Criterion Sunday 224: Pickup on South Street (1953)

Sam Fuller had made a few movies by the time he made this, so he had started to hone his style a little, enough to make this fantastic, concise film noir about a man who pickpockets the wrong woman and finds himself mixed up with international espionage and Communist agents. The dialogue rattles off with all the appropriate relish, and it has a particularly great role for Thelma Ritter as an ageing stoolpigeon, sharing information to the highest bidder with a devil-may-care abandon — though even she has lines she won’t cross, and the Red Menace is one of them (well, it is a film from McCarthy’s 1950s, after all). Jean Peters is an actor who should have been in a lot more films, and the look of both her and the film is a constant delight, with the high-contrast monochrome photography affording the city a lustrous splendour.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Samuel Fuller; Cinematographer Joseph MacDonald; Starring Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter; Length 80 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 August 2018.

The Crimson Kimono (1959)

Samuel Fuller is known for his punchy dialogue and scenarios in films like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss (not to mention a clutch of films based on his World War II experiences), a holdover from his early days as a hard-nosed journalist on the city beat. So any concerns one might have about the social-problem trappings of The Crimson Kimono, with its ready-made racy poster headlines (interracial romance!), are avoided by Fuller’s deft script. Fuller proves himself to be quite far ahead of the times in allowing his Japanese-American cop hero Joe (James Shigeta) to be the lead, to love the girl (Victoria Shaw), and to avoid any narrative punishment for either. That’s not to say it doesn’t deal with issues of racism and discrimination, just that they’re handled in a much less muckraking way than you might expect. There’s also plenty of the exploitative thrills from the kind of seedy underworld setting so beloved of Fuller, but with Shigeta’s sensitive characterisation and some fine cinematography, this is a particularly vivid effort.

The Crimson Kimono film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Samuel Fuller; Cinematographer Sam Leavitt; Starring James Shigeta, Glenn Corbett, Victoria Shaw; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Tuesday 23 June 2015.

A Fuller Life (2013)

There’s no doubt that director Samuel Fuller had quite a life, and it’s his autobiography that forms the basis for this documentary by his daughter. The form is simple: a collection of actors and directors — both those who worked with him and admirers of his work — sit in his study and read from his memoirs. So we get the likes of actors James Franco and Constance Towers (whose towering peformance so enlivened his The Naked Kiss), and directors Wim Wenders and Monte Hellman, amongst many others. The first half of the film covers Fuller’s start as a newsboy and copy editor in New York, before moving on to his formative experiences in World War II, while the second half rattles through his film work over the following 30 years. The armchair-readings format is broken up with archival clips, many of them filmed by Fuller himself and taken from his own archives. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the formal methods, though his daughter provides a memorable introduction as the camera roves across his study and all the artefacts within it, but this is a solid and fascinating film portrait of one of the great American directors of the 20th century.

A Fuller Life film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Samantha Fuller (based on the memoir A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking by Samuel Fuller); Cinematographers Hilton Goring, Seamus McGarvey, Tyler Purcell and Rachel Wyn Dunn; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Tuesday 23 June 2015.

Criterion Sunday 19: Shock Corridor (1963)

Another pulpy noirish overheated delight from Samuel Fuller, this story of Johnny, a reporter (Peter Breck), going undercover at a mental institution to solve a murder probably bears little relation to the current state of either profession, but as a piece of filmmaking it’s punchy and bold. Johnny uses his sceptical exotic dancer girlfriend (Constance Towers) and the help of some willing psychiatrists to coach him in a story about incest that gets him admitted to the instutition, and once there he seeks out the three witnesses to the murder, but in the process loses his mind under the intense pressure of both his fellow inmates, and, more to the point, the ‘treatment’ delivered by the hospital. It’s all rather hysterical, but Fuller was always a torn-from-the-headlines kind of filmmaker, and he engineers some boldly expressionist scenes that use the starkly-contrasted black-and-white images of DoP Stanley Cortez to good effect. It’s a lurid tale about the malaise at the heart of early-1960s America, in particular marshalling through the three mental patients a history of racial unease and building nuclear tensions, and it remains a fascinating reflection of its world.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Samuel Fuller; Cinematographer Stanley Cortez; Starring Peter Breck, Constance Towers; Length 101 minutes.

Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, June 1998 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 15 March 2015).

Criterion Sunday 18: The Naked Kiss (1964)

Samuel Fuller has a bold range of punchy features and this particular entry from 1964 seems to fall at the tail end of the film noir movement. Stylistically, it feels of a piece with those spare stories of embattled dames and grizzled guys, in highly contrasted black-and-white (excellent camerwork from Stanley Cortez here). The dame is Kelly, played by the imposing Constance Towers, who’s trying to chuck in a life of prostitution to go straight as a nurse at a hospital for disabled children. Her antagonist is local police chief Captain Griff (Anthony Eisley), who was her last client and as a result thinks he has some special understanding of her motivations, and that he can see through what he thinks of as her act. However, the wonder of the film is that it’s on side with Kelly, who may have had a tough life but is genuinely trying to change and has to continually deal with judgemental crap from the men in town, which she largely takes in stride with a unswerving commitment to her own lack of shame in her past. The treatment of the disabled kids is warmly empathetic and inclusive, even if some of the hospital conditions seem rather of their era. It’s the details of the police investigations in the film’s last third which are rather more difficult to believe (whereby the jailed person gets to question their own accusers in the course of an investigation, leading to a memorable scene of Kelly shaking a young girl to elicit some information she wants). There’s also a plot involving a local magnate and a young girl which could have been ripped from recent headlines over here in the UK (even if the depiction of it is understandably oblique). The Naked Kiss is a film with a lot to recommend it, but it’s the performance from Towers which makes the film so compulsively watchable.

Criterion Extras: There’s a recent interview with Towers, who talks with fondness about her role in the film, but far more compelling is the footage of the director from 1967 and 1987 French documentaries and a 1983 episode of British TV series The South Bank Show, permanently munching on a cigar, and sounding off about his approach to filmmaking. He actually has plenty of interest to say about his process and his interests, and a bit where he mocks the gentility of most filmmaking and contrasts it with what he prefers to see on screen, is particularly memorable. Also, there’s the striking cover art by Daniel Clowes.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Samuel Fuller; Cinematographer Stanley Cortez; Starring Constance Towers, Anthony Eisley; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, September 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 8 February 2015).