From my August 2018 Sight & Sound piece:
Sugar Torch is running – someone wants her dead. It’s terrifying and visceral and, in the end, very sad.
Sugar’s plight opens Samuel Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono and immediately grabs us. Like a pulpy headline or a Weegee photograph, we are drawn in by a stimulating blend of blatancy and mystery – when something is so in your face that you’re knocked off balance, perplexed but enthralled. We just watched Sugar, the tall blonde gyrating on stage, smiling and winking with a kind of paroxysmal madness, shaking it in a downtown Los Angeles Burlesque House. Her dancing is aggressively sexy and bizarre – we hear but never see the audience. She looks to be performing for darkness, or maybe in a hallucination. The dance is brief, told through jump cuts, making it all the more surreal. She ends her performance, walks back to her dressing room and … gunshot. It then becomes verité – Sugar runs outside clad in her shimmy costume, desperately scared and screaming, quite the sight running down a populated L.A. street at night. The poor woman runs right into traffic and is shot down, collapsing dead between two cars. It’s fast and it’s sad. It’s quintessential Fuller.
“Motion as emotion.” That’s how Martin Scorsese described Fuller’s films in his introduction to Fuller’s fantastic autobiography, A Third Face, and Sugar Torch is certainly that. Scorsese wrote, “When you respond to a Fuller film, what you're responding to is cinema at its essence. Motion as emotion. Fuller's pictures move convulsively, violently. Just like life when it's being lived with genuine passion.”
It’s a beautiful, perfect description of Fuller, and something we feel and see either writ large, or in glimpses within this box set of Fuller’s films with Columbia – there’s something remarkable even in the pictures he wrote but didn’t direct, and pictures the American maverick wasn’t too happy about when placed in the studio and director’s hands.
Fuller loved the pulse and rigor of writing – he started out as a 17-year-old crime reporter, tapping out pieces for the New York Evening Graphic, merging real life with sensationalism but always after the truth, words jumping from the page to create their own visual poetry. And he understood people in all of their drama, vulnerability and complexity. When he was working the Upper West Side, he’d phone stories in to his editor from a friendly brothel, where he’d gotten to know the women so well that he didn’t feel any urges toward them – they became friends, people he respected (something he revels with his female characters in many of his films). He listened and observed and surely took notes. At a young age, he defended the marginalized while standing in the thick of a good yarn, something that never left him. When he enlisted in the Army during WW II (and the wartime service that would inform one of his great works – The Big Red One) he wrote that, “fighting-didn't really give me a hard-on. What kept going through my brain was that I had a helluva opportunity to cover the biggest crime story of the century, and nothing was going to stop me from being an eyewitness.”
This Blu-ray set allows us a fascinating look at Fuller’s early beginnings as a screenwriter and, one would suspect, a look at some of the films that, when altered, prompted him to tackle directing himself and made him fiercely independent.
Fuller was a writer among four (with Ethel Hill, Harvey Fergusson and Myles Connolly) in the earliest picture in this set, Harry Lachman’s It Happened in Hollywood (1937). Somewhat Reminiscent of A Star is Born (they were released the same year) or Singin’ in the Rain, the story finds a Tom Mix-fashioned cowboy star (played by Richard Dix) struggling to make the transition from silent pictures to talkies. It’s an endearing movie, and often quite smart, and Dix is likable (along with Fay Wray), but we wonder how much further Fuller would have taken this story had he written it himself.
You wonder the same of D. Ross Lederman’s Adventure in Sahara (1938) the least notable among this set (screenplay by Maxwell Shane from Fuller’s story), but a relatively entertaining and quick (clocked right at an hour) adventure yarn. It’s a revenge tale set in the French Foreign Legion that features a good story and some lovely cinematography by Franz Plane, but moves along without much bite – you strain to find Fuller in this one. It does, however, come with an amusing real-life story: Fuller made the treatment up, on the fly, as he pitched to Columbia, borrowing from Victor Hugo and Mutiny on the Bounty. As Fuller wrote, “See, studio heads back then may have grown up selling furs instead of reading French literature, but they loved a good story. So, thank you, Monsieur Hugo, for saving my ass with your wonderful novel Ninety-Three.”
It’s easy to discern how Fuller’s own experience must have informed the Power of the Press and the film, directed by Lew Landers and written by Robert Hardy Andrews (from a story by Fuller) has some keen musings about media, isolationism and patriotism, but it’s ultimately disappointing, particularly for such a potentially compelling story. We spend a lot of the time hoping (and perhaps we shouldn’t be hoping) for the picture to explode into full-on Fuller, but, alas, it never does. It’s worth viewing for the story and the actors, however (a principled Guy Kibbee and a villainous Otto Kruger stand out), even if it’s a bit too much speechifying. His next effort would prove to be far more interesting even if not perfect, and in the end, vexing for Fuller.
Directed by Douglas Sirk and written by Fuller, Shockproof is a well-cast, finely modulated thriller/melodrama that’s absolutely gorgeous to look at. The story is of Griff Marat, a parole officer (played with passion by Cornel Wilde) inexorably falling in love with his parolee charge, Jenny Marsh (Wilde’s real-life wife Patricia Knight) and losing everything he once held dear as they become first, lovers and then, wanted fugitives. The combination of Fuller’s and Sirk’s sensibilities does mesh in an intriguingly odd way and, is at times, beautiful and powerful (a scene where a parole-breaker jumps to his death rather than risking imprisonment is potently horrifying), and the film exhibits enough visual style to hold the improbable melodrama at its core. Griff’s household, though sweet, is in a way, a variation of the suffocating cells Jenny has spent years in: all steep expressionist angles and multi-level Victorian woodwork -- there is no escape from institutionalization. Marriage or jail appear to be two forms of doom hanging over her head.
After the shooting of Jenny’s lover – Harry Wesson, played skillfully by John Baragrev (he manages to make Harry both repellent and suave, cheap and elegant) “The Lovers,” as the tabloid press calls them (also the original title of Fuller’s screenplay), head down the Mexico way, but are ensnared by the authorities. The film is moving straight for an American tragedy and its visual invention keeps up but, then, the tone abruptly changes, and everything is neatly wrapped into an unconvincing happy ending. The tampering of this film (the ending was written by National Velvet’s Helen Deutsch) left both Sirk and Fuller disappointed and was likely a decisive factor in Fuller’s decision to eventually helm and produce his films himself.
Even though he didn’t write the screenplay, Scandal Sheet (directed by Phil Karlson — who directed the terrific, tough-as-nails Kansas City Confidential, 99 River Street, and The Phenix City Story), is truer to Fuller’s spirit and voice. Not a surprise since it’s adapted from Fuller’s best-selling 1944 novel, The Dark Page (with screenwriters Eugene Ling, James Poe, and Ted Sherdeman). An intense, at times, touching, well-engineered thriller the story looks at a ruthless tabloid editor Mark Chapman (played with mean, barking zeal by Broderick Crawford) who murders his long-estranged wife (Rosemary DeCamp) and has to stay one step ahead of his two ace reporters (played by Donna Reed and John Derek). The film is full of Fullerisms, mostly hollered by Crawford, and not only does it chastise the circulation-chasing tabloid press and unscrupulous investigative techniques, but it also populates the film with skid row characters, Lonely Hearts meet-ups, and assorted urban lowlifes. Chief amongst them is a moving ex-reporter -- down on his luck, played with vulnerable integrity by Henry O’Neill. Derek seems uncomfortable at first, and green on screen, but his character grows on you – he’s not all that he’s puffing himself up to be and his lightweight qualities next to Crawford and Reed start to make sense. But the film rests on Crawford’s tense shoulders— all of his inner turmoil and ambivalence sweating out of him. He loves Derek’s character like a son and seems compulsively spellbound by the increasing circulation that his own tragedy brings him – even if it means chronicling his own destruction.
And now back to Sugar Torch (played by Gloria Pall). She’s an important side-player (and one who doesn’t live long) to one of Fuller’s most innovative and daring films, The Crimson Kimono (which Fuller produced, wrote, and directed) but her awful death, though pulpy and loud, presages the quieter troubles and passions the other characters will experience within themselves. After Sugar is murdered, the film cuts right to a close-up of detective Joe (James Shigeta) – the Japanese-American cop who will, with his partner, best friend, and war buddy, Charlie (Glenn Corbett), crack the case of Sugar and a sad love triangle. And then, become involved in a triangle of his own: he falls for Joe’s love, Chris, and she falls for him.
A rare picture for its time, it examines the struggles of an interracial relationship and Joe’s concerns about how he is perceived in a racist world. And then, how he must come to terms with his friendship to Charlie. Interestingly, Charlie is not shown as intolerant, and though hurt, he handles Joe and Chris’s relationship with maturity. Fuller fought for this more agreeable depiction of Charlie – the studio felt that Chris needed a reason to leave him other than her love for Joe. Fuller felt, no way. Presumably, that would read as insulting to Chris’s attraction to Joe. Chris loves Joe – they have more chemistry and more in common and more of a connection – she doesn’t need a reason to leave beyond that. It’s a complicated, touching approach – modern for its time.
And its modern approach is helped by the Los Angeles Little Tokyo locations – those Fuller stylistics – close-ups that make us almost taste a person’s sweat, and those impressive long takes – including one rather complicated single-shot scene showing Charlie and Joe waking up in their shared apartment that is so naturalistic in style and acting, that we absolutely believe these guys are buddies. The movie feels real.
And that reality spilled into the filmmaking process as well. After shooting the extremely dangerous Sugar-running-opening, Fuller reflected later about how no one on the street (these were reportedly not paid extras, but real people) gave a damn about this poor woman. In The Third Face Fuller wrote of watching that scene with head of Columbia, Sam Briskin: “When I looked at the rushes with Sam Briskin, we realized that nobody, not even a passing sailor or a homeless drunk-was paying any attention to the big, scantily clad gal running along that downtown street. Nobody gave a damn. ‘What the hell's wrong with this country?’ asked Briskin.”
What the hell is wrong with this country could be asked of Underworld U.S.A. (or what the hell is wrong with everyone?) – a movie where the good guys and the bad guys are all bad. Who knows? The picture showcases some of his most beautifully designed and staged shots while it digs deep into violence and revenge. Fuller’s visual invention and edgy violence feel almost avant-garde here. The morally complex story of retribution showcases many of Fuller’s trademarks: An older woman that knows the ways of the world (think Thelma Ritter in Pick Up on South Street), a woman (named Cuddles – so touchingly played by Dolores Dorn) who would be considered a tramp but is given real pathos and depth (think Constance Towers in The Naked Kiss), a protagonist taking the path of crime to transit into a moral awakening, criminals hiding within the respectability of institutions, stainless steel pulp dialogue and gripping, at times, disturbing violence.
The film is built around a remarkable Cliff Robertson as Tolly Devlin, whose face is perpetually twisted, his eyes darkened with wrath. He’s got a reason – as a kid (played with impressive aplomb and perfect mimicry by David Kent) he is scarred for life the night he witnesses the deadly beating of his father in a dank alley. Earlier that night in a dispute over a pickpocketed wallet, Tolly had received an injury over his right eye and that scar remains on the adult Tolly, God’s lonely avenger. He will track and terminate each of the killers even if, as shown in a concise, elliptical sequence, it means pursuing increasing prison time. That’s in order to reach one of the murderers, imprisoned in a maximum-security facility.
And so you watch this scarred kid and, then, young man, just keeping going and going and going … Tolly will infiltrate the crime syndicate, playing a dangerous game in which he uses the criminals and the chief of police with the same ruthlessness.
The violence in the film pushed the limits of censorship at the time and Fuller had to make compromises to tone the movie down, and yet it is still hard-hitting. An example: in an impeccably choreographed scene, an All-American-looking contract killer (constantly wearing shades) played to creepy-cool perfection by Richard Rust, runs over the young daughter of a snitch (the shot of her dead returns in a newspaper photo). Fuller uses every resource to deliver the impact of this killing – setting up the unmerciful forces that Tolly will face if found out.
One of the simplest, most beautiful shots in the film also showcases Tolly walking relentlessly on a mission to end it all, to do the right thing. The camera leads him on, staying ahead of him, in a beautiful, dynamic shot as he faces off the crime boss at a pool where he does business (Fuller liked the idea of these guys spending their time in clean places – he wanted you to practically smell the chlorine). In a bout of fiscal probity, Fuller will powerfully reuse the same rig (likely a crane) to deliver Tully’s final steps out of the place, wounded and faltering, this time, his back to us. Fuller also uses beautifully designed transitions and ellipsis to chronicle the passage of time and its fluid nature in a spare 99 minutes – it works perfectly. At its core, this resource, resolute syntax also makes the decades between Tolly’s youth and his adult age, blurry, fluid, as if hatred has made time irrelevant.
And the film ends on a most symbolic image: Tolly, now dead, acquiescing, but incapable of letting go, dies with a clenched fist. His fist isn’t just about violence, it represents his emotional fight as well, which recalls Fuller discussing in an interview how he preferred “emotional violence.”
As the great man said, “You don’t have to be violent with your fist, a voice can do it as well. One word can cut the hell out of your heart.”
Originally published in August 2018 at Sight & Sound Magazine