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Sam Fuller - Cigars and Cinema with Sam Fuller

      Way up in Laurel Canyon, in an old, narrow, unglamorous house that Phillip Marlowe could have afforded in the 1940s, resides the unacknowledged saint-in-residence of Hollywood. At this very moment you can be sure that Sam Fuller is puffing a long cigar, pounding out yet another script on a ratty typewriter, or reminiscing with a visitor - usually someone less than half Fuller's sixty-seven years - about his golden days as king of the "B" directors, even though he insists he makes "A" pictures on "B" budgets. In France, Sam Fuller is practically a national hero, adored by a generation of cineastes led by Godard and Truffaut and Claude Chabrol. In America, only the most dedicated film freaks catch Fuller's twenty pictures - usually in black and white and tough all over - on the late, late show. Know these titles and you've got a grip on some of the best of Fuller: The Steel Helmet (1950), Pickup on South Street (1953), Forty Guns (1957), Underworld USA (1960), Shock Corridor (1963), The Naked Kiss (1965).

     These are championship movies, though Fuller's career seemed permanently TKO'd in 1967. He was taken off Shark!, with Burt Reynolds, and wasn't that the end of it? For the next decade, Fuller sat home, dreaming movies. And befriending every fledgling screenwriter to hit Los Angeles. He critiqued for free, for love of the cinema. Finally, Peter Bogdanovich, a Fuller maniac, helped get financial backing for Fuller to write and direct a film based on his World War II army experiences in Normandy and Italy, a project that has obsessed Fuller for more than thirty years. That film, The Big Red One, is finally in release. I'd come to LA to talk with Fuller about it.

     I had been warned: Sam Fuller talks your ear off, and The Big Red One's existence has much to do with Fuller's almost unbelievable motormouth perseverance. In a studio meeting, he recited the plot in such enthusiastic, infinitesimal detail that Lorimar Productions practically agreed to do the film to quiet him. "Can't anybody shut this guy up?" is a famous quote from an exhausted Lorimar executive. Film critic Joseph McBride, sat with Fuller and a tape recorder, planning an interview book on the question-answer model of Truffaut/Hitchcock. McBride gave up, overwhelmed. As he told me, "We had eighteen hours of tape and we'd only gotten to 1928." About six years ago, my pal McBride asked Fuller to play a script doctor to a treatment of our mutual concotion - a John Fordish nostalgia Western. Fuller went through it, cut it to size, told McBride what the plot should be, and gave us a punchy title. All for gratis. When I met with Fuller, he looked worried only once: he just couldn't quite remember our very unmemorable script.

     I must brag: I received one of the shortest audiences with Sam Fuller on record, only three hours of straight talk. I succeeded in part by forcing questions into Fuller's non-stup happy-hour monologues. But mostly it was because Fuller had to pack his suitcase and leave for Cannes that evening; and he did apologize, again and again, for eventually kicking me out. He gave me presents of two of his novels, and autographed them.

     Fuller was such a nice guy: buoyant, speedy, lovably crazy, walking up and down his home office - "The Cave" - a dusty Salvation Army room out-of-print books, Fuller scripts, scraps of memorabilia, and rancid cigar air from decades of non-stop puffing. Fuller stalked his room, acting out a scenario he was making up on the spot, about Nixon and Watergate. "Gerry," he said, slapping me on the leg, "I can see it!" His eyes twinkled deliriously, "Tricky Dick walks into the room!" Fuller played several juicy Washingtonians, including a rasping Kissinger. "What a picture it would make!"

     Fuller thinks pictures. A few moments later he was whacking me on the thigh and bouncing another wild idea. He had me starring in a spy melodrama in his head. "We have a car! We have a shack! We have Peary! We have a man in a phone booth!" All exclamation points. All lightbulbs. When I mentioned his birthplace, Worcester, Massachusetts, Fuller shouted "Woostah!" with proper accent, but he hadn't been there for years. He hadn't read my publication, The Real Paper, either, although the ex-tabloid newspaperman exclaimed, "I heard I'd love the sheet!"

     I shifted him to war movies, the Fuller forte, because The Big Red One is only one in a long line of Fuller-directed military pictures, including The Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets, Hell and High Water, China Gate, and Merrill's Marauders. What about the frequent charge that Fuller made xenophobic, anti-Communist films?

     "That's stupid. They assume that you are in sympathy with your characters, but I don't care if my characters are American, Russian, or Nazi. If I made a movie about William the Conqueror, now nobody would give a damn. But in 1068, the people right away would have said, " 'Why are you favoring this dictator?'"

    Fuller, a lifelong Democrat, hates Nixon, but could see making a movie about him. He'd like to do one about Joe McCarthy. With mention of McCarthy, Fuller again started boiling over with celluloid excitement; "McCarthy goes into his apartment. The girl says: 'How's it coming?' He says, 'If I can put the screws to these bastards, I'm on the cover of Life. These are fucking schmucks.'" Fuller's cigar puffed like a steamboat picking up speed. "Gerry, I would take it from his point of view. I would love to tear the heart of an audience with the lousiest son-of-a-bitch ever going. Why don't they make this movie?"

     We shifted gears again, to Sam Fuller's acting career, his colorful bit parts in Godard's Pierrot le Fou, Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie, Wim Wender's The American Friend, Steven Spielberg's 1941, and the one role that got away, Meyer Lansky in the Godfather II.

     "I'm crazy about Coppola. He tested me for the old Jewish gangster and I did it with Al Pacino. But they thought I wasn't old enough or sick enough." Fuller promised me his Godfather screen test the next time I'm in L.A. He has the clipping. But wasn't he sorry that this plum went to Lee Strasberg? "Naw," Fuller shrugged, a man without a bitter bone in his still-wiry body. "That man was perfect. And I'm very fond of Coppola's picture, Apocalypse Now, and its screenwriter, John Milius."

     A few minutes later, as if planned, director John (Dillinger, The Wind and the Lion) Milius called up. The person behind several of the greatest battle scenes in the history of cinema - Milius wrote the Robert Duvall sequences in Apocalypse Now! - had just seen The Big Red One, and loved it. Fuller put me on the phone and Milus delivered a stream of Big Red One blurbs to take back to Boston and the Real Paper. "It's wonderful, wonderful. I'm deeply jealous. I only wish I had made it." Fuller beamed at this heartfelt testimony from the New Hollywood for the best and brightest of the Old.

     The not so good news: The Big Red One, reduced from Sam Fuller's original utopian four-hour length to a playable two-hour print by "other hands" - editors hired by Lorimar - is just an okay war picture. Many of Fuller's potent tabloid images survive (and also some of Fuller's undeniably corny dialogue), but the narrative is rambling, not always coherent, and not always involving. I'd rather see the intact four-hour version, I think, but I imagine that, at any length, it's hard to get too excited about the unchanging story of the dog-faced Sergeant (here, Lee Marvin) who leads a troupe of baby-faced recruits through World War II until they are as hardened as he is. The tale was done most forcefully by John Wayne in 1949's Sands of Iwo Jima, such an effective pro-military picture that, years later, young kids who saw it often volunteered for Vietnam. Ironically, The Big Red One suffers for being much less fascistic, because of the schizophrenic division between traditional kill-the-enemy battle scenes and an antiwar overview and voiceover.

     Mark Hamill as a soldier boy is somewhat more human than in the Star Wars sagas. And Bobby Carradine has a ball playing a cigar-smoking, snotty version of young Sam Fuller, fighting his way through Northern Africa, up Italy, to Normandy, and to Czechoslovakia, all in order to get a novel out of the experience. Sam Fuller showed me the book on his shelf - an Armed Services Edition entitled The Dark Page, a pulp paperback by a young soldier named Samuel Michael Fuller.

The Real Paper – September 4, 1980


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