.
Whatever their respective merits, Scandal Sheet and Power of the Press are animated by Fuller’s strong opinions about what journalism should be, and why it so frequently falls short of these goals. The remaining two films in the set see him dealing as a co-writer with subjects he showed less interest in during his later career, to differing effect. Of 1938’s Adventure in Sahara, all that can be said is that it’s an entry into a genre which no longer exists – the Beau Geste-inspired French Foreign Legion saga – and this uninspired 56-minute B-picture doesn’t make a case for reappraising it. The remaining film, 1937’s It Happened in Hollywood, is only ten minutes longer yet feels much more fleshed out. It’s also even further away from Fuller’s directorial work in theme and tone, showing a delightfully unexpected side of his abilities.
It Happened in Hollywood is an early take on the myth, familiar from later films like Singin’ in the Rain and The Artist, of the silent star left washed-up by the coming of sound. Made less than ten years after that shift took place, there are a few details which must be drawn from life – the lighting department’s resentment of the sound guys stealing their place as top dogs of the technical crew is a nice touch. If Ulysses Bradford was an unlikely Fuller hero Richard Dix’s Tim Bart is a completely anomalous presence; introduced giving a preview screening of his latest Western to a hospital full of disabled children, his main moral dilemma comes when his comeback opportunity turns out to be a gangster who murders a policeman.
Bart doesn’t approve of this. Like the film he’s in, he is upstanding, moral, square and too good to be true. He’s also far more fun than you might expect. It Happened in Hollywood’s misty-eyed view of Golden Age Tinseltown as an innocent dream factory is outrageously sentimental and hard to resist, particularly with Fay Wray as Dix’s chaste female lead. With his white-hat cowboy roles, down-home morality and questionable acting talent Bart must have been an inspiration for Hail, Caesar!’s Hobie Doyle, and like Doyle he saves the day in the end. It is a slightly guilty pleasure, but cinephiles will find it easy to succumb to, particularly when a third-act set-piece takes us to a Hollywood party populated by comic impersonations of legendary stars.
This scene is the subject of the set’s most diverting extra. Tim Robbins’s appreciation of Fuller is certainly meatier, and the diamond-clear restoration job is a compelling argument for buying the set. The most fun, though, comes when the indefatigable Michael Brooke combs through It Happened in Hollywood’s big party and explains how that all-star cast of characters was pulled off. A lot of them were simply impersonators, and in the case of Eugene DeVerdi’s Charlie Chaplin you could argue the costume is doing some of the work. Some of it, though, is as amusingly silly as anything in the actual film. Do you need someone who looks like Victor McLaglen in a hurry? Well, Victor McLaglen’s brother is available…