“What are your influences?” the potbellied video-store manager in Noah Baumbach's 1995 Kicking and Screaming asks postgrad applicant Otto. “Samuel Fuller,” comes the dutiful reply, followed by vagueness: “All the good ones. All the … other ones.” Seven Criterion DVDs and one landmark reconstruction later (The Big Red One), Fuller is more than name-drop fodder for the latest generation of cinephiles, but biff-bam-pow auteurist adoration and infrequent screenings still get in the way of the gut-level power and strangeness of his movies. LACMA's weekend series “Fuller at Fox” zeroes in on a blazing trail of six signature works for Darryl Zanuck's (now-75-year-old) studio — what the director called “a new period of creativity and accomplishment.”
Fuller's backstory is dense in the early-20th-century manner: born to Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia, raised street-savvy in New York, covering crime and scandal for Park Row tabloids, earning a Purple Heart as a G.I., finally writing screenplays on condition of directing them. Following a stint with B-picture producer Robert Lippert, it was Steel Helmet, a shoestring 1951 moneymaker freshly pegged to the Korean War, that caught the eye of Zanuck (and others). By request, Fixed Bayonets! (1951) took up the same conflict, loyally recasting Gene Evans; here he played Sergeant Rock, leader and desperately needed role model to ornery grunts in a snowbound cave. Zanuck had made Grapes of Wrath and All About Eve, as well as Shirley Temple baubles, but Fuller's concentrated energy was something else. The film's no-nonsense treatment of death is related through visceral, staccato cuts; a spare, exposed set; and too-close-for-comfort staging redolent of wet socks. As Richard Baseheart's Corporal Denno sweats over not losing his first-kill virginity, the images shudder with explosions, gunshots and Korean horns. All ends with soldiers making an infernal river crossing, looking like the walking dead.
What's typically described as Fuller's pulp content feels electric now, and that's not just because of our distance from the original clichés (such as the Inner Sanctum radio show cheekily joked about in U-boat A-bomb yarn Hell and Highwater). It's because of Fuller's execution — blunt and deft, in word and image, belying the imputations of his “primitivist” label. Afer self-producing a tribute to journalism (Park Row), Fuller pulled off one of the decade's most thrilling and erotic movies, Pickup on South Street (1953). On superb New York simulacrum sets, Richard Widmark's dock-dwelling Skip jags between seduction, sadism and pure grifter's glide, caught between feds and opportunistic Reds who want the microfilm from the wallet he pinched. He and heartbreaking, heartbroken mark Candy (a superb Jean Peters) inhabit a world of real characters: Thelma Ritter's bowery stoolie (given the space to contemplate the end), Richard Kiley's utterly bankrupt secret-seller, or even Victor Perry's slimeball Lightning Louie slurping late-night Chinese. “Everyone has his reasons” is the go-to line on Renoir, but Fuller truly chases the conceit, 'round personal paradoxes and down moral culs-de-sac, in Pickup's play of loyalties and codes.
When people fight in Fuller, they knock things over; it's how you know they're alive. In Japan-set House of Bamboo (1955), Robert Stack (then unknown) crashes through a Japanese screen into a fanciful underworld: a criminal outfit run by Robert Ryan that's like The Dirty Dozen in reverse — dishonorable vets turned thieves. Slick in suits, it's crime as military endeavor, guns as loud as Michael Mann; always arraying bodies, Fuller dollies diagonally alongside the men as they run from cops. The stakes-raising twist is a tendency Fuller bequeaths to Godards and Tarantinos alike: The crooks kill any injured comrades. The Fuji mountain scapes, multipalette interiors and department-store-rooftop showdown are in snap-to Cinemascope. Likewise, Forty Guns (1957) has hardly begun before Barbara Stanwyck thunders across the sprawling screen with her nearly mythical train of horsemen. (Fittingly, Fuller reports that Zanuck plowed profits from Fixed Bayonets! into new anamorphic processes.)
Indochina war-meller China Gate (1957) goes off the deep end — even for Fuller — anticipating the careening, purposeful This Is America lunacy of his 1960s work and somehow the insomniac nightmare of 1970s Vietnam-era America itself. Rattling off purple-prose put-downs and laments, Angie Dickinson plays a half-Chinese cognac-seller/rubbled–bar owner/itinerant-prostitute who leads multinational legionnaires (including Nat King Cole) behind enemy lines, locking horns with a racist ex-flame and a Western communist who resembles a creepy motivational speaker. You can trust that characters will speak their minds when one poor, spine-snapped bastard apologizes to his weary comrades for taking “such a long time to die.” Fuller, too, never held back from expressing the arresting truth in life's exceptional moments.