Pickup on South Street (1953)

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By Scott Ross

Few filmmakers reveal the paucity of critical ideas and vocabulary more than Samuel Fuller—or inspire more overuse of verbal cliché. Scan nearly any piece on Fuller’s movies and, however laudatory the perspective, the word “blunt” is virtually guaranteed to appear, sooner rather than later. The irony could not be more stark, or risible: That a man whose work so assiduously avoided cliché should find his adherents so giddily besotted with it.

Sam Fuller, with typical cigar, around the time of "Pickup on South Street."

Sam Fuller, with typical cigar, around the time of “Pickup on South Street.”

What, on an admittedly limited viewing basis, seems perfectly obvious to me about Sam Fuller was an integrity, almost singular among his colleagues, whose hallmark is originality. As a former tabloid journalist (at 17 the youngest crime reporter in the country) and a survivor of a series of devastating battles during World War II, Fuller understood to his bones the importance of grabbing the reader from the first sentence. Or, to put it in cinema terms, as a writer/director, of engaging the viewer from the opening scene. Why, then, is his very avoidance of the obvious, his refusal to resort to rote exposition, a cudgel with which to limit him? His acolytes mean it as a tribute when they burble about Fuller’s bluntness. (A modest proposal: Are they confusing the man, with his ever-present stogie and emphatic, idiosyncratic proclamations, with his work?) Perhaps it says more about them than about him, but such by-the-numbers critical verbiage may scare off more readers than it invites. It certainly put me off Fuller, for far too long.

Richard Widmark rifles through Jean Peters' purse under her very nose in the masterful opening sequence of "Pickup on South Street."

Richard Widmark rifles through Jean Peters’ purse under her very nose in the masterful opening sequence of “Pickup on South Street.”

In Pickup on South Street, Fuller begins his narrative with a beautifully staged, virtually wordless sequence in a New York subway car. Without resort to boring dialogue or explicit voice-over, he presents a pickpocket (Richard Widmark) plying his trade in his natural milieu. I know of no other movie of the period that gets the details so right: The way habitual underground passengers stare at nothing to avoid eye-contact, leaving themselves open, as Jean Peters does here, to larceny by men they resolutely refuse to let into their narrowed viewpoint. (Not incidentally, Fuller was virtually alone in depicting his New York as integrated; while no black characters of note appear in the movie, black extras dot the streets and subways liberally… just as they did in life. Gee. Fancy that.)

Only once Widmark’s Skip has left the train with his swag does Fuller let us in on the set-up: Peters’ Candy is being tailed by a pair of FBI agents and what Skip has absconded with are the microfilmed secrets she was (unwittingly, as it turns out) carrying. Billy Wilder, the era’s other important writer/director, would call this The Wienie, Hitchcock The MacGuffin. It’s also known as The Hook—that central, irresistible (if sometimes mystifying) conflict that drives an entire picture. If this is bluntness, I’ll take it, and like it.

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In Fuller’s world, the details that accrete to the story support, and enrich, it. Skip’s waterfront shack, perfectly limned by the movie’s art director, Lyle Wheeler (and its cinematographer, Joseph MacDonald) provides the requisite darkness the plot demands and a splendid curlicue: The winch and pulley system Skip rigs both to keep his beer cooled in the river and to hide the loot he’s pocketed. It’s the single, obvious, place no one—not Peters, the cops, or the Communist agents who are soon on Skips’ trail—ever thinks to look.

The rather unsavory Captain Tiger (Murvyn Vye) with Skip, his perennial bete noir.

The rather unsavory Captain Tiger (Murvyn Vye) with Skip, his perennial bete noir.

For Fuller, those “Commies,” as they’re often referred to, are not, as in every other movie of the period that depicts them, the point. Candy’s one-time paramour Joey (a very young, and very effective, Richard Kiley) would sell anything to anyone. He’s an agent, motivated not by ideology but by cash… like Skip, and like Moe (Thelma Ritter) the professional stool pigeon whose informing on him Skip does not resent. The T-men push Skip with the usual, pat patriotic line, to which he refreshingly responds, “Are you waving the flag at me?” (A line J. Edgar Hoover personally took the expected exception to but which, to his credit, Fox production chief Darryl Zanuck refused to edit out.)

Skip and Moe, the movie's tattered mother figure whose informing sets up a deadly chain of events but whose motives the pickpocket doesn't so much forgive as shrug off.

Skip and Moe, the movie’s tattered mother figure whose informing sets up a deadly chain of events but whose motives the pickpocket doesn’t so much forgive as shrug off.

The movie’s love-match begins with  the man slugging the woman on the jaw, progresses to brittle comradeship, nearly founders on the rocks of mutual disgust, and finally blossoms through a brutal beating and attempted murder. Fuller’s startling approach to his material doesn’t end with his disdain of knee-jerk patriotism; his heart is with the petty thief, the stained B-girl and the decrepit stoolie. If there is honor in Pickup on South Street, then, it’s only among thieves.

An unlikely pairing: Candy and Skip share a rare moment of tenderness. Two cynics who find common ground.

An unlikely pairing: Candy and Skip share a rare moment of tenderness. Two cynics who find common ground.

In a taut, 80-minute running-time, Fuller somewhat miraculously finds the leisure to stage what, to my mind, is the single most moving sequence of the period: The resigned death of Moe. We tend to think of Thelma Ritter as the era’s quintessential all-purpose comedian, the wisecracking side-kick whose only coeval is the equally witty Eve Arden: As the mordant Sadie Dugan of A Letter to Three Wives, as the acerbic Birdie of All About Eve, as the philosophical Stella of Rear Window. But despite her six Oscar nominations (that she never won the award says a great deal about that tarnished icon) we don’t necessarily remember her as an actor. Seeing her final, quietly anguished, scene in Pickup on South Street will dispel that misapprehension in your mind forever. The tearful but never maudlin resilience with which she accepts her imminent murder, the tremble of her chin, and the despairing resignation of her final words (“Mister, I’m so tired you’d be doing me a favor if you blew my head off.”) are profoundly, disturbingly, almost unbearably poignant.

Moe confronts Joey in the movie's most deeply affecting scene.

Moe confronts Joey in the movie’s most deeply affecting scene. Donna Reed’s win over Thelma Ritter at the following year’s Academy Awards is beyond dismaying.

When hack critics and auteurists (and that’s most of them, it would seem) reach for the hoary word “blunt” to describe a movie that visceral and artistically fresh, is it just possible that “honest” is a more appropriate alternative?

Whatever the tag-line says, it's not the law that wins in the end.

Whatever the tag-line says, it’s not the law that wins in the end.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

And “Worst Picture” Goes To…?

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By Scott Ross

While preparing my recent entry about Around the World in 80 Days I ran across a number of Internet articles naming it one of the worst movies to have won the Best Picture Oscar. Setting aside from the moment my own umbrage—and just what the hell is wrong with a witty, charming, and genuinely entertaining movie?—take a moment some time to look up the other winners. And if you are fool enough, or gullible enough, to imagine that an Academy Award recognizes actual artistic greatness or confers some sort of greatness of its own, you can stop reading now.

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Which big Oscar winners are demonstrably “great” movies, either of their years or ever? How many? Damn few, it turns out.

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Asked by the filmmaker for his opinion of the movie he’d just seen, Billy Wilder bowed and replied, “Mr. DeMille, you have made ‘The Greatest Show on Earth.'” Naturally, C.B. didn’t get the put-down, and was delighted.

First, remove the creaky and historically significant but otherwise undistinguished pictures (Wings, The Broadway Melody, Cimarron.) Then omit the inexplicable (Cavalcade, The Great Ziegfeld, The Greatest Show on Earth), the gaudily extravagant (Grand Hotel, Ben-Hur) and the once-distinguished, “problem” pictures that strike us now—and struck some then—as wildly overrated (The Best Years of Our Lives, Gentleman’s Agreement, Hamlet, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, American Beauty.) Strike off the Huh??? entries (You Can’t Take It With You, Rebecca, Mrs. Miniver, Going My Way, The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer, Rain Man, Forrest Gump), the super-productions that in their mammoth, “tasteful” way—and their box-office takes—had “Oscar-Bait” written all over them (A Man for All Seasons, Amadeus, Out of Africa, The Last Emperor, Titanic), the surprise and/or thumb-your-nose winners (Marty) and the earnest, striving—and frequently boring—recent-history spectacles (From Here to Eternity, Gandhi, The English Patient.)

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Despite Brando’s towering performance, “On the Waterfront” is one of the most bizarrely overrated movies of its time, and a deliberate paean to the nobility of the informer by a pair of unrepentant Hollywood rats named Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan.

Delete the oddball choices, usually musicals, and never the best ones (My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Chicago), the “classic” titles you hope never, ever to have to sit through again (West Side Story, On the Waterfront) and the big movies of their years that now leave us scratching our heads that anyone could have voted for them (Mutiny on the Bounty, Patton.) Pull out the ones that won largely because they were un-ignorable and/or their makers lost for much better movies (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) and the Oooh-Look-He-Can-Direct! choices (Ordinary People, Dances with Wolves—never forget that actors form the most overwhelmingly large block of Academy voters.) I, meanwhile, will scratch those I either haven’t seen (All Quiet on the Western Front, All the King’s Men, Chariots of Fire, Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, The Hurt Locker, The Artist, Argo) or that I simply don’t wish to (Braveheart, Shakespeare in Love, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech.)

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This was “better” than “Fiddler on the Roof ” and “The Last Picture Show”?

What are we left with? Not all that bloody much. A smattering of items that make for a pleasant couple of hours’ viewing but can hardly be classified as among the best ever made (The Life of Emile Zola, Terms of Endearment, Driving Miss Daisy.) A number of very fine entertainments that could be described as among the most enjoyable of all movie-movies (Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, All About Eve, An American in Paris, Around the World in 80 Days, Oliver!) but which hardly qualify as masterpieces. Some very fine dramas that were, at the time of their release, either genuinely shocking (The Lost Weekend, Midnight Cowboy) or uniquely kinetic (In the Heat of the Night, The French Connection, Platoon) but that, in retrospect, are not among their creators’ best or most important pictures or, in the case of William Friedkin, probably do, alas, represent his best.

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I missed “The Sting” on its initial release, catching up to it four years later, when it was reissued. I went back to it over and over, I was so enchanted. It’s still one of my very favorite movies. But “Best Picture”? My personal jury is out on that one.

That leaves at best a dozen movies that have either stood the test of greatness over time (It Happened One Night, How Green Was My Valley, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Gigi, The Apartment, Lawrence of Arabia, Tom Jones, The Godfather, The Sting, The Godfather Part II, Annie Hall) or likely will (The Silence of the Lambs, Unforgiven, Schindler’s List.) And even here, are Tom Jones, Gigi, Annie Hall and The Sting, as marvelously entertaining as they are, quantifiable as masterworks? The Sting in particular makes me about as happy watching it as any movie ever made. But whatever my love for it, I can hardly classify it as important. Neither is The Silence of the Lambs, except as an example of how a very gifted filmmaker can turn compelling pulp material into a nuanced exercise in terror that never, despite its grotesqueries, sinks into the gross or manipulative. Which leaves us with a grand total of eight. Eight important, lasting testaments to the art of film—and popular art, no less, which is infinitely more difficult to achieve than it may seem.

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Billy Wilder’s and I.A.L. Diamond’s biggest hit (until “Irma La Douce”) was also one of their very finest movies, and one of the best ever made. A rare example of the Academy actually honoring real quality.

The only true comedy (It Happened One Night) is also a tartly observed slice of Depression Era verisimilitude, juxtaposed with genuine screwball romance. The Apartment is nominally comic, but its dark undertones include pandering, bibacity, joyless adultery, attempted suicide and a coruscating critique of the American capitalist nightmare. How Green Was My Valley has been attacked retroactively for beating Citizen Kane, but it’s not only John Ford (and Phillip Dunne), it’s Ford and Dunne at their considerable best. Lawrence of Arabia remains arguably the most intelligent epic ever made, superb in screenplay, direction, theme and approach to the essentially unknowable, and Kwai isn’t far behind. Unforgiven is as fine an examination of the price (and morality) of violence as anyone has made, and certainly Clint Eastwood’s masterwork, and Schindler’s List is such an overpowering experience that, while one may, as I do, prefer other movies in its filmmaker’s oeuvre (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) its raw, unblinking honesty is as unforgettable as it is artistically, socially and historically laudable. And the two Godfather films hardly require my, or anyone’s, defense.

Eight demonstrably great “Best Pictures” in eight decades. A record of which only Academy voters could be proud.

Oh—and the nadir? The absolute worst “Best Picture” ever?

Without a scintilla of a doubt: Rocky. Jesus wept!

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Post-Script

“What the hell does the Academy Award mean, for God’s sake? After all, Luise Rainer won it two times—Luise Rainer!” — Billy Wilder

Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

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By Scott Ross

Poster - Around the World in 80 Days_04One of the most sheerly entertaining movies of its time, and one that continues to deliver enormous pleasure, even reduced to home viewing size. That any independent producer, let alone the much-bankrupted Michael Todd, managed to get it made is remarkable. That is was a hit was extraordinary.* That it is so sharp, intelligent and funny as well as huge is a bloody miracle.

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Orson Welles performing some literal magic during his disastrous stage musical of “Around the World” in collaboration with Mike Todd and Cole Porter.

Todd got the idea for the movie (“stole” might be an apter word) from Orson Welles, who had produced it as a memorable Campbell’s Playhouse radio show and later as a Broadway musical extravaganza produced by Todd… who left everyone in the lurch, forcing Welles to scramble for money to keep it going. That the musical’s score, by Cole Porter, contained not a single number with any afterlife is telling. For Welles, who cast himself as Inspector Fix as well as directing the thing, it was an over-extended, and ultimately unsuccessful, magic-act. (He had much better luck, at least in England, with his astonishingly theatrical stage play Moby DickRehearsed, which Kenneth Tynan famously noted “turns the theatre once more into a house of magic.”)

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Learn by doing: Cantinflas and David Niven consult a manual on ballooning… after they lift off.

Around the World in 80 Days bears unusual fealty to its source. While the screenwriters (James Poe, John Farrow—father of Mia—and S.J. Perlman, who doctored the script and shared the Oscar it won) alter a few sequences and add an immoderate dash of polished wit to the dialogue—most of which I suspect is Perlman’s—the narrative is largely Jules Verne’s. Todd, rightly, believed the urbane David Niven the only natural choice to portray Verne’s whist-mad, clock-watching Phileas Fogg. His choice of the determinedly Mexican Cantinflas as Fogg’s valet Passepartout, on the other hand, raised more than a few eyebrows. Yet the diminutive comedian proves himself perhaps the only performer of his time to bear comparisons to Chaplin; you can easily imagine Charlie doing most of what Cantinflas does, and for once the comparison does not harm the performer assuming Chaplin’s mantle.

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The 22-year old Shirley MacLaine as Princes Auoda.

The natural casting choice for an Indian Princess? A red-headed, Scots-Irish Virginian starlet named Shirley MacLaine. Rounding out the central cast is Robert Newton, making a veritable meal of Fix (“Follow that hostrich!”) There was nothing subtle about Newton. When he needed to be frightening, he went for absolutely terrifying (Bill Sykes in Lean’s Oliver Twist) and it is his Long John Silver most people are imitating when they lapse into pirate-speak (“Aaarrr, matey, aaarr.”) Fix was, sadly, his last role; he suffered a fatal coronary a month after filming was completed.

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Robert Newton, about to slip a “Hong Kong Snickersnee” – otherwise known as a Mickey Finn – to the unsuspecting Cantinflas.

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Some observers (at the time and often since) complain that Todd’s use of four-dozen “guest stars” in small roles was mere publicity-seeking stunt casting. I beg to differ. What he got, and gave to the movie, was what those actors and comedians did best, in roles that might otherwise have served as mere filler. It’s great fun seeing all those familiar faces (and hearing their equally famous voices) in supporting roles. True, a few of them (Evelyn Keyes, Fernandel, Mike Mazurki, Frank Sinatra, Victor McLaglen) last mere seconds but a couple (José Greco, Beatrice Lillie, Edward R. Murrow) get specialty items and quite a few of them (notably the British) craft sparkling little gems out of what Todd coined their “cameos”: Finlay Currie, Robert Morley, Noel Coward, John Gielgud, Harcourt Williams, Cedric Hardwicke, Peter Lorre, Buster Keaton, Andy Devine, John Mills, Hermione Gingold and, especially, Ronald Colman.

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Ronald Colman has perhaps the wittiest line in the movie, and delivers it with perfect aplomb.

Colman is not among my favorite actors by any stretch of the imagination, but his perfect dismissal of a bogus news item (“That must have been The Daily Telegraph. You never would have read that in The Times.”), a line that bears the fine Italian hand of S.J. Perlman, is not merely my favorite line in this script, but a favorite, period, and is delivered with altogether smashing sang fois. The only sour casting note is Todd’s hiring that genocidal racist Col. Tim McCoy as a Calvary officer, but I’m thoroughly flummoxed that the splendid Phillip Ahn, as an elderly citizen of Hong Kong who takes a little of the starch out of Fogg’s Imperialist snobbery, was not included in the credits. (And that Keye Luke appeared un-credited as well. As whom?)

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A few of the delightful caricatures that decorate Saul Bass’ marvelously designed end credits sequence.

Lionel Lindon’s cinematography is often stunningly effective, making the picture-postcard scenery of the movie’s various locations vividly real; it must be a knockout on the big screen. Michael Anderson’s swift direction keeps the whole big ball of wax from dissolving, and in what proved to be his final score Victor Young provided one of the era’s most charming, and infectious, soundtracks. An added fillip, which I imagine must have tickled the movie’s many patrons immensely, are Saul Bass’ delicious end credits, perfectly set by Young as a kind of cantata of thematic reprises bound together by a relentlessly ticking animated clock.

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The Spanish poster, which makes it seem to a Latin audience besotted with Cantinflas that he, not David Niven, is the star of the movie. If that caricature isn’t by Al Hirschfeld, it’s a damn good imitation.

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One of the finest musical scores ever composed for an American movie gets a remarkably faithful, if necessarily truncated, soundtrack album.

Todd rode his success hard; unsurprisingly for him, the producer was also one of the earliest of the movie ballyhoo artists. Not only was the soundtrack LP a bestseller (Young won a posthumous Oscar for the score) but there were countless instrumental albums by a dizzying array of bands.

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Among the souvenir items Todd licensed were two versions of an “almanac,” one standard size and one in digest format.

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The day after seeing the second part of the movie in 1972 (CBS ran the halves on successive Friday nights) I found a copy of that book at a flea market, for, if memory serves, 50 cents. A week or so after that, I stumbled across a copy of the Avon paperback tie-in (profusely illustrated, as they used to say, with stills) at a library sale for a quarter. I was already enjoying our Junior Deluxe edition of the Verne novel, and listening to cassette tape I made of the soundtrack album, courtesy of a local lending library. I have never tended to do things by half when it comes to personal obsessions.

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The movie’s director, Michael Anderson, confers on-set with Mike Todd, presumably over how best to frame Sinatra’s cameo.

During his brief career in movies, Todd initiated the superb wide-screen alternative to Cinerama that would eventually bear his name (Todd-AO), coined the term “cameo” for acting roles, won Elizabeth Taylor’s hand, and snagged the gold ring on his first production. He was uncouth, vulgar, at least provisionally heartless, and quite possibly dangerous. (When Todd’s ex-wife Joan Blondell, whom he once allegedly held out a Manhattan window, heard that he had died in a plane crash two years after Around the World she snapped, “I hope the son of a bitch screamed the whole way down.”) Yet, somehow, he knew how to charm and corral talent and, having hooked them, respected their gifts. That fact shines through every frame of this one.

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A queer romance: Shirley MacLaine and David Niven discuss some of the finer points of whist on their journey across the Indian Ocean.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

*$42,000,000 profit on a then jaw-dropping $6 million budget.

The Guns of Navarone (1961)

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By Scott Ross

Those born after 1980 will have difficulty believing it, but there was a time when the Hollywood studios did not routinely program huge, “high-concept,” multi-million dollar action spectaculars as their main source of revenue. Smaller movies, with life-sized (as opposed to larger-than-) characters, were the norm, and the spectaculars were fewer and further between, and even they had a peculiar tendency to be intelligent. These movies were made, as David Denby noted in his review of the 1987 reissue of The Manchurian Candidate, in another country, one where it was still possible to present a reasonably complex narrative without talking down to a media-surfeited, cranially-stunted audience, here and abroad. It was that country, in the year of my birth, which produced The Guns of Navarone.

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One of Howard Terpning’s designs for the poster.

I first saw The Guns of Navarone on televsion, in the early ’70s (that was in another country, too, one where the networks actually deigned to air movies on a regular basis.) Although it was, perforce, in pan-and-scan format—there were at the time actual FCC rules in force prohibiting the screening of widescreen images on television—the movie made a marked impression on me. The characters were vivid, the big set-pieces excruciatingly tense, and there were odd curlicues that remained in the memory: The machine-gun appearing from beneath the sails; the shipwreck on the rocks; the little girl holding a bouquet of flowers; the revelation of Anna’s treachery; the sudden, and shocking, Quisling behavior before the Germans of Anthony Quinn’s previously implacable Andrea.

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Carl Foreman, who both produced the picture and adapted Alistair MacLean’s adventure novel (and who, as a blacklisted scribe, did not receive credit for his work on The Bridge on the River Kwai a few years earlier) added two dramatic elements and altered an existing  third. In MacLean’s book, there is no conflict between Andrea, Mallory (Gregory Peck in the movie) and Miller (David Niven); Foreman grafted onto the narrative Miller’s unspoken antagonism toward Mallory, and Andrea’s vow to murder his compatriot, once the war is over, for causing the deaths of his wife and children. In MacLean, it is a male Greek partisan who is, or is suspected of being, the traitor; in Foreman, it is the mute Anna, for whom Mallory develops tender feelings, which dovetails neatly with the Mallory/Miller sub-plot. (It isn’t going too far to call Anna an informer, a special breed of loathsome to any blacklistee.)

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Corporal Miller smells a rat. From left, Irene Papas, James Darren, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Gia Scala, Stanley Baker, Gregory Peck.

In an escapist novel, one can accept the lack of conflict between the leads; in a movie, some sort of complication is almost demanded, in an Aristotelean sense. It was a smart move on Foreman’s part, and he handled the additional dialogue with superb ease and intelligence; the Peck/Niven standoff precedes, and compels, the movie’s most poignant moment, then succeeds it, leading to the seemingly unflappable Mallory’s gesturing with his pistol in Miller’s direction (“You’ve got me in the mood to use this thing, and by God, if you don’t think of something, I’ll use it on you! I mean it.”) Niven’s mounting fury is remarkable to watch, particularly since we don’t expect it of this usually (and uniquely) charming actor, any more than we are fully prepared for a blast of excoriating rage from Peck.

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The marvelous Irene Papas.

Foreman likewise added the fierce but accessible Maria (the name of Andrea’s off-stage wife in the novel) and cast the great Irene Papas, whose superb face is one those images that absolutely stick with you. (Anna and Maria, neither of whom have counterparts in MacLean, could be said to stand in for Pilar and Maria of For Whom the Bell Tolls.) If Foreman lost the moving scene in which the young, injured lieutenant offers himself up as a sacrifice, he gained far more, in the main. That injury is transferred in the movie to Anthony Quinn’s “Lucky,” to whom Peck’s Mallory whispers contradictory information he hopes will be extracted by the Germans; it is this act which enrages the otherwise likable (if occasionally overbearing) Miller.

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J. Lee Thompson’s direction is, like Alan Osbiston’s editing, straightforward and un-fussy, yet beautifully sustained. Thompson (Lee-Thompson as he was later known) has a knack for keeping as many of his ensemble cast on-screen at the same time as possible, yet the set-ups never feel stagey, or even staged.

Oswald Morris’ cinematography is often strikingly effective, particularly in his vivid day-for-night shots, and even the rear-screen projection effects look better than usual, aided as they are by such events as a storm at sea. Dmitri Tiomkin’s main title theme adds an immeasurable kick, but he seldom over-stresses or strains for effect. Indeed, it’s notable how often he—or Foreman, or Thompson, or somebody—opts to leave a sequence alone and let the exciting visuals speak for themselves. At the movie’s end, Tiomkin repeats, not the big theme, but the plaintive “Yassou,” heard first in a soft, a cappella choral arrangement, closing the movie on a grace-note.

That’s something else that separates the country that produced The Guns of Navarone from our own.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

White Dog (1982; Un-released)

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By Scott Ross

I find it almost impossible to write about this one without gibbering like a fool. That any movie as fiercely unremitting in its opposition to virulent racism could itself be accused of the very same thing, and subsequently withheld from release, utterly beggars belief. Hollywood is often characterized in language evoking Kafka, but in the case of White Dog it is as if studio practice—in this case, at the Katzenberg/Eisner Paramount—was translated into Orwellian iconography: Down is up. Peace is war. Black (if I may be so direct—and, since we’re talking about Sam Fuller, pussyfooting ist nicht) is white. Anti-bigotry is racism.

In an example of ignorant and unwarranted gossip, maddeningly bone-headed institutional misinterpretation (the NAACP, in this case… ponder that) and appalling collective cowardice stunning even for the movie business, a $7 million movie by one of the most interesting and idiosyncratic writer/directors in the history of Hollywood was deemed un-releasable, and summarily shelved, effectively ending the man’s career as a filmmaker and sending him into literal exile.

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The story, which began as a fictionalized 1970 memoir by Romain Gary, about a found dog that, to Gary’s horror, turns out to have been trained to attack black people, was picked up by Paramount and given to Curtis Hanson for adaptation. Over the years various names (including that of Roman Polanski) were attached to the project, which the studio had hopes for as an inexpensive, pre-Cujo horror thriller. Hanson suggested Samuel Fuller, leading to their collaboration on a screenplay that eschewed much of Gary’s novel, notably the cynical twist of the Black Muslim animal handler re-training the titular canine to attack Caucasians. (This has been seen as a veiled critique by Gary of his then-wife, Jean Seberg, and her involvement with the Black Panthers.) Fuller, who knew Gary, rejected the ploy as itself racist; what interested, and motivated, him was the question of whether learned bigotry could ever be wholly eradicated. In his vision of White Dog the answer is a despairing “no.”

The scenarists also altered Seberg, re-making her as a young, aspiring Hollywood actress, for which role Fuller hoped to cast either Jodie Foster or Kathleen Quinlan (he had to settle for Kristy McNichol.) Far more crucial to Fuller’s re-imagining of White Dog was his casting of the perennially underrated Paul Winfield as the (now unaligned) black trainer. Fuller and Hansen envisioned the character, called Keys in the movie, as a kind of questing anthropologist, obsessively determined to successfully perform, as he calls it, a knife-less lobotomy. The movie becomes Keys’ story far more than the girl’s (although McNichol got top billing.)

As the Criterion release of White Dog makes clear—and as anyone with even a cursory familiarity with his life and career would know—Sam Fuller’s C.V. is rife with vivid examples of his loathing for racism: The integrated battalion of Steel Helmet; the interracial romance crucial to The Crimson Kimono; the young black student driven so mad by white bigotry that he imagines himself a Klansman in Shock Corridor. And although there are no black characters in Pickup on South Street, one is immediately struck by how uniquely integrated Fuller’s Manhattan is. To accuse this man of crafting a deliberately racist movie (how would he even hope to get away with that, even if he’d wanted to, on Paramount’s dime?) is a switch so staggering in its dramatic irony not even Sam Fuller himself could have made it up.

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Samuel Fuller with one of the five German Sheperds portraying his titular character.

About White Dog itself, one could nit-pick that a few of Fuller’s and Hansen’s lines of dialogue are crudely blunt, that the stained-glass image of St. Francis in the church where one of the dog’s victims seeks refuge is a bit too on-the-nose, and that McNichol is out of her depth. She isn’t bad. But you can’t help wishing Fuller had gotten Quinlan.

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Face-off: Paul Winfield’s Keys meets his nemesis and brainwashing experiment.

Winfield, however, could scarcely be better. However unrefined his dialogue, the actor brings everything he has to the role, and to the movie: Dignity, eloquence, honor, shock, fury, guilt, intelligence and a quiet determination that, finally, proves heartbreakingly ill-advised. Why this handsome, gifted man did not become a star after his deeply moving performance in Sounder has always been a mystery to me. (But then, Cecily Tyson was equally stunning in that, and what, aside from Miss Jane Pittman, were her great subsequent roles?) Was it perhaps just the “wrong” moment for a black actor? (“I was given a lot of prestige as a distinguished black actor,” Winfield once said, “but very little power. They give prestige out by the buckets, but they give power by the teaspoon, just enough to stroke your ego.”) Did his un-hidden sexuality contribute to Hollywood’s neglect of him? Whatever the reasons, the neglect of an actor this effective is little short of criminal.

Bruce Surtees’ sharp color photography is a great asset, as is Brian Eatwell’s wittily apt design of a training space that resembles a gladiatorial staging arena. Ennio Morricone’s score is plangent, with its dark running figures and elegiac tone that hint at despair, although it’s puzzling that he saddles a dialogue-laden love scene between McNichol and Jameson Parker with ominous underscoring. Fuller, 70 when the movie was made, is in full, vigorous command of his craft throughout, despite those occasionally over-direct scraps of dialogue.

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The most terrifying moment in “White Dog” does not go any further than this: The moment the dog moves into the street, the child’s mother simultaneously moves the boy off it. Hair-raising.

What Keys’ ultimately achieves is at best a Pyrrhic victory; the process essentially drives the poor animal insane. There is no “cure,” as the trainer has hoped, for inculcated racism. It’s a heartrendigly logical conclusion to a movie that fully deserves, without recourse to sickening its audience with closely-observed violence and gore, the once noble, now emasculatingly over-used term “powerful.”

But power of this kind can be a double-edged sword. Fuller once pointed to the fact that he was attacked by both the hard-Right and the hard-Left as proof that he was doing something right. With White Dog he proved that being right, like being what used to be called a “premature anti-Fascist,” can itself be a curse.

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The benign face of virulent racism: Parley Baer as the grandfatherly old bigot who created the white dog. One of his grandchildren is Samantha Fuller, Sam’s daughter.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

The Big Red One (1980)

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By Scott Ross

Who’s afraid of Samuel Fuller?

I was, George. I was.

A decade or so ago, when I first became fully aware of Fuller, as more than just a name, it was as a result of discovering a clutch of paperbacks bearing his byline in a second-hand book shop: His early newspaper mystery The Dark Page, the caper-thrillers Crown of India, Quint’s World and Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, and the novel based on his war-time experiences, and the screenplay he fashioned from them, the extraordinary fictionalized memoir The Big Red One. I found Fuller’s voice unique—tough, witty, sardonic, yet curiously and endearingly matter of fact about some of the harsher realities of life lived in violence, whether private (crime) or public (war.) I should have been well and truly primed, by the time I finished these compulsively readable novels, for Fuller the writer/director.

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Should have been, but wasn’t. For the simple reason that, aside from a few studio items like the 1953 Pickup on South Street, I had come to understand that Fuller’s aims nearly always exceeded his budgets. I was, somehow, afraid of Fuller’s movies. Not of their content, although his work tends either to be derided as vulgar trash by the John Simons of the movie world on one side, or venerated as inviolate masterpieces by the Quentin Tarantinos on the other—both of whose voices are equally suspect and neither of whose opinions matter to me, at least in this area. (Simon is occasionally useful. None of Tarantino’s opinions ever matter.)

My fear of Fuller was similar to my approach/avoidance of Orson Welles’ independent work. Only three times in his history as a writer/director was Welles given anything like an “A” budget, and in only one of these cases was the final product presented whole, without mutilating cuts by the studio. Welles, like Fuller, had grand designs that he was almost never given the fiscal freedom to realize. That said, what he did with those tiny budgets and their concomitant paucity of technical assistance was often stunningly effective, and occasionally (as in Mr. Arkadin—at least as evidenced in Criterion’s “comprehensive” edition—Falstaff/Chimes at Midnight and F for Fake) well beyond that.

Still, with Fuller as with Welles, I despaired to see those grand visions diminished by poverty-row funding, although my veneration for Welles should have taught me that, for the truly inspired, cutting corners does not mean an ipso facto diminution of pacing, dialogue, narrative drive, storytelling arc or even effective, and affecting, use of the medium. So it is with The Big Red One.

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I no longer remember how, or why, I missed the release of this one back in 1980, as my moviegoing habit was in full cry then (as opposed to now, when I avoid new movies out of a very different sort of fear—that of being disappointed yet again.) Over the years since I began to gather that the original Lorimar release was far from what Fuller had in mind, which only caused my discomfort with seeing it to double, or even treble. Since to my knowledge it never played the Raleigh/Durham area, I purchased the 2004 “reconstruction” on DVD (spurred by those novels of his, and Adam Simon’s lovely 1996 Fuller tribute The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Camer) some time ago, along with, at various times, his postumously published memoir A Third Face, the Criterion Pickup on South Street and the cheap-o Troma release of Fuller’s Shark! (1969.) And, again, it was that fear of diminished returns, not of content, that kept me from watching any of them.

Last weekend, I made up for lost time. And am now, unofficially and based on a very limited sampling, a veritable Sam Fuller fanatic.

The financial constraints that are evident in The Big Red One, I was relieved to discover, in no way slacken the movie’s emotional impact. Yes, Fuller’s D-Day sequence is under-populated, and nowhere near as wrenchingly (and, one presumes, verifiably) gory as Steven Spielberg’s. But stack that against the central incident on Fuller’s Omaha Beach as the young cartoonist Griff (Mark Hamill) freezes in mid-duty, brought out of his shock by the calculatedly close shots fired in his direction by his Sergeant (Lee Marvin.) The moment goes on, in seemingly nose-thumbing contradiction to what, even in the late 1970s was becoming a rage for fast cutting, as Fuller holds on Hamill’s reaction. You will seldom, I think, ever see a purer example of sheer, murderous rage in a mere movie than the lingering glare Hamill gives Marvin just before he resumes his duty. And all of this without a single word of dialogue. That’s called craft. And it says (as Fuller might have, cigar clamped firmly between his teeth) The hell with words! What is the emotional truth here? Show, fer crissake, don’t tell!

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The emotional truth Fuller gets at in The Big Red One, with surprising subtlety and eloquence for a filmmaker known for his characteristic bluntness, is survival.  And once you’ve seen it, you understand why the saga obsessed him for so many years.

The movie is a guided tour though Fuller’s own World War II experience, conducted by four disparate and somewhat unlikely young Privates (left to right, below): Griff (Hamill), Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), Johnson (Kelly Ward) and Fuller’s stogie-bearing alter ego Zab (Robert Carradine) and led by Marvin’s apparently implacable Sergeant. From their landing in North Africa in November 1942 to the liberation of the Flossenbürg concentration camp at Falkenau in the spring of 1945 and encompassing campaigns in Africa, Sicily, the D-Day landing at Omaha, the Bulge, the liberation of France, the invasion of Germany, V-E Day and the dispatch of a seemingly endless line of youthful replacements, this ragged quintet—the boys are known, with some awe, as the Sergeant’s Four Horsemen—sees, and survives, the majority of the major European battle sites of the War. It is, I suppose, stretching credulity to admit the deaths of none of them, but that too is part of Fuller’s mantra, stated in voice-over at the end by Zab: “Surviving is the only glory in war.”

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The Four Horsemen: Mark Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco, Kelly Ward and Robert Carradine, flank the irreplaceable Lee Marvin.

The “reconstruction” (overseen by perhaps my least favorite movie critic, Richard Shickel) restores the picture and adds roughly 45 minutes chopped by Lorimar in 1980. (An additional quarter-hour of so of sequences included as extras on the DVD proved intractable.) As with the recent revamp of Welles’ Touch of Evil, no one can know whether Fuller would have wholly approved the new edit (at nearly 450 pages, Fuller’s novel, taken from his original screenplay, contains even more incident) but it surely could not have hurt him as badly as the release of that truncated original.

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Perry Lang as Kaiser, the most likable of the squad’s replacements in “The Big Red One”—and the one with the longest shelf-life. Here, he enjoys Zab’s novel in an Armed Service Edition but doesn’t believe the cigar-chomping Private wrote it.

I’m always a little chary of calling a movie I’ve just seen for the first time “great”—real greatness in movie art, it seems to me, does not reveal itself in full after a single viewing, any more than a concert work of blazing originality and compositional complexity yields all its secrets at first hearing—but I also suspect The Big Red One of a sneaking greatness. It’s there in the perfectly delineated characters; in the strong, clean visuals; in the ripe, pithy, Fulleresque dialogue; and in the refusal to sentimentalize, even in the face of the insupportable. Fuller does not dwell on the horrors of Falkenau (which he saw firsthand) but on the effect of the unspeakable on his Four Horsemen. And it’s a pivotal moment for Griff, whose conscience cannot admit of the first essential of warfare: The need to kill. It isn’t, as some of the more moronic Imdb commentators have suggested, that Fuller dwells on the irony of the group’s pacifist firing endlessly at the German soldier he finds hiding in the ovens. Griff has been pushed to the limits of his endurance. After what he’s seen, and been through, one bullet for the executioner is not enough. He must go on killing, inflicting on that single available body the rough justice demanded of every participant when the obscenity is so far beyond calculation. Even the Sergeant, who understands, is taken aback by the cold fury of Griff’s methodical retribution.

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Mark Hamill’s Griff, the most pacifist of the Horsemen, discovers the rage to kill with impunity at Falkenau.

I’ve long felt Lee Marvin one of the most interesting actors of his time, and the easiest to underrate. Perhaps that’s why his splendid Hickey in the American Film Theatre’s four-hour The Iceman Cometh (1973) was universally panned; when you don’t push Hickey’s jovial but ultimately false bonhomie, it’s easier to feel you’re betraying the character. But if Hickey is the roaring success as a salesman everyone says he is, there’s got to be something held back. If everything is out there, all noise and surface and grinning laughter, what have you got left to sell? I wonder if it was Marvin’s then-status as a certifiable movie star that occasioned the dismissal of his performance. (Robert Ryan and Frederic March, who—deservingly—garnered the best reviews, had also been movie stars, but much earlier.)

Marvin’s performance here is a carefully observed as the most acclaimed of its year, DeNiro’s in Raging Bull, and a great deal easier both to appreciate and to like. His Sergeant may evoke death—and that pale, weary, stoic face is exactly what Fuller wanted for the effect—but he’s no automaton. There’s wisdom in him, a wit so dryly understated it’s sometimes impossible to laugh at, and reserves of compassion that belie his sandpaper exterior.

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Lee Marvin’s Sergeant carries a young victim of Flossenbürg/Falkenau at the beginning of the movie’s most deeply affecting sequence.

These qualities in Marvin’s almost astonishingly rich performance are nowhere better evidenced than in the long, nearly wordless sequence at Falkenau between the Sergeant and the emaciated boy he liberates, exquisitely rendered by Fuller and played with unerring perfection by Marvin. (The unnamed child is extraordinary too.)

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Sam Fuller in characteristic mode while shooting “The Big Red One,” firing off a pistol in lieu of shouting, “Action!”

A day after The Big Red One, I slipped my poor copy of the idiotically titled Shark! (Fuller had intended to call the movie Caine, after the name of his lead) into the DVD player. Even here, filming on a miniscule budget and at the mercy of both the elements and what is pretty obviously inferior camerawork, the Fuller touch with character, plot and dialogue come radiantly through.

A man who could do that is no one to be afraid of.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

$ (1971)

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(aka, Dollars, although, uniquely, no actual title appears in the credits sequence—only an enormous golden dollar sign being flown from a crane.)

By Scott Ross

The redoubtable Richard Brooks, as writer and director, tries his hand at an original for a change, and it works beautifully. An ethically ambiguous caper thriller with elements of comedy (not, as the poster would have you believe, the reverse) $ is cheerfully amoral, rigorously clever in the very best sense, and strikingly photographed and edited. The cutting is faster than is usual for Brooks, and it’s interesting to compare his kinetic but more sedate style with that of the year’s big crime movie, William Friedkin’s cinema verite police procedural The French Connection which, like $, includes a long and elaborate chase.

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The ’60s-esque caper art for the “$” poster promises a “How to Steal a Million”-style romp. The reality was something different, and more interesting.

Brooks, however, is more humanist than the notably chilly Friedkin, his outlook informed not by sentiment or unrefined optimism but by the impulse to treat his characters as people rather than the usual cutout figures. They tend to transcend trope, and stereotype: Gert Frobe’s fat banker, for example, is a genial married lech, but his basic impulse is compassion.

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Warren Beatty, looking impossibly trim and scrumptious as only he could in the ’70s, is the security expert out to steal, not from the institution itself but from a trio of especially ripe criminals (Mafia attorney Robert Webber, enterprising U.S. Army Sargent Scott Brady and coldly murderous drug dealer Arthur Brauss) each of whom holds a safety deposit box within the German bank. They are, in Beatty’s worldview, crooks, who deserve to be ripped off.

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$ takes a little getting used to, as Brooks introduces us to the characters, without explaining them, but once the movie begins rolling the pieces click into place as you’re watching. It’s an especially satisfying audacity for a moviemaker to trust his audience’s intelligence to that degree in the creation of what is, after all, a popcorn entertainment. We can only imagine the slack-jawed consternation of any Hollywood studio executive today being confronted with that sort of narrative subtlety.

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Goldie Hawn is all giggles and self-doubt as Beatty’s accomplice, the self-confessed goof who isn’t nearly as dumb as she believes… or seems; Brady has what may be his career-best role as the relentless Sargent; and Brauss is memorably frightening as “The Candyman.”

The cinematography of Petrus Schloemp is stunningly good. The remarkably sharp, richly textured images pop off the screen, yet without self-consciousness or Technicolor camp; $ looks as contemporary as it feels.$ beatty tumblr_mc1a56pQLr1qgpddwo1_1280

Richard Brooks’ script is as crisp and intelligent as his directing. Each time you think you’ve got the measure of Beatty and Hawn, and what they’re up to, Brooks twists the plot in one additional, unexpected—but never fraudulent—direction. $ was a nice warm-up; in 1975 that impulse to confounding expectations in a positive fashion would give Brooks his finest hour as a writer-director, in the woefully underrated (and criminally under-seen) Bite the Bullet, which, like $, benefits from narrative sleight-of-hand, creative compassion, and an ending as sweetly satisfying as the finale here is wittily apt.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross