The Naked Kiss (1964)

The Naked Kiss (1964) movie poster

director Samuel Fuller
viewed: 06/14/2014

I’m not exactly sure where my relationship with Samuel Fuller began, but it feels like it started with The Naked Kiss.  I got a good deal of introduction to world cinema my one year in England, 1995, the 100th anniversary of the medium of film, simply by the brilliant programming on BBC1, BBC1, and Channel 4 and the good writing at The Guardian, which gave me the heads up to the movies to look out for each week.

I saw The Naked Kiss on a little television but the impact was stark.  The film opens with the pulpiest of pulp moments, a good-looking blonde beating a drunken man with her shoe til her wig is pulled off, showing a shaved head.  Basically, from the word go, you’ve got a lot of compelling sex and violence and questions.  Hooked right in.

It’s funny, but now, 20 years later, that’s the image of the film that stayed with me.  I kind of recalled the story of a prostitute moving to a small town and trying to clean up her life, but all the other lurid details became a bit more of a blur.  And for its other shocking elements, explicit references to child sexual abuse, the most shocking thing for me this time through was realizing that the film had a happy ending.

The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor (1963) are perhaps the most exemplary or Fuller’s films, crystallizations of the wide range of lurid melodrama, action, and I don’t even know what else.

It’s a funny thing because most of The Naked Kiss isn’t nearly as lurid as its opening.  It’s a morality drama, empathizing with the prostitute gone good, who understands some of the more sordid sides of American life but also knows where to draw the line between the extremities of right and wrong, and of a judgmental society that can also learn to adapt and not remain as judgmental as it really is.

White Dog

White Dog (1982) movie poster

(1982) dir. Samuel Fuller
viewed: 12/23/08

Some people watch White Christmas (1954) as holiday mood inspiration, me, apparently I watch White Dog, Samuel Fuller’s film about a racist, killer canine.  Doesn’t that just set the mood?

Actually, I’d seen White Dog back more than ten years ago on a bootleg video from Le Video, San Francisco’s one awesome video store.  I’d taken an interest in Fuller when I’d been living in England, seeing The Naked Kiss (1964) and then later Shock Corridor (1963), two of his most radical and outrageous films.  I’ve actually been catching up on Fuller on my own since then, seeing The Big Red One (1980), Pickup on South Street (1953), and I Shot Jesse James (1949).  Also, back in the day, I’d seen an interesting documentary about Fuller called Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made (1994) directed by Mika Kaurismäki and also featuring Jim Jarmusch in a journey with Fuller back to the Amazon recalling a film that failed to complete.  So, I’ve done my Fuller research relatively speaking.

But I didn’t like White Dog when I’d rented it before.  It stars Kristy McNichol as a young actress living in the Los Angeles hills who hits a white German shepherd with her car and takes it in to care for it.  The dog turns out to be a “white dog”, a dog trained by racist owners through abuse and brainwashing to attack black people on sight.  She takes it to an animal care shelter where Paul Winfield and Burl Ives work, treating abused animals.  Winfield makes it his personal goal to break the dog of its racism.

While the idea is quite charged and interesting, the film itself is kind of a hack job.  The reason that I rented it just now was that it just got a re-release on DVD on the Criterion Collection, which is usually a pretty good sign for a film.  The film was never theatrically released in the states, partially because of marketing concerns and potential misunderstanding that the film itself was racist.  The film is a strong critique of racism, how it is not natural, that it is taught, and that even a beautiful, innocent animal, “man’s best friend”, can be polluted and corrupted by it.

McNichol is a very drab lead.  She was such an “It girl” of her time, and I remember thinking she was cute myself, but she’s not much of a presence and she gets to wear some really horrible 1980’s outfits.  Beyond her, the film is sloppy, lacking cinematic power.  I know that the film actually got good reviews from a lot of significant publications, but I just don’t concur.  The film is interesting, very much so, but it’s not a good film, in my opinion.  Co-written by Fuller and Curtis Hanson from a story by Romain Gary, it’s not even really the script that is bad.  It’s the film that is shoddy.

I remember years ago, I went with some friends to see Samuel Fuller’s final feature film at the Roxie cinema in the Mission.  It was Street of No Return (1989), an adaptation of a great David Goodis novel.  It seemed like a great match, Fuller and Goodis, but that film was beyond awful.  My friend who had invited me walked out on it.  I suffered through.  Even great filmmakers make rotten films.  And White Dog is no Street of No Return; it’s not awful.  It’s just not good.  Even though it is interesting, has a fascinating concept, and yearns to offer a meaningful message.  It’s just not all that good.

 

I Shot Jesse James

I Shot Jesse James (1949) movie poster

(1949) dir. Samuel Fuller
viewed: 11/16/07

Director Samuel Fuller’s take on the Jesse James legend is typical of the director, a perspective more on the pathos of James’ killer, Robert Ford, than on the notorious outlaw himself.  Whereas Henry King’s film on James (Jesse James (1939) was a portrait of James’ whole career, Fuller’s film seems more of the source material that inspired Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), focusing on the psychology of Ford, following out his post-assassination career.

John Ireland plays Ford, in a role that I would say has more noir pathos to it than one might expect.  Ford takes Jesse’s life in the classic shot-in-the-back-without-his-guns pose with the intent of marrying the woman that he loves, having been given amnesty for his crime.  He is sore and chagrined at how not only she  treats his crime, but how all of society treats his crime, and his psyche is a tortured one as a result.

There is much in this film that is more directly echoed in Dominik’s film, showing how Ford wound up on stage, re-enacting his notorious deed for people to react to, and most significantly, in the film’s best scene where a traveling troubadour makes the mistake of singing the Jesse James song about the “dirty little coward to shot Mr. Howard”, even having to sweat through it when he realizes that he is singing to Bob Ford himself.  Dominik’s scene seems definitely influenced by this one, if not a portion of homage in it.

There is a definite hamminess to the dialogue and acting, a much lower budget affair, but an efficient and interesting approach to the content.  One would hardly expect less from Fuller, really.

As so often is the case in Westerns, they tend to reflect their era significantly.  And as I mentioned before, there is a definite post-war noirishness to the psychic crisis of Ford, whose rejection from his lover and the world turns him bitter and morally strangled.  It’s an interesting comparison point with Dominik’s film, perhaps because they both share that focal point of the assassination’s aftermath on Ford, but I reckon that it’s also a bit deeper.

For Fuller, however, James is nothing special.  He’s played with stiffness and a lack of canniness that none of the other films seem to see in him.  Fuller is more interested in Ford, and this is Ford’s movie.

Pickup on South Street

Pickup on South Street (1953) movie poster

(1953) dir. Samuel Fuller
viewed: 01/14/07

Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street is probably one of the most straight-forward of his films that I have ever seen, a polished, rich film noir, featuring some great performances from Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, and Thelma Ritter. Ostensibly, a portrait of the life of a pickpocket, a low-level criminal profession that Fuller identified more akin to that of an artist but also a level of character in society that Fuller identified with. Fuller is such a fascinating character himself, and his films certainly all speak to that significantly, but in oddly different ways. In some ways perhaps, Pickup on South Street demonstrates his more formal strengths as a filmmaker, though is typically a crime film with the tough anti-heroes at its emotional core.

There are a number of great shots and scenes. It’s visually quite appealing, and there is some interesting camera movement that follows action through some moments. There are also lots of little story details that are quite nice, like how Widmark’s character keeps his beer in a box on a rope in the Hudson River since he doesn’t “have a Frigidaire”. There is also a great scene in which the villainous Joey escapes a crime scene by lowering himself down a dumbwaiter. There is a lot going on here that is cool and fun.

Ultimately, it’s an anti-Commie flick, which it handles rather humorlessly. Fuller uses the contrast of the villainy of “the Reds” in comparison with the petty crime that he sees as a nearly legitimate profession of that of the small-time crook, represented by Widmarks’s pickpocket, Thelma Ritter’s stoolpigeon, and Jean Peters’ semi-floozy mule. So, it’s an interesting mix, as I think is often noted about Fuller, of some social sensitivity toward the down-and-outers while maintaining a pretty staunch and heavy partiotism.

While it is a very good film on a number of levels, it lacks the over-the-top wackiness that I tend to associate with Fuller. At least that aspect of the film is much more tame. But it’s an excellent noir well worth its salt and certainly works well probably in a real full assessment of Fuller’s work.

The Big Red One

The Big Red One (1980) movie poster

(1980) dir. Samuel Fuller
viewed: 07/17/2005

Sam Fuller is an interesting, but mixed bag. Iconoclast, bizarro, myriad of interesting, challenging things. He’s kind of like some weird uncle, or utter outsider who lacks perfectionism (which I mostly admire). I have mixed feelings toward him, though I have long harbored and interst to see his last big film, The Big Red One.

In reading about it, it is interesting in regards to what conventions it broke for the war film. It’s hard to have that perspective now, in the wake of the genre’s expansion specifically regarding the Vietnam War. War isn’t glorified, necesarilly, nor are the soldiers, anymore. The genre is not a favorite of mine, so I am not as familiar with the conventions, nor the altered conventions.

In watching this movie fresh, in 2005, it seems low-budget, which it was to some extent, keeping the focus on tighter scenes, no glorious extravaganzas. It does focus on the soldiers and their adventure by adventure story. In a sense, it’s picaresque almost, following the five soldiers from exploit to exploit, surviving and living to tell the tale. The soldiers aren’t quite so easy to connect with, however. Their emotional distance, though contraposed with great camaraderie, is quite evident in the tone of the film.

Lee Marvin really holds the film together. And it’s an interesting film. Not a great film, but an interesting one.