Sony digs deep into the Columbia vaults to survey the work of writer/director Samuel Fuller. Starting as a screen writer in the late 30's, before long he was directing films, and establishing a reputation and a body of work across genres that influenced film-makers like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. This collection includes these films: It Happened in Hollywood (1937), Adventure in Sahara (1938), Power of the Press (1943), Shockproof (1949), Scandal Sheet (1952), The Crimson Kimono (1959), and Underworld U.S.A. (1961).
A year after its landmark release of Budd Boetticher's "Ranown" Westerns, Sony showcases another great maverick filmmaker. Samuel Fuller spent most of his career in B pictures, creating ultrapersonal, formula-defying films that got little notice from workaday reviewers but impressed sharp critics like Andrew Sarris and Manny Farber. His streetwise worldview, his voice, his advisedly jarring style were so distinctive that when American film criticism underwent a major shakeup in the 1960s, Fuller was singled out as an exemplary auteur. The French New Wave revered him and he became an inspiration to later generations of American independents. Fuller was a writer long before he added directing to his résumé: New York City crime reporter, at age 17, in the '20s; pulp novelist (Test Tube Baby?); and a screenwriter at Columbia by the late '30s. So it's fine that The Samuel Fuller Collection, almost uniquely among filmmaker boxed sets, should include some movies directed by others but based on Fuller scripts or stories; there are five of them, along with two all-Fuller productions. His early film involvements were minor. He was one of four writers on It Happened in Hollywood (1937), the tale of a Tom Mix-like Western star whose career flames out when talkies arrive. Adventure in Sahara (1938) started life when omnivorous reader Fuller, invited to make a pitch to a Columbia exec, improvised on the spot: "William Bligh meets Victor Hugo!" The whiplash-inducing melodrama that resulted has Paul Kelly joining the Foreign Legion to avenge his kid brother's death, caused by the sadistic commandant (C. Henry Gordon) of Fort Agadez, "the Inferno of the Sahara."
Hard-core Fullerism sets in with Power of the Press (1943). Although he's credited only for story, the dialogue has Fuller's headline punch, and of course newspapering was an alternative universe he knew inside out. A publisher whose once-honest New York tabloid has been ideologically hijacked is aiming to make a course correction. Minutes after saying, "The power of the press is the freedom to tell the truth--it is not the freedom to twist the truth," he's a dead man. The rest of the movie deals with the efforts of his old friend, small-town newsman Guy Kibbee, to complete the paper's redemption. Made in mid World War II, the picture angrily and explicitly likens homegrown demagoguery to Nazism--and its condemnation of media organizations "playing on the prejudices of stupid people" has acquired fresh relevance. Otto Kruger and Victor Jory ("a little Himmler") supply the villainy, while Lee Tracy steps up to save the day as a casehardened yellow journalist named Griff. Another Griff (Fuller loved that moniker) shows up in Shockproof (1949), a fascinating instance of two auteurs on one movie. Fuller wrote the novel The Lovers and had first crack at the screenplay; the director was Douglas Sirk. Cornel Wilde plays a parole officer who falls for convicted murderer Patricia Knight (Mrs. Wilde at the time). For most of its length the film sustains genuine ambiguity regarding the woman: victim or manipulator? gingerly moving toward reformation, or waiting for the first opportunity to split? We get inklings of Fuller's 1964 The Naked Kiss. Scandal Sheet (1952) is one more case of Fuller material handled by another estimable director: Phil Karlson, a crime drama specialist with a fine sense of frenzy. In this adaptation of Fuller's novel The Dark Page, Broderick Crawford is a hard-nosed newspaper editor with machine-gun delivery and a shrewd crime reporter, John Derek (quite good), whom he's trained as his spiritual heir. There's a semi-accidental murder, and then another with nothing accidental about it. Donna Reed plays Derek's fellow reporter and underappreciated love interest, and the oft-mocked Rosemary DeCamp does some juicy character acting in a key role.
These DVD collections are always limited by what company holds the copyright on which movies. We get only two Sam Fuller-directed movies here because they're the only two he made for Columbia (now owned by Sony). One of these is a primo, in-your-face Fuller title: Underworld U.S.A. (1961), which gave Cliff Robertson a chance to play a complete slimeball--and he's the hero! He's also the grownup version of the teenager (David Kent) who watched his small-time crook of a dad murdered in an alley, beaten to death by thugs who would go on to become underworld kingpins. The film observes Robertson's revenge as he rises in their criminal empire, but the most disturbing scene centers on Richard Rust as a soft-spoken killer. Two years earlier, Fuller had made The Crimson Kimono (1959), a much less successful movie but one with bravely complicated ambitions. Two Los Angeles police detectives (Glenn Corbett and James Shigeta) investigate the murder of a stripper shot down in the middle of Main Street (a scene Fuller filmed without forewarning the local citizenry). As the case unfolds, both guys--partners, roommates, and blood brothers since the Korean War--fall in love with the same key witness (Victoria Shaw). Fuller returned again and again to the theme of America as a multiracial, multicultural society; The Crimson Kimono, in addition to many passing tributes to the Japanese-American community, dares to explore the theme of a sympathetic minority figure who projects racism onto others.
As with previous Sony boxed sets devoted to Boetticher and Stanley Kramer, the technical quality of the prints is first-rate. There are no running commentaries, but several separate featurettes have Martin Scorsese, Wim Wenders, Curtis Hanson, Tim Robbins, and Christa and Samantha Fuller paying informed and affectionate tribute to Samuel Fuller the filmmaker and Sam Fuller the man. --Richard T. Jameson