Thursday, 13 April 2017


NOTE: I found this essay in my files the other day. I wrote it in 2003, and by rights it should have been in my late lamented Crime Time column, but I have the feeling I might have been saving it for the first isue of Kamera, where I had a number of articles but not this. So here it is now, two B-movie toned studies of two of my favourite directors.

Lee Server’s book on Sam Fuller is really three small books in one, much like Fuller’s small but excellently formed B movies which he made in the 1950s. The first part is an interview with Fuller, who gives good copy as he goes through his career, which includes some remarkable films, some forgettable ones, and many which in retrospect appear to be object lessons in how to use film to tell a story.  The second part is an analysis by Server of the films: he is a solid critic, helped by his understanding of the man and his ability to put the individual films into the context of Fuller’s wider career.  Finally there are interviews with people who worked with Fuller on his films.  As cinematographer Joe Biroc says, ‘Some of his ideas were so crazy!’.  It’s funny how time and the critics have recognised Fuller’s special genius, but in the context of his times in Hollywood he was considered an energetic, talented, off-beat guy whose talent extended no further than B pix.  This was the way Richard Widmark, who starred in two Fuller films, including Pickup On South Street, which is arguably his best, described him to me when I interviewed him for the FT.  Widmark meant it with great affection and respect.

Fuller’s own cut of The Big Red One has been released recently, establishing him posthumously as an A director, certainly a benchmark for Spielberg and others who are lauded for ‘reinventing’ the war movie.  His crime films are extraordinary, starting with I Shot Jesse James, which is closer to White Heat than Stagecoach in tone.  It’s not that Fuller is a consummate pulpster, although he is. A film like House of Bamboo, ostensibly a remake of the noir classic Street With No Name, has everything that makes the original so great: betrayal, a strong homosexual undercurrent between the boss and his (betraying) new henchman, and gang violence. But it adds layers of cultural and racial clashing, uses of sexuality, and an implied comparison between the Army culture and the criminal underworld that make it a fully developed and satisfying story.  So too his other ‘Japanese’ film, The Crimson Kimono, in which the audience’s expectations for the white LA cop and his Nisei partner are constantly being reversed. 

That is the key to Fuller: he is always surprising.  Is there a more off-beat yet successful western than Forty Guns? (well, maybe, Johnny Guitar, but no matter) It’s what makes Fuller so important and what makes this book so entertaining. But it never answers the question I’ve been dying to know since I saw The Naked Kiss and realised there was another character named Griff.  There are Griffs in six Fuller films.  Why?


Monte Hellman is in some ways the antithesis of Fuller, even though stylistically you might say he follows in Sam's footsteps.  But where Fuller went his own way, content to write, direct and produce B features that left him with a relative amount of artistic freedom, Hellman has bounced all around the movie business, leaving footprints all over the town, but with only a few films credited to him as a director.  Some of those films are cult classics, and for good reason: The Shooting (written by Carol Eastman) and Ride The Whirlwind (written by Jack Nicholson) were shot back to back in 1966 for Roger Corman. The two westerns are darker takes on Budd Boetticher more than Fuller; both star Nicholson and Millie Perkins, and remain seriously underrated, if not ignored.  Even better, to my mind, is China 9 Liberty 37, released in 1978 with Warren Oates, Fabio Testi, Jenny Agutter and Sam Peckinpah (yes, Sam Peckinpah!), which combines Hellman’s own Sixties sensibility with another Sixties sensibility, that of a spaghetti western

This should be no surprise, since Sergio Leone himself offered Fistful Of Dynamite (aka Duck You Sucker) to Hellman (eventually Peter Bogdanovich tried to direct, then it was offered to Peckinpah, before Leone himself stepped back in), and Hellman is the guy who directed the ‘prologue’ sequence filmed for ABC television in the USA for Fistful Of Dollars. In this scene prison warden Harry Dean Stanton offers a back standing in for Clint Eastwood an amnesty if he will go clean up the town of San Miguel.  ABC had been unhappy with the moral ambiguity of the Man With No Name, and so settled for the Man With No Face!

All this would guarantee Hellman a spot in my personal Hall of Fame, but his cult reputation rests on two more films, both of which showcased Warren Oates (well, actually Oates stole the first one, but never mind).  First was Two Lane Blacktop, arguably the most over-hyped independent film in American history.  The screenplay by Rudy Wurlitzer was published as a complete issue of Esquire magazine, before the film was even released, billed as the greatest screenplay of all time.  It wasn’t, and the film could hardly live up to that kind of build up.  What it is is a portrait of American obsession on the road, and the model for any number of road movies (Spielberg's The Duel, anyone?) that followed.  Oates steals the show from crooner James Taylor, Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and one-hit wonder Laurie Bird, not that  hard to do, and battles the cars to a draw.

Oates gave the performance of a career in Hellman’s Cockfighter --based on the Charles Willeford novel--certainly one as intense as Alfredo Garcia, but more controlled.  The story of Frank Mansfield, who has taken a vow of silence until he wins the ’Cockfighter of the Year’ award, is another one of obsession, and a particularly American, frontier type of masculine obsession.   Hellman regular Stanton is joined by Troy Donahue, Perkins and Bird to make up an interesting cast of talented character actors and Hollywood burnouts, just the sort of group you might expect Hellman to assemble.

I say expect because the most interesting part of Stevens’ story is keeping track of all the uncredited editing, scripting, directing jobs which Hellman has done, and all the uncredited changes which have been made to his films, most notably Cockfighter.  It is the story of a Hollywood lifer, not quite a consummate player of the game, but certainly a player, where a bit of drive and a bit of charm and bit of chutzpah can get you a long way.  Hellman seems to have lived his life with one project or another at some stage of development, and that is a particular sort of hell which Stevens manages to keep within the context of the work by which Hellman will be remembered.

Sam Fuller: Film Is A Battleground by Lee Server (McFarland, £22.50, ISBN 0786417005)
Monte Hellman: His Life and Films by Brad Stevens (McFarland, £23.50, ISBN 0786414340)

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