Samuel Fuller | Subjects
| Visual Style
Films: I Shot Jesse James
| Pickup on South Street | Verboten!
| The Crimson Kimono | The Virginian: It Tolls for Thee
| Shock Corridor
| Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street
| The Big Red One
Classic Film and Television Home Page (with many articles on directors)
| Television Western Articles
Samuel Fuller is an American writer-director of films, and a novelist. For
a discussion of his prose fiction, see here.
His thriller novel Crown of India (1966) is especially good.
Samuel Fuller: Subjects
Common subjects in Fuller:
- Political debates (Communism vs capitalism: The Steel Helmet,
American vs Neo-Nazis: Verboten!,
violence: It Tolls for Thee)
- Opposition to racism (China Gate, Verboten!, The Crimson Kimono,
Shock Corridor) related (dignified black microfilm clerk: Pickup on South Street)
- Babies or children who provoke political fights in parents (European-Vietnamese: China Gate,
American-German after WWII: Verboten!)
- Evil protests (neo-Nazis: Verboten!, racist in asylum: Shock Corridor,
pro-Hitler protest: The Big Red One)
these sometimes provoke riots (Verboten!, Shock Corridor)
- Good and bad headquarters (two newspapers: Park Row, US Occupation vs Werewolf's boxcar: Verboten!)
- People lured into romance by deceptive partners (Verboten!, The Naked Kiss)
related (lying friend: House of Bamboo)
- Men undercover in institutions to solve mysteries (prison hospital: Underworld U.S.A.,
asylum: Shock Corridor)
- Older women who are both tough and sympathetic (Pickup on South Street, Underworld U.S.A.)
- People bathing and talking to other people (Jesse James: I Shot Jesse James,
cowboy getting ready for party: It Tolls for Thee, asylum: Shock Corridor)
- Exhausted marchers (German soldier returning home: Verboten!, heroes on march: Merrill's Marauders)
- Men with leg problems (foot trap: China Gate, veteran hero walks with cane: Verboten!)
- Kids in danger or trouble (injured newsboy: Park Row,
little girl: Underworld U.S.A., children's ward: The Naked Kiss,
babies in hospital: Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street)
- Women with shaved heads (collaborating prostitute: Verboten!, heroine: The Naked Kiss)
- Burlesque (The Crimson Kimono, Shock Corridor)
- Criminal masterminds with elaborate schemes (House of Bamboo, It Tolls for Thee)
- Men who shoot men in the back (protagonist: I Shot Jesse James, Lee Marvin: It Tolls for Thee)
- Hijacking of supplies (newspaper materials in circulation war: Park Row,
food and medicine by Neo-Nazis: Verboten!)
- Unusual media of communication, non-fiction, offering information to the public
(ballad, non-fiction play re-enacted by its real-life hero: I Shot Jesse James,
monastery manuscripts: The Baron of Arizona,
Korean National Anthem: The Steel Helmet,
pioneers of the newspaper business, linotype machine: Park Row,
microfilm, microfilm viewing machines in libraries: Pickup on South Street,
radio broadcasts, loudspeakers, information on Army office wall, films at Nuremberg trials: Verboten!,
judo exhibition match, art, doll show: The Crimson Kimono,
more on pioneering US journalism: It Tolls for Thee,
wall paintings, signs carried by protestors: Shock Corridor)
- Woman newspaper owners (Park Row, It Tolls for Thee)
- Memorials and inscriptions (newspaper pioneers: Park Row, Nisei: The Crimson Kimono)
- Wall maps (Price's office: The Baron of Arizona, American Occupation office: Verboten!)
- Buddhist temples (The Steel Helmet, The Crimson Kimono)
- Classical music (Beethoven: Verboten!, imported chamber orchestra: It Tolls for Thee)
- Songs about people, sung to their faces (ballad: I Shot Jesse James, Trampas: It Tolls for Thee)
- Heroes lose ability to speak (stage fright: I Shot Jesse James, catatonic: Shock Corridor)
Samuel Fuller: Visual Style
- Moving camera staircase shots (hero in hotel: I Shot Jesse James,
Corbett climbs outdoor stair: The Crimson Kimono)
- Concealed presence of a woman is revealed half way through a scene, by a camera movement over to her
(discussion of racism: The Crimson Kimono, opening: Shock Corridor)
related (first view of heroine: Verboten!)
- Camera movements around 90 degree corners (heroine in newspaper office: Park Row,
heroine in red dress at party: It Tolls for Thee)
- Characters photographed against complex architecture (hero: I Shot Jesse James,
hero, heroine, Moe: Pickup on South Street)
- Offices with glass or empty walls (newspaper office: Park Row, American headquarters: Verboten!)
- Wall painting or related images (cartoons hung on newspaper office wall: Park Row,
protest signs arranged on walls: Verboten!,
people painting on the walls: The Crimson Kimono,
graffiti in asylum: Shock Corridor)
- Masked shots (telescope: Forty Guns, binoculars, telescope: It Tolls for Thee)
I Shot Jesse James
I Shot Jesse James (1949) is the first film directed by Samuel Fuller.
I Shot Jesse James shows the influence of The Informer
(John Ford, 1935), one of most acclaimed American films during its time.
Both tell the story of a man who informs on his best friend, for money
that he hopes will buy him a romantic future with a woman. In both, the informer
protagonist is more animal-like and naive than conventional people. Both also co-star
Preston Foster, who offers a contrasting good guy character opposed to the flawed hero.
John Ireland is often photographed against unusual architectural constructions,
throughout the movie:
All of this architecture gives his character a unique presence. He is always being seen in complex,
unusual locales, different from typical architecture. Outdoors, Ireland is shown riding
against strange rock formations, on his trips to and from Jesse's farmhouse.
- He is behind the teller cage, during the bank robbery.
- He enters the farm house, through a netted curtain hung on a strange angular valence.
And before and after the murder, he is seen against the curtain.
- He is shown twice against the farm house front, with its many peaked roofs, and
the windmill supports at screen left.
- During Jesse's bath, he is shown against the barn alcove, itself framed by a valence.
- Before the killing, he is outside a window, looking in to the farm house.
- After the murder, he is shown from a low angle, against the surreally high walls of the
- He is seen in a jail cell.
- He is shown both entering and leaving the porch of the saloon, where the song is sung.
- The camera tracks with him, as he moves warily down a covered sidewalk.
- He is shown in the complex, recessed entrance to the Silver King.
- He is the main person seen on the hotel landing and staircase (Glenn Corbett will have another
moving camera staircase shot in The Crimson Kimono).
Jesse has his own unusual background: he is often photographed against
the strange wall of the living room. This wall is full of strong horizontal lines -
it looks different from most cinema sets in other movies. In front of the wall,
behind Jesse, there are unusual curved objects, such as lamps. And also rectangular
objects, like the fatal picture. Later, in Shock Corridor, Fuller will
have the characters draw directly on the wall. The shapes behind Jesse are not quite
as strange as the asylum pictures, but they are still both surreal and memorably geometric.
The hotel room, essentially created by the hero for his girlfriend, is also unusual. It has flower
wallpaper, and the hero is shown filling it with flowers. Here, too, what is on the walls
(pictures of flowers on the wallpaper), echoes what is in the room.
At the end, the hero is shown against a different kind of background. He is swallowed up
in darkness, before the duel. This is a remarkable image. It is also a portrait of a
man, who has so often been photographed against a complex architectural setting.
Architecture - and Joseph H. Lewis
Several architectural motifs in I Shot Jesse James echo the films of
Joseph H. Lewis. Netted curtains, peaked roofs, staging through windows,
alcoves, bank teller cages, jail cells with bars, camera movement staging on staircases: all are common in the films of Lewis.
All of these motifs appear in Lewis, before Fuller. (Although the precise type of netted curtain
in I Shot Jesse James only starts appearing in Lewis' TV shows of the 1960's.)
The hero's gun fascination, in his joy at being given a gun by Jesse, also eerily echoes the gun
obsessions of Lewis characters: see Gun Crazy and many other Lewis works.
It is hard to tell if all this is simply a coincidence. These could simply reflect a common
steeping in Western film traditions.
The Crimson Kimono has a moving camera shot, which starts outdoors with the characters,
and pulls back to bring the view inside a building. Such shots linking outdoors and inside are
a Lewis trademark.
Underworld U.S.A. also echoes some of Lewis' gangster movies. The determined feds who use
adding machines recall the Treasury investigators in Lewis' The Undercover Man (1949). That
film also features a bookkeeper who wants to testify against the mob, and another witness
with a little girl. And Lewis' The Big Combo (1955) contains a mobster's hidden room,
a bit like the sliding doors to the mob room in Underworld U.S.A..
Bob Ford (John Ireland) acts and looks different from the other characters in the film. For most
of the movie, he is the only man not in a tie. And the only one in cowboy gear, rather than
in a Western suit. This makes him both look more glamorous and attractive - but also
like a man who is completely disconnected from society. Everyone else has a stake in normal living -
but Bob Ford is an outsider. His hair is also unkempt. He uses bad grammar, unlike everyone else.
Ireland also engages in impetuous action. He leaps over the guard rail at the bank. Later,
he bursts into the room, and pulls out a drawer.
Ford is a strange mixture of virility, and outsider status.
The murder is echoed four times, in later scenes of the film:
The last two scenes show the hero trying to reverse his earlier course. They allow him
redemption from his earlier actions: scenes where he does the exact opposite of his killing
- By the stage re-creation.
- By the song.
- When the hero prevents a back-shooting in the bar, he is stopping a crime
similar to his own killing of Jesse.
- The mountain lion scene at camp, is staged to make the audience think that
the hero is betraying and shooting another friend. He is not - he is saving his
friend's life, instead.
Ford's shooting in the last two scenes eerily echoes his killing of Jesse: but in both scenes, it saves lives, instead.
These scenes allow him to use his shooting skills. They suggest that there is a
good side to the hero's aggressive nature - properly guided, it can be employed to help people.
Bob Ford is an unusual force throughout the film, representing aggressive, animal-like principles
that the other characters are too civilized (or conformist) to embody.
Fuller shows great imagination with the plotting of all four of these scenes. Their many echoes and reversals
of earlier scenes show master craftsmanship in plotting. Such complex plotting is a Fuller
The minstrel sings a song about a man's personal life, to a public audience containing that man.
In this, I Shot Jesse James recalls I Walked With a Zombie
(Jacques Tourneur, 1943).
Pickup on South Street
A Film noir?
Is Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street (1954) a film
noir? One might point out that it was made after the main heyday
of noir, although major noir films were still being made. The
film involves international Communism and espionage, and this
is also very different from the crime backgrounds of most noirs.
Fuller is staunchly anti-Communist, and this gives a moral dimension
to the film that is absent from most noir. The characters, especially
the women, struggle heroically to prevent weapons secrets from
falling into the hands of the Communists. This sort of moral point
is simply not in most noir film's world view. They tend to take
place with purely criminal matters in a world without much transcendent
For another, none of the women in the film are femme fatales.
The glamorous looking heroine turns out to be the main male character's
redeemer, not his destroyer. No one seems emotionally obsessed,
and no romantic passion leads to death.
If the term "film noir" simply refers to any black and
white non-whodunit crime film made in Hollywood in the 1940's
and 1950's, then Fuller's film is automatically a film noir. Otherwise,
one might point out that Fuller's work does not fall into standard
aspects of noir themes or style. His work seems very different
from true film noir. Fuller rarely uses the extreme angle photography
found in Fritz Lang or Robert Siodmak.
Night scenes do not involve high contrast.
The title of this film echoes Raymond Chandler's
prose mystery tale "Pickup on Noon Street" (1936). Later,
Fuller will also create Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street
(1972), so he likes this form of title.
Such street titles were also a feature of the semi-documentary film noir,
such as Henry Hathaway's
The House on 92nd Street (1945). That film, like Fuller's,
deals with foreign spies trying to uncover important weapons secrets
in New York City; in both, FBI agents try to counteract them.
Pickup on South Street is not as rich in plot echoes as
I Shot Jesse James, where the murder is endlessly replayed.
But it does open and close with parallel pickpocket scenes on a subway train.
There are also two scenes in Moe's room, where people try to get information
about the hero from her.
Plot Links to Other Fuller Films
The protagonist of Pickup on South Street is a crook, one who often
performs unsympathetic acts. This echoes the criminal hero of I Shot Jesse James,
and looks forward to the schemer of Shock Corridor.
The milieu of Pickup on South Street, the main setting of the underworld
contrasted with views of the police, will recur in Underworld U.S.A..
Both films will show police conferences, at which high level strategy is discussed.
The villain is presented with a gun by his sinister superiors, in Pickup on South Street.
In I Shot Jesse James, the hero is given a gift of a gun by Jesse. Both scenes ominously
Characters in Pickup on South Street are often photographed against
In Pickup on South Street numerous characters are photographed
against such backgrounds: Hero, heroine, Moe. In this it differs from
I Shot Jesse James, in which the hero was the only character
associated with complex architecture.
- The Art Deco office building interior, where the heroine makes a phone call.
The fancy roof is shown.
- The shack where the hero lives.
- The construction site.
- The Bowery tattoo parlor, and street vendors.
- The funeral boats.
- The streets near Joey.
- The subway turnstiles area and men's room.
Also unusual in Pickup on South Street are the two "elevators":
the box with the beer at the shack, and the dumb waiter at the apartment.
Pickup on South Street includes a number of overhead shots. These
tend to be steeply vertical, looking straight down on the setting below.
The dumb waiter scene is also shot vertically: but this time looking
straight up, from below.
Suspense in the Men's Room
The subway men's room, recalls earlier semi-documentary crime films,
which have suspense sequences in men's rooms:
All of these films feature encounters between the hero and criminals in the men's room.
The gleaming subway rest room in Fuller, seems brighter, better lit, more public and
cleaner than those of its ancestors.
Moe is one of a number of older women characters in Fuller, who are
tough, street smart, comic, and who have a quasi-maternal relationship with the hero.
Moe's room is full of ties, like the dolls that decorate the home of
the similar character in Underworld U.S.A..
Jay Loft-Lyn's microfilm clerk at the library, is notable as a
non-stereotyped black character, at a fairly early date. (One might note that such
microfilm machines are still being used in libraries in the 2000's; I have spent hundreds
of hours reading microfilmed comics in them.)
The informer Lightning Louie anticipates Pagliacci in Shock Corridor.
At least, they are both similar physical types.
Verboten! (1959) looks at the American Occupation of Germany in 1945.
Park Row: Links
Verboten! has links to Park Row, Fuller's hymn to the early days of newspapers.
The American Headquarters good guys, and the Neo-Nazi bad guys, remind one of the good and bad newspapers in Park Row:
Newspapers are seen as the foundation of Democracy in Park Row.
So it is not too surprising that Fuller in Verboten! presents the struggle between
Dictatorship and Democracy in the same light.
- The American Headquarters actually spends a lot of time collecting information, like a newspaper.
They have walls full of reports. In Park Row, wall files of news reports on births, marriages, etc. are seen near a desk.
- Different American Occupation groups create the radio programs broadcast by loudspeakers in
various locations. And they show the Nuremberg Trial films that are the climax of the movie.
- The bad guys in both movies fight through hijacking the good guys' supplies:
food and medicine in Verboten!, newsprint and ink in Park Row.
- The good guys in both films even have similar offices, with interior windows that allow one to look through their rooms.
In many films, protests tend to be both for liberal causes, such as Civil Rights, and also viewed
sympathetically by the film. But in Samuel Fuller, protests sometimes are for evil ends,
and viewed negatively by the director. Case in point: The Neo-Nazis protesting against the Americans in
Verboten!. This anticipates the sinister pro-Hitler protest shown and condemned in The Big Red One.
And also the anti-Civil Rights protestor in the asylum in Shock Corridor.
The protest leads to one of the political debates that run through Fuller. Here, the hero
gives a full exposition of the American point of view.
Fuller films contain images of weary, marching foot-soldiers: see Merrill's Marauders.
In Verboten!, we see an exhausted German soldier walking home after the war.
The American veteran hero has leg trouble, and walks with a cane. This recalls China Gate,
and the horrible foot trap that attacks a marching soldier.
Camera Movement and What It Reveals
The heroine is first discovered unexpectedly, in a camera movement that sweeps around the train car.
This shot is perhaps linked to shots in other Fuller, in which women are shown to be unexpectedly
present in scenes, through camera movements that reveal them.
When the meeting between the mayor and the US Army Captain ends, the camera pulls back to reveal
that the hero and the Neo-Nazi villain had also been present. The audience does not know this before.
This too has some similarities with the "women unexpectedly present" camera movements in other Fuller.
The Crimson Kimono
This excellent film shows several of Fuller's strong points as
These are recurrent elements in Fuller's best films.
- Complex, inventive plotting.
- Rich characterization.
- Educational looks at little known aspects of society and modern
- Attacks on racism; and pro-Civil Rights commentary
- Off-trail situations and characters.
- A loopy sense of humor.
- Complex camera movements
- A strong sense of composition
It is also typical of Fuller's best work, in that he wrote the
screenplay himself, and that that the film was self-initiated
project. Such films tend to be more creative than the commissioned
projects Fuller did for Fox, for example, which often have screenplays
written by others.
The film has links to Fuller's Underworld U.S.A.:
- An older, tough, comic woman as mentor to the hero (also found in Pickup on South Street).
- Tough urban areas full of bars, filled with pedestrians.
- Modernistic office buildings that serve as centers of organizations
(police headquarters in The Crimson Kimono, the mob's National Projects in Underworld U.S.A.).
- Use of newspaper headlines to tell the story.
The film has links to Fuller's Shock Corridor:
- A whodunit plot, investigating a murder.
- An innocent woman, who keeps getting lured by men deeper and deeper into a dangerous situation
(the police witness in The Crimson Kimono, the girlfriend in Shock Corridor).
- Walls full of paintings, and scenes of people painting on the walls.
- Strippers, showing their tawdry acts on a bare stage.
- Scenes where the concealed presence of a woman is revealed half way through,
by a camera movement over to her
(the discussion of racism near the end of The Crimson Kimono, the opening of Shock Corridor).
Much of The Crimson Kimono involves three distinct kinds
of shots: frontal spectacle shots, camera movement, and dialogue
All three types of shots are often constructed frontally. This
same frontal approach was sometimes used by Edward L. Cahn.
1) Spectacle shots include the targeting of the heroine at the
sorority house near the start; and the shots of the paraders at
the very end, after the killer has been captured. These are shots
of purely visual interest, often of groups of people or objects
without motion. They tend to be prettily composed. When Fuller
wants to show a spectacle, he often shoots it from the front,
with the spectacle parallel to the plane of the frame.
2) The camera movements are related in technique to the spectacle
shots, although they are also far more complex. Camera movements
often begin or end with such a frontal spectacle shot. Or have
such a shot in the middle.
Camera movement tends to be complex. The shots are held for a
fairly long time. They often involve the movements of characters:
entering a room, crossing a street, chasing a crook. They are
ingeniously put together. In fact, most of them can be considered
as art objects, separate, jewel like shots designed to please
with their imagination. Camera movement is not a continuous commentary
on action throughout, as it is, say, in Max Ophuls'
final films, or in Otto Preminger's Fallen Angel.
Some camera movements tend to start out frontally, then move straight
backward, towards the viewer. This preserves the frontality of
the shot. Examples: the mid section of the early "cross the
street" shot. After the initial pan, the camera is parallel
to both the street and the big building. Then the camera moves
backward, keeping itself still parallel to the building and the
A shot at the police station follows one officer deeper and deeper
into a room, where the heroine is studying mug shots. The shot
keeps revealing more and more of the grid of pictures and posters
on the wall behind. The many different views of this wall, all
with more and more of its beautiful rectilinear grid in view,
in one of the most beautiful in the film. It is like a Mondrian
The most amazing camera movement shot in the film is the doll
show. The camera keeps moving backward, showing more and more
of the doll show, as the actors move around in intricate patterns.
This is a triumph of visual complexity. This is like the shot
at the police station with the wall grid, but even more complex.
Fuller does sometimes use high level angles in his spectacle shots
or camera movements. This especially true in the shot of the street
leading to the temple, and in the doll show. These have the effect
of suggesting a map of the street, and a floor plan diagram of
the doll show. Even here, this high level angle creates a harmonious
sort of visual beauty, combined with a clear, logical overview
of the area. There is no attempt to make a baroque, or disorienting
view, as in so much extreme-angle photography in noir.
Other camera movements are at eye level. Fuller is very happy
to shoot them this way. The movement of the camera is key here,
not some extreme angle.
When Corbett and Fuller encounter a staircase, Fuller does not
shoot up it at baroque angles, as nearly all noir directors would
do. Instead, his camera gracefully follows Corbett up the stairs,
in a beautiful and exciting rising camera movement. Once again,
the camera movement is a gorgeous and imaginative spectacle. It
is not a trigger for noir tilted-angled, architecturally-centered
None of the camera movements in The Crimson Kimono are
as long or elaborate as the ten minute take in Forty Guns.
But they share a similar aesthetic, emphasizing spectacle, ingenuity
of staging, and a graceful visual moving camera visual style.
These are distinct set pieces, viewed in some ways by Fuller as
independent art objects within the over all matrix of the film.
3) Dialogue shots tend to be frontal as well. They tend to be
very plain, visually. Fuller will arrange his actors in a plane,
set the camera up directly in front of them, and shoot their dialogue.
He usually does not try to create some brilliant composition.
Or make any special emphasis on architecture. Characters in Fritz Lang
are often deeply embedded in a composition deriving from the architecture.
Much of film noir has followed this Lang tradition: Anthony Mann,
Robert Siodmak, Robert Aldrich,
Orson Welles, Joseph Losey, for example.
Fuller's complete avoidance of this tradition is one reason that
The Crimson Kimono looks so much unlike mainstream film
Fuller does not tilt his camera very much in dialogue shots. This
is also different from much of film noir.
Some of the compositions in the film involve S-shapes. A shot,
showing City Hall reflected in a store window in Little Tokyo,
has S-shaped regions surrounding the plate glass with the reflection.
This shot is one of Fuller's cleverest compositions linking City
Hall and the Japanese district in Los Angeles.
Much of the camera movement at the doll show (the highlight of
the film) can be described as S-shapes. The camera keeps framing
the corridors at the show, together with "empty" wall
space framing the characters, as S-forms. These S-shaped regions
are the spaces occupied by the characters, while the tables with
dolls around them block out the regions outside the S. Fuller
shows great ingenuity, in constantly discovering or creating new
S-shaped regions, as he moves his camera around at the show.
The Virginian: It Tolls for Thee
It Tolls for Thee (1962) is an episode of the television Western series,
The Virginian. Around 75 minutes long, it is of the length of many feature films.
It Tolls for Thee is pleasant enough, but never becomes any sort of major Fuller.
The show is nicely filmed in color. The brilliantly colored red costumes of Pippa Scott and James Drury
There is a good camera movement, as Pippa Scott in her flamboyant red dress moves
through various rooms of the party. The shot turns a right-angle corner, in its middle.
Shots show the world as if seen through binoculars. The screen is masked off, as if in a silent film.
This is a common effect in the films of Raoul Walsh.
It also recalls the view in Fuller's Forty Guns. The last such shot has the masking border
suddenly widen out, till it disappears in the edges of the frame, and we are back to a full,
ordinary image. It is a somewhat surprising transition. We think we are watching the world through
binoculars, a diegetic effect - and all of a sudden, we are in an abstract film transition,
a non-diegetic figure of style.
The best parts of It Tolls for Thee occur in the first half hour. These include a look
at early US journalism, with a focus on the Western US. These scenes seem like a direct
supplement to Fuller's earlier look at the great history of the newspaper in
Park Row. They also include a woman newspaper publisher, also like Park Row.
Newsprint supplies arrive at the train station, but unlike Park Row, they are not hijacked.
These sections are far from any sort of masterpiece, but they are gripping
and enjoyable. Unfortunately, Fuller largely drops this subject after the mid-point of
It Tolls for Thee.
Links to I Shot Jesse James
Also nice in the early sections: people getting ready for a big party. This includes a
"cowboy taking a bath while visiting with other cowboys" scene: a direct echo of
I Shot Jesse James. These scenes are as light and comic as I Shot Jesse James
was tense and tragic. Still, they add nice touches to the film. There is also a comic song
about one of the cowboys, sung to his face: a comic echo of the classic ballad sequence in
I Shot Jesse James, also sung to the hero's face.
Unfortunately, most of the rest of the show is taken up by a kidnapping and chase plot.
This story-line has little inherent interest. There is an interesting if brief encounter with a banker,
which also seems like a mild, cheerful variant of the bank robbery in I Shot Jesse James.
Fuller jazzes the second half up with philosophical debates
between his learned-yet-rotten criminal mastermind (Lee Marvin, no less), and kidnapped judge
Lee J. Cobb. Fuller tries to give Marvin's outlaw a complex backstory and some decent philosophical dialogue.
But none of this is actually compelling or first rate. The skills of Fuller and his actors make this mildly interesting,
but it never achieves real substance.
The subject of the debates is violence, and whether it is justifiable. This is certainly an important topic:
It Tolls for Thee was made right in the middle of the non-violent Civil Rights revolution
of Martin Luther King. However, Fuller's discussion never goes very deep. We keep hearing the judge
is a hypocrite, because he allegedly has violence in his empire-building past. But we never learn of what said
violence consisted. It might be as harmless as shooting an outlaw gang, or serious as murder of
farmers and seizing their land. Who knows? This gives the whole discussion an abstract quality,
bereft of any concrete actions to evaluate.
In any case, Fuller never breaches the subject of non-violent resistance. He only discusses "violence".
Mastermind: Links to House of Bamboo
Marvin's criminal mastermind recalls Robert Ryan and his gang in House of Bamboo,
as does the violent discipline he inflicts on his men.
Both film's masterminds have elaborate criminal schemes, perfectly executed.
Marvin also shoots a man in the back, recalling I Shot Jesse James.
I Shot Jesse James: Links
Shock Corridor (1963) has a number of links with Fuller's
first feature, I Shot Jesse James. Both films:
- Have a hero who makes a radical, unusual decision - one that permanently
separates him from the rest of human society.
- Have the hero's girlfriend be a woman in cheap show biz.
- Constantly throw emotional obstacles at the proposed marriage of the hero and heroine.
- Have the hero involved with lying and deceit, as part of his scheme.
- Show scenes of study for a caper (undercover in asylum, bank robbery map).
- Have the hero "sponsored" by an older man in the media (newspaper editor, play producer).
- Have the hero play games with other characters (cards).
- Put the hero in physical danger.
- Put the hero through surreal situations.
- Have the hero lose the ability to speak or perform (as Bob Ford does on-stage)
- Have the hero encounter male characters who sing, and who are involved with show biz.
- Make the hero become roommates with other men, under unusual situations.
- Have encounters between the hero and other men, in bathtubs.
- Star an athletic leading man actor, handsome, yet of intense physicality.
Underworld U.S.A.: Links
Plot germs for Shock Corridor can also be found in Fuller's Underworld U.S.A. (1961).
In that film, the hero goes looking for a witness to his father's murder
- inside a prison hospital. The hospital resembles the insane asylum in
Shock Corridor. We also see the dormitories in both the prison and an earlier reform school:
which resemble the dorms and beds in Shock Corridor.
The hero of Underworld U.S.A. finds the witness, and gets the truth about his father's murder - quite
like the three witnesses Johnny interrogates in Shock Corridor.
The "threeness" of the plot in Shock Corridor has an antecedent in
Underworld U.S.A.: the hero learns there are three murderers. From this point on,
the hero has to hunt down and attack thre three killers: just as the plot skeleton
of Shock Corridor has the hero hunting down three witnesses.
The two main plot premises of Shock Corridor are flawed (at least by
conventional standards of believability):
Paradoxically, the flaws in Shock Corridor actually benefit the picture.
For one thing, they give the film originality. You've never seen anything
like this before.
- Despite the heroine's intense opposition, there is nothing actually immoral,
about going undercover in an asylum to catch a criminal. This is different
from I Shot Jesse James, whose hero's transgressive act - shooting his best friend in
the back - is highly immoral.
- And no one can catch mental illness, from hanging out at an asylum.
For another, they remove any sense of guilt from the protagonist. Unlike Bob Ford in
I Shot Jesse James, the reporter in Shock Corridor has done
Dr. Cristo's characterization seems modeled on Richard Widmark's character in
The Cobweb (Vincente Minnelli, 1955). Both are
head psychiatrists of mental institutions, both treat young men patients.
Both are portrayed as highly competent, yet ultimately confused. Both are
strongly macho men, who seem to be challenging their patients man-to-man, to start
accepting reality, as part of their treatment. Both seem like experts, yet also
as "real men" as the era saw them, regular guys who have no pretense. Both
are explicitly family men, with wives and children.
Pagliacci can't sing worth a darn. His character recalls some real life
"singers" who were famous for inadvertently mangling opera, such as
Florence Foster Jenkins. The actor must have worked long and hard, to get this "bad".
Peter Breck shows himself competent at carrying a tune,
in his one brief performance of an aria. This makes an odd contrast.
Hari Rhodes gives one of the best performances. His speeches draw on a long tradition
of black oratory, both political, and in the church.
Peter Breck's scenes where he lets go, and becomes physically violent, are remarkably
uninhibited. They anticipate Breck's illness scenes in his other greatest film and role:
the "Night of the Wolf" episode of The Big Valley (Joseph H. Lewis,
1965). In both films, Breck acts with his whole body. He conveys intense emotions. Breck was
mainly a television actor, whose career one suspects is off-radar to most film historians.
The "O.B.I.T." episode of The Outer Limits (Gerd Oswald, 1964) is also a notable film.
Breck gets to show his range here, by playing the Voice of Reason. Also worthwhile:
such The Big Valley episodes as "The Way to Kill a Killer" (Joseph M. Newman)
and "Hide the Children" (Arthur H. Nadel). Both of these latter films have Civil Rights themes,
like Shock Corridor.
Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street
Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (1972) is Fuller's playful
homage to the private eye genre.
Fuller and Godard
Fuller had appeared as himself in Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le fou
(1965), and Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street
shows the influence of Godard. It has wild titles, with giant
letters that flash on the screen, just like a Godard title sequence,
or the words that interrupt and punctuate his films. Fuller has
always been wildly inventive. But Pigeon has a playful,
tongue in cheek quality that reminds one of Pierrot and
other Godard movies. Of course, much of Godard's rush of invention
was inspired by Fuller's films, so their is a circle of inspiration
here: 1950's Fuller influencing 1960's Godard, who in turn influences
The location filming here also recalls Godard, and the French
New Wave. Most of Fuller's Hollywood films had been shot on studio
sets. Here Fuller has taken to the streets. This was a general
change in filmmaking practice in the 1970's, not just restricted
to Fuller. But still, Fuller's use of location seems especially
Godardian. Fuller, like Godard, often follows his characters along
urban streets. There is a documentary like quality to these scenes,
in both Godard and Fuller. Just as Godard's Breathless
(1959) showed the streets of Paris, and Le Petit soldat
(1960) Geneva, so does Fuller's film display Köln. The many
cafe sequences in Godard are echoed by the restaurant scenes in
Even Godard's interiors, which emphasize props against
white walls, find an echo in the early hotel scene in this film.
Godard's use of hanging painting masterpieces on the walls as
cultural references is also employed by Fuller here. It is a whole
Godard movie Fuller is making here, employing every Godard technique
he can lay his hands on. Fuller had always loved to play with
the grammar of film. Here he has a whole new set of toys to play
A shot out of a huge hospital window recalls the similar large
apartment windows in Antonioni's L'Eclisse (1961).
The fight on the hospital stairs here recalls the earlier subway
scene in Fuller's Pickup on South Street (1954).
The scenes with the babies in the hospital recall the children's ward in
The Naked Kiss (1964), and Sandy's love of babies in Underworld U.S.A..
Fuller also juxtaposed the innocence of children and the corruption
of adults in Underworld U.S.A.
Fuller had always enjoyed including religious symbols and architecture
in his films. One thinks of the monastery in The Baron of Arizona
(1950), the crucifix in The Big Red One, and the Buddhist
temples and statues in The Steel Helmet (1951) and The
Crimson Kimono. Here Köln Cathedral plays a prominent
The Big Red One
The Big Red One (1980) has recently been reconstructed,
with much of the footage cut (against Fuller's wishes) in its
first release restored. By any standard, this is a considerable
However, I am baffled both by this film, and its enthusiastic
critical response. Much of the movie is just combat scenes, relentless
looks at the main characters firing at the Germans, and the Germans
firing back at them. I could rarely see anything interesting or
significant about this depressing footage. There is no educational
value to the film, few of the documentary-like scenes that have
been of such substance in previous Fuller works. There is little
plot - just a string of incidents - and we learn almost nothing
about the characters or inner lives the five main soldiers followed
throughout the film. And the film's visual style rarely seems
distinguished. Consequently, Fuller is playing against the strengths
that distinguish his best work as a filmmaker.
The films does have some above-average scenes. The early scene
of the Americans and the French trying to be allies, despite a
vicious pro-Nazi Vichy general, is impressive. This has both the
off-trail drama and historical insight that recall Fuller at his
best. Such peace time interludes as the welcome from the Sicilian
women, and the birth of a baby, are also nicely done. A brief
scene with Christa Lang as an opportunistic, corrupt German aristocrat
has both the historical background and characterization that is
so sorely lacking in much of the rest of the film. A battle in
an insane asylum is at least off-trail, reminding us that Fuller
made Shock Corridor, and also featuring an all-too-brief
good performance by Stéphane Audran, representing the New
Wave (she is the talented star and wife of Claude Chabrol).
Fuller also evokes some of the fanatic support Hitler had from
many Germans, including a truly sinister pro-Hitler protest, a
scene I have never seen in any other film.
In general, I really dislike war movies. I regard having to see
combat on screen as a thoroughly unpleasant experience. Fuller
deserves credit for not making the combat in this film seem like
"fun", or some sort of cheap video game: it is harrowing
and nightmarish. This film seems morally and politically inoffensive.
It does not glorify war, or serves as a recruiting poster. But
it is not especially creative or interesting either, a few good