Verboten! (1959)

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By Scott Ross

Verboten!

A minor effort from a major filmmaker is still an event.

While it was the first of Samuel Fuller’s pictures as a writer-director to draw from his own war-time experience in a context specific to World War II — and despite its striking opening sequence of isolated American GIs and SS snipers battling it out in a small German town during the waning moments of the the Second World War — Verboten! limns combat of a very different sort from the type on which Fuller would later concentrate his creative attention. Where Merrill’s Marauders and, most notably, The Big Red One, are concerned primarily on warfare (as are Fuller’s earlier The Steel Helmet and Fixed Bayonets!, both centered in Korea as opposed to the 1940s ground war in Europe) Fuller’s focus in Verboten! is the aftermath of war: specifically, the American occupying government’s efforts at de-Nazification of the populace and the equally fervent activities of a small underground band of former SS determined upon a rebirth of the Hitler creed. Within this context, Fuller also anatomizes fraternization between American soldiers and German citizens, focusing his narrative on the question of whether a marriage between two such people is one of, on the German side, convenience merely.

Helga (Susan Cumming) and Bruno (Tom Pittman), amused by how easy it is to fool their well-meaning American conquerors.

Helga (Susan Cumming) and Bruno (Tom Pittman), amused by how easy it is to fool their well-meaning American conquerors.

That’s a lot to cram into 93 minutes, but as is so often the case with Fuller, Verboten! somehow manages not to stint on any of its narrative particulars. Just as we think we have the measure of Helga Schiller (the refreshingly de-glamorized Susan Cummings) the filmmaker reveals that, while she is no Nazi, she is a staggeringly casual opportunist, her cool persona wholly at odds with the warmth she projects for the benefit of Sergeant David Brent (James Best). The revelation (to us, the audience, not to Brent) is almost shocking in its nonchalance, as Helga goes from bidding Brent a passionate farewell to, moments later, greeting an old friend, the nonchalant monster Bruno Eckhart (Tom Pittman) and casually informing him (and the viewer) of her duplicity. It’s a moment perhaps only Sam Fuller could, or would, present: Un-pointed, with no histrionic embellishment whatsoever. In such ways is human cruelty carried out — over chocolate bars and without melodrama. (I wish I could say as much for the picture’s truly obnoxious Harry Sukman score, replete with godawful Paul Anka “theme song.”)

Brent (James Best) confronts a crowd of angry Germans.

Brent (James Best) confronts a crowd of angry Germans.

The introduction of Brent into the story is notable too, not for what it leaves out but for what it shows; had movie audiences of that time ever seen an American soldier shot in the ass? It’s a moment typical of Fuller’s lack of reverence for the supposed nobility of soldiering, about which he harbored no illusions. Typical as well is the superb make-up job on Best after he’s been attacked and beaten by the locals: the swollen lump under his jaw and the way that injury affects his speech. Best is a good match for this character — a little cynical, a little earnest, wholly believable, (Fuller aficionados will remember the North Carolina-born actor as the mad Southern sharecropper in Shock Corridor convinced he is J.E.B. Stuart.)

What trips Fuller up, understandably, is the wrenching difference between the documentary footage he occasionally inserts into the picture and the loose but still more formal cinematography by the reliable Joseph Biroc. It isn’t simply that the clash of styles and film stock are jarring, but that a single moment, of an emaciated Jewish victim’s body being dumped into a mass grave, is, in its very brevity, more powerful and gut-churning than anything else in the picture. That it also represents a turning point in the attitudes of Helga’s angry young brother Franz (Harold Daye) feels rushed, and unconvincing. Can a single session watching the Nuremberg trials turn the mind of an embittered youth (one, moreover, who owes the loss of an arm to an American bomb), so quickly? Particularly one whose own sister is introduced in the movie denouncing Hitler and who, therefore, has heard the truth from very close up? It’s not an impossibility, but in context, feels improbable.

Harold Daye as Franz.

Harold Daye as Franz.

All the more so because it is the scales falling from Franz’s eyes that lead to his betrayal of the Werewolf gang and the fiery conclusion of the picture. And here we must confront the weird incompleteness with which Fuller ends his story. The last moments are not so much ambiguous as utterly uncertain. Has Franz survived the flames? Do Brent’s ministrations save him? They seem to, but the action is cramped, and maddeningly inconclusive. It’s all too rushed, and attenuated; the scene — and the movie — cut off abruptly, as if Fuller had simply run out of film, leaving the viewer not troubled but bewildered. We don’t necessarily expect Sam Fuller to wrap all our troubles up in dreams for a sunny finale. In fact, that’s one of his strengths as a filmmaker. But we are accustomed to knowing where we stand.

Text copyright 2015 by Scott Ross

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Fighting Gravity: Orson Welles at 100

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Orson+Welles+Early+Career

“… everything as I see it is against him before he starts, but his courage, like everything else about him, egotism, generosity, ruthlessness, forbearance, impatience, sensitivity, grossness and vision, is magnificently out of proportion.” — Micheál Mac Liammóir on Orson Welles, “Put Money in Thy Purse: The Filming of Othello.”

By Scott Ross

6 May 2015 marks the centenary of the birth of George Orson Welles. While I doubt there’s much, if anything, I can add concerning this essential American figure that others have not already observed: those who knew him and those — the lists intermingle — who have illuminated Welles’ importance by examining the contours both of his existence and the many arts to which he gave life, and in the service of which he imbued so much and received so appallingly little.* But in this life, one has touchstones: Those figures who serve as inspirations, whose artistry touches one in ways that may defy cold analysis but whose lives and work simply matter. In my own case, there are three such artists. Tennessee Williams is one; Louis Armstrong another; and Orson Welles completes the trinity. What grips me about Welles, aside from his accomplishments, which are self-evident (or should be but all too often, to the ignorant, are not) is how deeply he strove; how much adversity he faced, and how often; how high — despite all odds, and systems, and limitations — he aspired; and what altitudes with all possible decks stacked against him, he so often obtained.

“I started at the top and worked down.”
— Orson Welles, “F for Fake”

I will not rehearse here the early triumphs, save to note that Welles started big; not merely in his theatre and radio successes at an absurdly early age, but in the profession into which he stumbled, he said, out of necessity. Broke at 16 in Ireland, where he’d gone to paint for the summer, and desperate to avoid college in the United States, he presented himself at Dublin’s Gate Theatre as a noted American actor who, at liberty, would condescend to perform for these Hibernian provincials if they had any leading roles going begging. Micheál Mac Liammóir, who with his work and life partner Hilton Edwards founded and managed the Gate, later claims to have seen through this charade, but the young Welles must have had something aside from his youth, height, bass baritone and oddly comely features (the latter accentuated by a rather sensual lower lip) for engage him they did, giving Welles an entrée in American theatre, courtesy of his Irish clippings.

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At 24 he was on the cover of Time; at 25 the achiever of national — indeed, international — notoriety as the progenitor of a radio “hoax” that scared half a nation already made edgy by the rise of militant Fascism in Europe, nearly to death; and at 26 in Hollywood, where, with much of his Mercury staff, he was about to make what for many years was called (by those who actually saw it) the greatest of all American movies. By 27, he was, on the face of it, close to a has-been.

That, at least, is the legend. Or part of it, anyway. “What has he done since Citizen Kane?” was the cry, one which, with slight variations in tense, has been the cry ever since. That legend, of course, omits two very important factors, the first of which is that there even was a Kane against which to compare the remainder of Welles’ career. (And what did you do at 26, mister?) The second is that he never stopped manufacturing wonders. Even if, as is my case, you don’t consider Kane the greatest of all movies — and I don’t know that anyone can make that distinction, for any picture — there is, if often in forms that altered their maker’s vision, and even meaning, The Magnificent AmbersonsThe Lady from Shanghai, Macbeth, Othello, Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight and F for Fake… which is not to mention his superbly theatrical play Moby-Dick—Rehearsed, his fabled “home movie” The Other Side of the Wind, and all those acting jobs, some of them (The Long, Hot Summer; Compulsion; A Man for All Seasons) sublime, he performed to keep the whole floating opera going. It was customary, during his later years, to chortle derisively, both at his commercial appearances for television and at the aging fat man himself, and that attitude, sadly, still obtains. Recently, in an online discussion of F for Fake, one especially pompous fool I knew slightly in college (and in which setting he was the same, merely younger) chimed in, snottily, with, “And then he sold no wine before its time.”

And here, let us add a third factor (and perhaps a fourth) carefully and, I am convinced, deliberately, omitted from the usual discussion of Orson Welles: He was among the most radical of all filmmakers, domestic or foreign, and the means by which he operated were no less radical. Oja Kodar, the woman with whom Welles collaborated in life and in art during the last two decades and more of his life — and who was often, and even as recently as last year, condescending described in the press as “Welles’ girlfriend” — has often said that his life was a struggle against gravity. Gravity not merely as a force weighting down the spirit and the imagination, but keeping earth-bound too the available modes of expressing them. Film, for an artist, is the most unwieldy of canvasses, and the most expensive. Ironically, the collapse of the studios that could not contain, and did not care to employ, him, was a boon for just about every independent in the business except Orson Welles. (Another fierce and iconoclastic independent, Samuel Fuller, had similar problems.)

As we are all either beneficiaries, or victims, of our times, so too was Welles. He was wed to film, to those costly spools of celluloid that had, first, to be purchased, then exposed, then developed, then edited, then duplicated, then distributed. Were he operating now, with all the many and various digital technologies at his command, half the battles he waged just in order to work would be virtually (no pun intended) eliminated. He would surely have been entranced by the freeing possibilities, and would, I have no doubt, have exploited them more ingeniously, and with greater wit and compassion, than anyone else around.

“I think I made essentially a mistake in staying in movies but it’s a mistake I can’t regret because it’s like saying I shouldn’t have stayed married to that woman but I did because I love her. I would have been more successful if I hadn’t been married to her, you know. I would have been more successful if I’d left movies immediately, stayed in the theatre, gone into politics, written, anything. I’ve wasted a greater part of my life looking for money and trying to get along, trying to make my work from this terribly expensive paintbox which is a movie. And I’ve spent too much energy on things that have nothing to do with making a movie. It’s about two percent movie-making and ninety-eight percent hustling. It’s no way to spend a life.” — Orson Welles, 1982

Those who know Welles’ work only casually maintain that his later years were “sad.” For we measure the movie artist in those expensive reels of film, and after F for Fake — itself so misunderstood and under-appreciated that the critical fraternity of the time ought, by rights, to be called to account — there were no more. That we saw. And there’s, as they say, the rub. What the tut-tutters, both in sorrow and in derision, never know nor understand about Orson Welles is that, while he was deeply frustrated, which is indeed sad, he never stopped working on his own projects, which is not. And that is a mark not only of Welles’ restless prodigiousness, and his seriousness of purpose, but of how much he accomplished. Whether the results of Welles’ efforts were exhibited, or even completed, is of less importance, ultimately, than the fact that they were — that they existed at all.

If we look at Citizen Kane, not as the greatest, or even Welles’ greatest, but simply in its historical context, and if we know anything at all about the techniques then in vogue — and in danger of becoming ossified — in talking pictures, we can appreciate it for what it was, and for what Welles brought to the medium: The exuberance of a young man who did not understand the established rules, and who questioned why this or that had to be done, and why might it might not be done differently, and for whom his RKO contract, the subject of much envious teeth-gnashing, permitted his innocent, and joyous, expansion of the existing vocabulary. For it is that giddy experimentation, augmented to the utmost by Welles having the great good fortune of a collaboration with its cinematographer Gregg Toland, which makes Kane such a pleasure to watch.

Welles and Joseph Cotten in "Kane." The shot was achieved, believe it or not, with split-screen.

Welles and Joseph Cotten in “Kane.” The shot was achieved, believe it or not, with split-screen.

But there is more to the movie than photographic innovation. There is, too, its aural perfection — its position as the first great feature by one of radio’s most significant practitioners. Pick almost any moment, at random, in Kane and recall what’s happening on the soundtrack. Welles not only affected the way talkies looked, but the way they could sound. Yet beyond that, too, is the screenplay, with its unusual, fragmented, structure, its use of the tropes of the medium (the March of Time newsreels in particular) and its lively admixture of history, comedy, melodrama and something dangerously close to real (and specifically American) tragedy. Pauline Kael called Kane “a shallow masterpiece,” and she had a point. Its swift (if not Swiftian) satire, its pell-mell early pace, its occasional caricature all give the picture a certain insubstantial air. However, the dredged-up memories of its characters, which reveal, in the aggregate, a far more complex central figure that was the norm, add depth to the characterization of Charles Foster Kane, and to those who surround him. Welles’ original conception was, he said, more like Rashomon, in that Kane “would seem to be a very different character depending on who was talking,” whereas in the final version he was rendered less extreme, and more ambiguous. It is that very ambiguity which is a hallmark of Orson Welles’ cinema, observable in all of his best work, a fact that, along with a few other consistent themes and appurtenances, gives the lie to the old canard that Welles had no hand—of, if he did, a small, editorial one — in the crafting of Kane’s screenplay.

“I am a writer-director — with an emphasis on the former.” — Orson Welles

Kael, of course, did more to roil those waters than anyone, and it must have galled Welles to see the Citizen Kane script in book form forever wedded to the essay in which Kael “proves” he didn’t write it. (Just as it would pain him, as it does many of us, to endure Time-Warner yoking all its home video editions of Kane with that spurious documentary The Battle Over “Citizen Kane.”) That Herman Mankiewicz had a hand in the picture’s creation is not debatable. And whether Welles wrote most of it, or only some of it, is less to the point than that he was — until his late collaborations with Oja Kodar, anyway — the sole author of every subsequent movie he directed.** Do the anti-Wellesians think he somehow pulled it over on everyone (not least of all, himself) for the rest of his life, or that, as absurdly, he miraculously sprouted a scenarist’s gifts, but only after Mankiewicz wrote Kane? The thematic concerns in Kane— with loneliness, loss, old age, betrayal, corruption and political engagement — are manifest in nearly all of Welles’ subsequent endeavors; indeed, they run throughout his oeuvre as a writer-director. Did Mankiewicz magically implant those as well?

Moreover, the shape of many of the lines and speeches in Kane, the give and take of its arguments and colloquies, the wit and eloquence (and even elegance) of the expression likewise reflect the writer Welles was as much as the look of Kane reflects his directorial flourishes, begun on the stage. One sees, and hears, their corollaries in The Stranger, in The Lady from Shanghai, in Mr. Arkadin, in Touch of Evil, in F for Fake and, especially, in the un-filmed (by Welles) The Big Brass Ring. For Welles was a writer; he wrote a plethora of newspaper and magazine columns, radio (and later, television) broadcasts, and plays, in addition to his screenwriting forays, so to imagine him as somehow not responsible for a good portion of the writing of his single great critical success is patently absurd, if not downright invidious. Yet Simon Callow, Welles’ curiously antipathetic biographer, baldy states, “Orson Welles did not write one word of Citizen Kane“… and uninformed journalists let him get away with it.

Welles’ eloquence may owe something to his upbringing, particularly since he had no formal schooling after the age of 16. He was an aristocrat, and I think that shows in his movies as it did in the particulars of his life; for all the economic struggle that dogged his filmmaking, he clearly enjoyed a high standard of living. That background is evident too, I think, in some of his attitudes to others. Despite his leftist politics (and for all that Hearst papers and the FBI enjoyed labeling him a Communist) there was a streak of well-heeled moralism in him at times, and I think I detect a little of Welles in Charles Foster Kane’s self-righteous riposte to his guardian, “If I don’t defend the interests of the underprivileged, somebody else will — maybe somebody without any money or property, and that would be too bad.” Certainly many of his attitudes were the furthest thing from enlightened; he expressed at times an appalling misogyny, in tandem with a fashionably sneering tone about homosexuals — coupled with a dismaying propensity for post-dubbing other actors with stereotyped “gay” voices. Perhaps it is those two, rather reactionary, strains that have in part led even some friendly commentators to detect a latency in Welles?

His lack of formal education had its small defects, among them the propensity to mispronounce common terms: “Arch-type” for “archetype,” “antiquay” for “antique”… and Welles only knows why both Michael Redgrave and Robert Hardin pronounce the word telescope as “teleoscope” in Mr. Arkdin. Welles’ mother died when he was 9, his father when the boy was 15, and a deep subsequent sense of loss seems to have followed him. Without doubt, that emotion is a primary concern in his movies. And too there was his tendency toward egocentric self-aggrandizement, but even Kael granted that, when an artist has had so much taken from him, such attitudes are explicable if not altogether laudable. (That she wrote this in an essay aimed at taking even more credit from Welles is an irony about which Kael herself had no comment.)

“The absence of limitations is the enemy of art.”
— Orson Welles

Agnes Moorehead as Aunt Fanny in the "hysterical" scene of "The Magnificent Ambersons." Welles: "Why she never got an Academy Award for that performance I'll never know."

Agnes Moorehead as Aunt Fanny in the “hysterical” scene of “The Magnificent Ambersons.” Welles: “Why she never got an Academy Award for that performance I’ll never know.”

The ignorant are, perhaps naturally, all too ready to repeat mythology without bothering to learn anything about reality. And no one occasioned more speculation or accrued more ignoramuses to his legend than Welles — as many now as when he was alive, if not more. “Oh, yes — Welles. Made Citizen Kane. Never did anything else after that.” That this ignores Ambersons is perhaps understandable, given that the movie was mutilated by RKO while Welles was in South America, barely released to theatres, and at that with some 50 minutes of shorn footage either incinerated or dumped into the Pacific Ocean — in any case, irrevocably destroyed, beyond the hope of restoration.*** Welles himself wanted, in the ‘60s, to re-shoot the climax, with Joseph Cotton and Agnes Moorehead (their respective ages at thee time would have fit with his original conception) but could not persuade the rights holders of the efficacy of the project. Had the movie been released in anything like Welles’ initial, 140-minute cut, it would have easily bested, if not eclipsed, Kane in conception and achievement. (Jonathan Rosenbaum’s inclusion of the scripts for the deleted sequences, along with some on-set stills, in This is Orson Welles, makes that case more than amply.) That it is still a great picture, a masterpiece even in its extreme bastardized form, and with a risible ending not by Welles, is a testament to how great a movie Ambersons is. Yet I become quite literally physically ill every time I think of that deliberately annihilated footage, particularly what was lost of Moorehead’s performance, which, even truncated, is among the greatest ever committed to film.

Welles (Othello) and Micheál Mac Liammóir  (Iago) in the long dolly shot in which the ensign plants the seeds of doubts in the Moor's ardor for Desdemona.

Welles (Othello) and Micheál Mac Liammóir (Iago) in the long dolly shot in which the ensign plants the seeds of doubts in the Moor’s ardor for Desdemona.

The “Nothing After Kane” school lives in willful ignorance of Welles’ other Hollywood projects of the time: Of The Stranger which, despite a somewhat perfunctory script (again, not by Welles) contains some breathtaking sequences and, in the burlesque comic Billy House’s extended bit (and whose scenes Welles did write), one of the most delightful, if unheralded, supporting performances of the era; of Macbeth, made for pennies on Poverty Row, and on some occasionally cheesy sets but which is nevertheless one of the richest of all Shakespearean transmigrations to film, brooding, stark and occasionally terrifying; and of The Lady from Shanghai, with its extraordinary gallery of grotesques, from Everett Sloane’s paraplegic cuckold to Glen Anders’ wild ersatz suicide, and a climax which, although spoiled by some cutting of Welles’ more extensive funhouse sequence and the addition of a bloodcurdlingly dreadful musical score, includes the brilliant hall of mirrors shoot-out that ends the picture.

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“I know thee not, old man.” Falstaff is banished at the climax of “Chimes at Midnight.”

Not long after, in the late 1940s, Welles left America for Europe. I’ve long suspected he saw what was coming and beat it before he could be blacklisted, and in his essential What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? Joseph McBride reveals that Welles was indeed a target; his FBI file lists the usual “fellow traveler” stats. (He had also been subjected to one of those humiliating “unofficial clearance” interviews with the reactionary Hedda Hopper.) While his European budgets were curtailed (when not actually, as with Othello, nonexistent) and he was subject to terrible technical limitations, he still produced that brooding, brief but sumptuous and disturbing tragedy, containing superb performances by himself as the Moor and by Mac Liammóir as Iago. Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare movies got more press — and awards — than Welles’, and made more money, but I would argue that Orson’s Shakespeares are infinitely greater in the aggregate, even as they were far more limited in scope, and as their maker trimmed the texts to his own designs. Nothing Olivier did in that realm can touch, for instance, Welles’ Chimes at Midnight for breadth, visual poetry or sheer emotional heft. The battle at Shrewsbury is unlike any such sequence I know in its uncompromisingly honest, even horrifying, depiction of mounted and hand-to-hand combat. And if it is hard to cotton on to Welles’ almost lovesick admiration for Falstaff (“Shakespeare’s good, pure man… the most completely good man in all drama”) it is equally difficult to suppress a shudder, and swallow past the lump in one’s throat, at Welles’ depiction of the old, fat knight’s banishment by Hal at the climax.

“A maverick may go his own way but he doesn’t think that it’s the only way, or ever claim that it’s the best one, except maybe for himself.” — Orson Welles

The limitations imposed on Welles in his European exiles were two‑fold, and thorny. First, and partly due to the fact that he had, usually through lack of funds, to shoot in real locations, Welles had to forego the excellence of Hollywood sound recording, and often shot silently, dubbing in the voices later, during the editing stage. (A standard practice in European cinema.) And while he maintained that he would rather have a great image than a great reading, post‑dubbing robbed this acutely sound‑conscious filmmaker of one of his hallmarks. When the synchronization is good, one scarcely notices it. When it is not so felicitous, one is naggingly, sometimes maddeningly, aware of it, a flaw that detracts even from so manifestly great a movie as Chimes at Midnight. As if Welles needed another stumbling‑block in his way; Shakespeare limits one’s audience enough to begin with. Even those who admired the movie on its release, like Kael, felt that its flaws would likely sink its prospects. Worse, or at least more distractingly, Welles evinced a curiously self‑defeating tendency to dub other actors’ performances, and one is never not aware that it’s his famously distinctive timbre one is hearing. (That he so often dubbed these lines in lisping, deliberately — and, I think, rather maliciously — “faggy” tones, is an added hurdle to enjoyment.) Joseph McBride believes this aural lack forced Welles to be even more creative visually, but when you stack the sound of, say, Kane or Ambersons against that of Arkadin or Chimes at Midnight, the deficiencies are profound.

Robert Hardin and the magisterial Michael Redgrave in the "teleoscope" scene of "Arkadin." Ten of the most delightful minutes ever committed to celluloid.

Robert Hardin and the magisterial Michael Redgrave in the “teleoscope” scene of “Arkadin.” Ten of the most delightful minutes ever committed to celluloid.

Second, Welles was hampered by the inavailability in Europe both of the crane that makes grand images possible, and the head grip who operates it. While neither his visual acumen nor his innate ingenuity ever deserted him completely, and indeed, such sequences as the one at Shrewsbury leave little to be further desired, one cannot but think how much richer his later pictures might have been had he been less technically hamstrung. “I didn’t have to know about cutting until I got to Europe,” Welles told Bogdanovich. He cut, sometimes too much, to compensate for his paucity of choices, and the rhythms, even in his best pictures of that period, are sometimes, unaccountably “off.” Of course, some of these movies (Arkadin, for instance) were taken out of Welles’ hands and re-cut, so it is entirely possible, if not probable, that what we perceive as his editing may well be the work of other, less creditable, hands. Certainly this is the case with the Beatrice Welles-supervised “restoration” of Othello, which suffers both from a re-recorded music track that reduces the scope and grandeur of the Francesco Lavagnino/Alberto Barberis score and from some infelicitous editorial second-guessing.

All that “Nothing”… Like Mr. Arkadin, a thin ghost of Kane perhaps in its complicated flashback structure and its interviews with the observers of a great man’s less-than-savory past but withal one of the most entertaining of all Welles’ movies, with superlative turns by Suzanne Flon, Katina Paxinou, Akim Tamiroff and, supremely, Michael Redgrave. (There are at least seven different versions of Arkadin extant, two of which plus a “comprehensive edition” are assembled in the 2006 “Complete” Criterion set, an essential item in the home of any self-respecting cineaste.) Another nothing: Touch of Evil, perhaps the most radical crime drama ever produced at a Hollywood studio, one which — now that Walter Murch has assembled a restoration that at least honors Welles’ innovative sound design — eschews the clichés even as it is constrained by genre, and offers for our consideration the most explicit rejection of investigative brutality between the onset of the Production Code and the relaxation of its strictures. “A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state,” says the nominal hero — played by Charlton Heston, no less.

And here, another myth adored by the ignorant, as exemplified by the cretinous Tim Burton, who in his execrable Ed Wood has Vincent D’Onofrio as Welles weeping into his beer over being “reduced” to employing Heston in his latest epic, when it is a well-established fact that Welles owed his directing of the movie to Heston. Admittedly a mistake on Heston’s part; when he was told, by a Universal suit, “We’ve got Orson Welles,” Heston replied that he would be happy to appear in anything Welles directed. (Welles had re-written the screenplay and was only, at the time, slated to play the heavy.) The actor’s misapprehension netted Welles the directing job, so the very idea of his pissing and moaning about being “stuck” with the likes of Heston is insulting to everyone concerned.

Welles (heavily padded) and Akim Tamiroff (heavily bewigged) in "Touch of Evil." Welles: "He looked at that gun like it was every cock in the world."

Welles (heavily padded) and Akim Tamiroff (heavily bewigged) in “Touch of Evil.” Welles: “He looked at that gun like it was every cock in the world.”

“I have always been more interested in experiment, than in accomplishment.” — Orson Welles

More “Nothings”: The richly evocative, if not especially enjoyable The TrialChimes at MidnightF for Fake. How that blazingly original meditation on art, forgery, beauty, sex and the divine comedy of life could fail to find its audience is less surprising than the critical indifference it received in America. What Welles did with F for Fake, taking off from some standard documentary footage by François Reichenbach of the enigmatic art forger Elmyr de Hory and his neighbor and biographer Clifford Irving, was nothing less than to bring into being a new form — the personal film essay, in its more modest way as playfully revolutionary as Kane. The movie is not-quite-documentary, not-quite-fiction, and wholly, idiosyncratically Welles: Alternately frisky and sober, filled with Welles’ witty, baroque observations and beautifully photographed by Gary Graver, Welles’ indispensable lighting director and cameraman during his final years. Welles disdained color, but when he chose to utilize it, he did so in a way that made the images shimmer. He did not, perhaps, help his own case by submitting to the distributor an 11-minute trailer, more a stand-alone short than a preview, which he should have known would be rejected. But can we call F for Fake a “failure” because it did not find its audience? Only if we also call Kane, Ambersons, Arkadin, Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight failures merely because they fared poorly in the marketplace — a bazaar always more enamored with fairy tales than with honest expression. F for Fake is a “failure” only if we can also include as failures Moby-Dick and Ulysses, or Sondheim’s Assassins and Bernstein’s Candide.

Welles with Oja Kodar in the charming final third of "F for Fake." His love for her is evident in the exquisite way he illuminated her face.

Welles with Oja Kodar in the charming final third of “F for Fake.” His love for her is evident in the exquisite way he illuminated her face.

And it is here that we perhaps comprehend the ignorant (or maliciously mischievous?) myth-makers. Orson Welles had a few small box-offices successes as a filmmaker, but no “hits.” That is what his detractors are attuned to… plus the delicious frisson of being able to mock him for his Paul Masson commercials, his narration of bad movies and documentaries, his squabbles with producers over the inane copy of a frozen peas ad… and, of course, his expanding waistline. What they neither know nor care to know, is that he poured the revenues from these perhaps ignoble adventures into his work. And that this work was never-ending. Whether the public saw the fruits of those labors, whether he was able to finish them, or wanted to — that was not the point. The point was the labor itself. “He never finishes anything!” was (is?) the cry. Does every artist finish every canvas? Every novelist complete the manuscript? Every poet the stanza? We know, by and large, only what was completed, not the pentimento of the artist’s work, those things he or she “repented” of, painted over, tossed away. Do we pillory Picasso for changing his mind?

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Who but Welles, faced with no money and no costumes for his actors, would spend two years prostituting his thespic gifts in other people’s inferior movies in order to complete Othello? Who else, having been sent to Rio de Janero on a “goodwill” project for his government, would labor, with bad — when not non-existent — communications, to complete his edit of Ambersons, while simultaneously capturing, in the Jangadero sequences (finally preserved in the documentary “It’s All True”: Based on an Unfinished Film by Orson Welles decades after his death) some of the most luminously beautiful cinematography ever filmed, even as his own studio was haphazardly mutilating his greatest creation back home? “Nobody gets justice,” Welles said. “People only get good luck or bad luck.” His associate Richard Wilson maintained that the South American fiasco was the “direct cause” of Welles’ troubles ever after, and Welles concurred. “No question about it,” he told Bogdanovich. “It all stems from that.” As do the frothing teem of legends about his alleged profligacy, his irresponsibility with other peoples’ money. Again, who but Welles would labor to film, and edit, a genuinely experimental movie like The Other Side of the Wind, partially financed (horribile dictu!) by the brother-in-law of the Shah of Iran and spend the rest of his life trying to extricate his movie from the fangs of revolutionary history? “Oh, he never completes anything.” Sigh.

“God, how they’ll love me when I’m dead!”
— Orson Welles

Welles with Peter Bogdanovich and Joseph McBride, at a rehearsal for "The Other Side of the Wind."

Welles with Peter Bogdanovich and Joseph McBride, at a rehearsal for “The Other Side of the Wind.”

As Welles’ centenary approached, much speculation was evoked concerning The Other Side of the Wind. Others, Bogdanovich included, are now reportedly toiling to complete something that might approximate Welles’ final vision, and to get it released. Many Welles aficionados are excited by this possibility, but some, even the most keen, are a bit ambivalent. The picture is so laden with personal history, so talked-about but (with the exception of a few brief sequences) largely unseen, so fabled, that they may be excused from almost hoping it never sees the flickering light of exhibition. For, like the Criterion “Comprehensive Edition” of Arkadin, the final product will not be Welles’, but — also like the recent Touch of Evil restoration — only the best approximation of his work.

This is not, you understand, to pillory Bogdanovich, or Walter Murch, or Richard Wilson, or Criterion, for their efforts. The collective devotion to Welles, like their desire to re-present his work, is sincere. Bogdanovich in particular seems to be doing for Welles what Jo Cotten’s Eugene does for the memory of Dolores Costello at the end of Ambersons: Bringing his work “under shelter again.” Nor, if and when Wind is released — every deal up to now has fallen through in the end — will this ardent Wellesian fail to see it. But we do risk grave disappointment in an Other Side of the Wind that falls short of expectations. Some of us who love Welles, and respect him, who experience, even at this remove, so long after his death, real pangs of empathetic regret at his deep frustrations, and who have spent time in fantasizing about Wind, have an uneasy feeling that, if the completion lets him down, lets us down, Welles’ legacy may be further tarnished. In addition, the film‑within‑the‑film that the movie’s star, John Huston, is making in Wind was, by design, a deliberate comment on then-current, early ’70s “with‑it” indulgences of the young tyros being given their collective heads at the time Welles was filming his movie. Will everyone now get the joke, or will some merely, and erroneously, think it’s Welles himself, and not Huston’s “Jake Hannaford,” who is being pretentious and overly frenentic?

Yet even those negative possibilities are no reason to deny the thing itself. How often do we get a “new” Orson Welles? And too, there is the undeniably nostalgic prospect of seeing the movie’s star, John Huston, again; and the still young and not-yet-disgraced Bogdanovich; and the glorious Oja; and Lilli Palmer, standing in for Dietrich, and Edmond O’Brien, and Mercedes McCambridge, and Cameron Mitchell, and Norman Foster, and Gregory Sierra, and Paul Mazursky; and the impossibly young Joseph McBride as the sycophantic Mister Pister. And at least Welles’ daughter, the Dread Beatrice, who has fucked up everything of her father’s she’s ever touched (the “restored” OthelloDon Quioxte) up to and including his funeral, is not, this time, intimately involved. Joseph McBride, for one, believes ardently that the picture should be completed, and released, and he’s not only devoted decades of his life to splendid Welles scholarship, he’s actually in the movie.

Who knows? Maybe it’ll be wonderful.

But it won’t quite be Welles.

John Huston in "The Other Side of the Wind."

John Huston in “The Other Side of the Wind.”

Just as the botched The Big Brass Ring, the real heartbreaker of Welles’ final years, was ultimately not Welles. The screenplay, by Welles and Kodar, is a thing of beauty; literate, witty, perceptive, politically astute, emotionally raw, with perhaps the most chillingly forlorn sequence of voyeurism in the American cinematic canon. In a highly personal touch, the movie’s central figure, the potential President William Blake Pellarin, desperately pursues a woman from his past, much as Welles did Kodar. When they finally come together, they are seen making love, through an open window, by Pellarin’s shady old political mentor, the aging Kim Minnaker, who has long been carrying his own torch for his protégé and who spies the pair while riding a Ferris wheel. In a moment as sexually charged as anything in American movies, Pellarin becomes aware of this scrutiny, and his eyes lock with Minnaker’s. The description of this naked encounter, in the published script, is among the most breathtaking I’ve ever encountered in dramatic literature; it should have burned holes in the screen.

As so often, the industry let Welles down on that one. His financing for this anguished political parable was contingent on his netting a Big Name for the lead (Welles himself would appear in the secondary role of Minnaker.) Where was the Charlton Heston of the 1980s? None of them — not Nicholson, nor Beatty, nor Redford, nor Eastwood nor Reynolds — would agree to lower his asking price, even for the privilege of working in an Orson Welles picture. And when it was done, in 1999, the director George Hickenlooper re-wrote, with F.X. Feeney, that exquisite screenplay… and dropped its finest scene — almost its entire raison d’etre — that magnificent, appalling act of voyeurism.

“A film is a dream, but a dream is never an illusion.” — Orson Welles

Welles was, like all important artists (and so many others) obsessed by certain themes: Old age, lost Edens, loneliness. The largest of these, I think, was betrayal. One sees it time and again in his work, and in his passion for Falstaff. He seemed, in some curious way, to expect to be betrayed, preferably by a younger man, and felt, finally, that he was, by Bogdanovich. Certainly Welles had been betrayed, over and over — by studios, by collaborators, by financiers, by critics and other writers. And, just as certainly, the remarks he made about Bogdanovich to Henry Jaglom at their audio-taped luncheons are not those of a friend. In the transcripts of those tapes Jaglom, quite properly, and in what one senses is genuine disappointment and confusion, upbraids Welles more than once for his rudeness and bigotry. But blindness to the problems of others even as we ourselves struggle was not, is not, unique to Welles. At the risk of an unintended visual pun, he was large; he contained multitudes. So, too, should our response to Welles embrace catholicism. Let what is sad be sad, what is maddening be so, what is grand be, as it so often is, magnificent. Welles himself often said that he, an instinctive anti-auteurist, did not believe in creators, but in works. That is more than a fine distinction. It is, finally, an overarching philosophy.

And so let, on that note, the last words of this impassioned defense (and passionate appraisal) of Welles be his. In the deeply moving Chartres sequence of F for Fake, Welles, appearing to gaze at the Cathedral but, Gary Gravers informs us, actually at nothing, in the back yard of his own home (Orson: “Anybody can make movies with a pair of scissors and a two-inch lens.”) contemplates art, and the fate of the artist, in his own, exquisite, probing, style. It’s not a bad epitaph, for him, or for anyone who strives, in a world always and eternally indifferent to artists, for expression.

“Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash — the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. ‘Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.’ Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.”

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All other text copyright 2015 by Scott Ross

*Among them, Richard France, Frank Brady, Micheál Mac Liammóir, André Bazin, Joseph McBride, Peter Bogdanovich, Oja Kodar, Gary Graver, Barbara Leaming, Jonathan Rosenbaum, James Naremore, Christopher Welles and Clinton Heylin.

**Touch of Evil was re-written by Welles, from two earlier drafts by Paul Monash and Franklin Coen, which he combined, edited and expanded upon.

***Another legend: The possible existence of Welles’ work-print, left behind in Rio — an almost unbearably tantalizing prospect which, to date, seems mere apocrypha.

As long as you got somebody to do it for you: A Robert Ryan trilogy

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By Scott Ross

91spW6aNaRL._SL1500_A very interesting 3-film Western omnibus DVD fell into my hands this past weekend. Outlaws and Lawmen caught my eye first because it contains the interesting, Edward Anhalt-written (and John Sturges-directed) Hour of the Gun, which I’d enjoyed on TCM several years ago. But, perusing the cover at my favorite local second-hand bookstore, something beyond that (and, to be frank, the three dollar asking price… at a dollar a movie, who could kick?) announced itself: All three of the movies starred, or at least featured, that quintessential post-war American, the great Robert Ryan.

Robert Ryan at the cast recording sessions for "Mr. President," the musical in which he starred with Nanette Fabray. He's likely wondering either how to get out of this mess, or wishing Irving Berlin had written him one good song...

Robert Ryan at the cast recording sessions for “Mr. President,” the musical in which he starred with Nanette Fabray. He’s likely either wondering how to get out of this mess, or wishing Irving Berlin had written him just one good song…

Any movie with Ryan in a leading role is almost automatically worth a look. Like Michael Caine and Gene Hackman, Ryan was seldom capable of a bad performance, and his best work leaves the flailings of more ingratiating, and infinitely less gifted, actors gasping in the proverbial dust. As J.R. Jones noted of the perennially underrated Ryan in The Chicago Reader, “… the persona that lingers is that of a strong, intelligent man guarding some storm of emotion — fear, guilt, helpless rage. Even in broad daylight he seemed cloaked in shadow.” Ryan, whose intelligence shines, cleanly, through every performance — one could no more imagine him as a mindless thug than one could accept Steve McQueen playing an intellectual — was all too often typed as dangerous, mercurial villains and was never nearly as well-known, or as celebrated, as he deserved. (Even the splendid Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies series omitted him from its 58-title roster, although Jeanette McDonald got one.) A life-long leftist, he somehow managed to dodge persecution during the HUAC years, even though he was one of the members of the much-hounded Committee for the First Amendment; one presumes his punishment for that, and for his role in the witchhunter-reviled Tender Comrade, was having to appear as a vicious Commie (was there ever any other kind?) in The Woman on Pier 13 , aka, I Married a Communist.

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Robert Ryan about to dispatch Cameron Mitchell in Sam Fuller’s “House of Bamboo.” In its intimacy and homoeroticism the scene echoes a similar one in Fuller’s “I Shot Jesse James,” but goes much further.

Yet even when reflexively cast in the negative, Ryan crafted complex, unnerving, surprising villains. Think, for example, of his homicidal, irrationally anti-Semitic bigot in the 1947 Crossfire, one of the first of the mainstream post-war American movies to examine the dark underbelly of the victors. Thank, too, what Ryan could have done with the role had it been permitted to more accurately reflect the Richard Brooks novel on which it was based, in which the victim was not Jewish but homosexual; Ryan read the book (The Brick Foxhole) and told Brooks he was determined to play the killer. (In a sense, he did just that, later, as Claggart to Terence Stamp’s Billy Budd.) Consider also The Naked Spur, one of those uneasy, Anthony Mann-directed James Stewart Westerns of the period in which the seemingly noble Stewart’s motivations are easily as venal as (and perhaps more self-serving than) those of the ironic, smiling, rather likable killer Ryan portrays. The screenwriters, Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom, received and Academy nomination for their work, something few Western screenplays ever achieve, which may tell you something about just how original the movie was. In the taut, bracing neo-Western Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) the focus of the terrifyingly normal Ryan character’s xenophobia was a Japanese-American homesteader. And in Sam Fuller’s striking Cinerama crime drama House of Bamboo (1955) Ryan’s gangster ichiban is suave, genial and low-keyed. Yet he executes his second-in-command (and possible lover?) Cameron Mitchell, when he comes to believe the man to be a traitor, with a dispassion matched only by its suddenness and shocking brutality. In Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) Ryan is once again the bigot, loathing his association with Harry Belafonte, yet willing to stomach it for the proceeds of their planned bank heist. In the ironic ending, both men are incinerated, black and white bodies becoming indistinguishable.

Good against evil, or repressed homo vs. perennial cock-tease? Terence Stamp and Ryan in "Billy Budd."

Good against evil, or repressed homo vs. perennial cock-tease? Terence Stamp and Ryan in “Billy Budd.”

Taking a small role in support of his co-star from the previous years’ The Professionals, Lee Marvin, Ryan was the very model of the petty martinet hoist with his own petard in The Dirty Dozen (1967). And while eschewing a British accent, Ryan’s master-at-arms in the Peter Ustinov adaptation of Billy Budd (1962) is more than merely the embodiment of sadistic, repressed, self-hating (again, possible) homosexuality; his Claggart is chillingly paranoid, longing for Billy’s purity of heart more than for his beauty,  and hating the impulse to decency in himself.

Ryan as Deke Thornton in "The Wild Bunch."

Ryan as Deke Thornton in “The Wild Bunch.”

When allowed to play a role that called on other, less troubling, aspects of his humanity (which was not nearly often enough) Ryan’s coiled, sinewy tension was still seldom far below the surface: His has-been boxer in The Set-Up (1949), for instance, refusing to take a fall while knowing full well the penalty for going against the wishes of the Mob, or his fatally compromised Deke Thornton in Sam Peckinpaw and Walon Green’s The Wild Bunch (1969), forced by circumstance to track down his old comrades for the very legal system both hold in contempt. Deke’s self-disgust is perched atop his steely professionalism and contempt for greedy incompetence, and Ryan’s essential ambivalence is as deeply moving as the sagging majesty of William Holden’s lined, craggy face. In his final role, as Larry Slade in the American Film Theatre The Iceman Cometh, Ryan is both the downbeat, antagonist flip-side of Marvin’s Hickey and the living proof of Hickey’s failed thesis. Clinging to a belief, and a compassion, both of which he keeps trying to convince himself he no longer feels, Ryan’s Larry is a valedictory, a testament to the quiet strength with which he played, its aching intensity, and the immediacy of his passionate, troubled accessibility as an actor.

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Ryan as Ike Clanton.

Ryan as Ike Clanton.

The trio of movies on Outlaws and Lawmen places Ryan in some interesting, contradictory, territory. In Hour of the Gun he’s Ike Clanton, ruthless and cynically manipulative. For all of its obvious virtues, Anhalt’s screenplay does not give Clanton much depth or complexity; he’s as fixed on vengeance as James Garner’s Wyatt Earp, but without Earp’s ambivalent self-awareness. Earp claims to value law above personal desire, and half-convinces himself it’s true. Yet he has Jason Robards, Jr.’s Doc Holliday around to call him on it; and while the truth may sting badly, Garner’s Earp eventually accepts the reality of the observation. Clanton, by contrast, has no one he respects, as Earp does Doc, in his inner circle. Monied, and secure in his ability to buy whatever justice he seeks (“If this was the east,” he notes, “I could make law the way they do. But the best I can do out here is buy it.”) Clanton is undone as much by misreading Earp as anything else. Leonard Matlin, in his movie guide, says Hour of the Gun “begins well, but becomes increasingly tedious.” Well, obsession is tedious; it’s how you go about depicting it, and the toll it takes on the obsessed, and his or her victims, that make or break a study of it. The movie starts where all other Earp films end: at the O.K. Corral. Everything that happens flows from that event, instead of towards it. Thus the obsession of each man for the obliteration of the other.

A study in contrast: Ryan and Lancaster in "Lawman."

A study in contrasts: Ryan and Lancaster in “Lawman.” Note that the “coward” wears the white hat, the lawman the black.

Lawman (1971) is, of the three, both the most interesting and the most problematic. Gerry Wilson’s screenplay ranks among the most literate and thoughtful of any Western scenario (and yes, I’m aware that, to some, that’s damning with faint praise) and it’s primarily the dialogue that makes Lawman so fascinating. It’s certainly not helped by the self-conscious direction of Michael Winner, the man who brought you such masterworks of subtlety as The Games, Death Wish (and the first two of its four sequels) and the wholly unnecessary remake of The Big Sleep. Winner’s direction here consists largely of inapt, when not inept, framing and a nauseating over-reliance on zooms. In contrast to Hour of the Gun, whose assets include Lucien Ballard’s luminous cinematography and a superb score by Jerry Goldsmith, Lawman boasts merely workman-like photography (by the seemingly mis-named Robert Paynter) and shockingly over-emphatic music by the usually splendid Jerry Fielding. Well, perhaps both men gave the director what he wanted.

Joseph Wiseman in "Lawman."

Joseph Wiseman in “Lawman.”

And, too, there is not much anyone could do with Burt Lancaster. A likable, athletic and even charismatic actor in the right role, when called upon to be taciturn and righteous he was just as often turgid and action-hero stalwart. He’s not bad in Lawman, mind you. He’s just not nearly as interesting as the actors who surround him. And what is best about the movie, aside from its script (at least until it goes wildly off-kilter; about which, more anon) is its rich casting of secondary roles: Lee J. Cobb as the Clanton-like boss of the ironically-named town of Sabbath, a hard man yearning for an end to the violence that made him; Robert Duvall and J.D. Cannon as farmers who get themselves in far deeper than either intends; Sheree North as Lancaster’s aging one-time lover, caught between her reluctant yen for the past and the hard but respectable realities of the present; Richard Jordan, bringing layered complexity to the de rigueur role of the trigger-happy kid; the often weird but utterly compelling Joseph Wiseman as a former Marshal with ruined legs and a wind-up clock fashioned from a human skull; the marvelous John McGiver as the pompous mayor, complete unto elaborate ear-trumpet; and, best of all, Ryan as Cotton Ryan, Sabbath’s beaten, timorous sheriff whose reputation is his abiding curse. “I remember you at Fort Bliss,” Lancaster remarks. “That’s my trouble,” Ryan answers ruefully. “Everybody remembers me at Fort Bliss.” Cotton no longer wishes to be challenged by every cheap, self-important young gunslinger in the territory. And, as he also says to Lancaster’s Maddox, “… if you’re a lawman, you’re a disease. They need you, but they hate you.”

Frank McCarthy's poster art is an only slightly exaggerated rendering of the movie's violent, confusing climax.

Frank McCarthy’s poster art is an only slightly exaggerated rendering of the movie’s violent, confusing climax.

Maddox speaks of, and seems to cherish, his ethical code — what he continually refers to as “the rules”: You don’t draw first “if you want to stay clean.” And it is here that Lawman ultimately falls completely apart. Toward the sardonic climax, Maddox has decided to chuck it all, to release from jail the farmers he’s brought in, to ignore the postings on the others he hasn’t killed, and, perhaps, to go off with North. This we accept, given his 20 years and more of legal killing. (North informs him that, behind his back, he’s known as “The Widow-Maker.”) But in a sudden reversal of this, and of his own precious rules, Maddox gratuitously guns Cannon down, shooting him in the back as he flees (Cannon makes extraordinary little sounds as he runs, half-whine, half-sob.) It isn’t that Maddox’s attitudes gravitate first 180 degrees, then another 180; they go half an arc in two separate directions. Why? Neither Wilson’s script nor Winner’s direction gives a clue. It’s as though Maddox suddenly decides he wants to be that despised Widow-Maker. It’s a depressingly bifurcated ending to an otherwise sharp-witted, fascinating movie.

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The obvious assets of co-star Tina Louise (and the implicit sexual threat to them) decorate the original poster.

Aside from Robert Ryan, what all three pictures on the disc also have in common is the inevitable mutability of the West itself. The days of lawlessness and wide open spaces for the (often violent) taking are in each title giving way to the constricting arrival of so-called “civilizing” influences: Respectable women, law that is more than legalized slaughter, and the accumulating power of the almighty dollar, usually represented either by cattle barons or farmers. (Churches, refreshingly, are not in much sanctimonious evidence among these movies; indeed, the only pastor in the three films is the bought-and-paid-for minister in Lawman played with more than slight smarminess by Charles Tyner.) And in all three, the role of the men — and it is always men — who do the violent jobs no one else wishes to, is central. This is made explicit in Day of the Outlaw through the following exchange, between Ryan’s cattleman Blaise Starrett and Vic (Donald Elson), the owner of the tiny town’s general store:

Vic: I don’t hold for killin’.

Blaise: You don’t have to… as long as you got somebody to do it for you.

In Lawman, Joseph Wiseman’s Lucas notes to Lancaster’s Maddox. “You and I sit at the same table, Jared. The virtuous need us, but they can’t stand the smell.” In Hour of the Gun Wyatt Earp finally admits, “I don’t care about the rules anymore. I’m not that much of a hypocrite.” To which Doc Holliday rejoinders:

The whole thing is hypocrisy. The rules they tack on today that unless you’re wearing that badge or a soldier’s uniform, you can’t kill. But they’re the only rules there are. They are more important to you than you think. Play it that way, Wyatt, or you’ll destroy yourself.

Whether any of this can be considered “deep,” even in opposition to the level on which most seven-day Westerns of the period operate, is of less importance than the fact such dialogues exist at all. The writers of these movies aren’t just cynical hacks, planting white hats on the heroes and darker models on the villains. They’re concerned, as all good writers are, with the gray that colors most issues, and most of the people who face them.

Ryan as Blaise Starrett in "Day of the Outlaw."

Ryan as Blaise Starrett in “Day of the Outlaw.”

In Day of the Outlaw (1959) the central conflict initially appears to be the deadly tension between cattle-herder and land-grabbing farmer spoofed so memorably by Oscar Hammerstein in Oklahoma! Here Ryan is the harsh cattleman Blaise Starrett, inflamed as much by lust for the wife of the farmer who is cutting up the plain with barbed wire fences as hatred for the the man himself. The first quarter of Day of the Outlaw constitutes a set-up to the inevitable show-down between the two; but with the suddenness of a hail-storm, the script (by the ubiquitous Philip Yordan, perhaps the most notable of all fronts during the days of HUAC, for whom it is nearly impossible to separate work he did himself from that for which he claimed credit, even after the blacklist was broken) takes a strikingly different turn, with the arrival of a gang of wanted thieves led by the wounded Burl Ives.

Shot, fairly obviously, on a sub-B budget by Andre De Toth, Day of the Outlaw is strikingly different, in tone, visual palette and action, from the general run of bread-and-butter Westerns. Like Lawman and Hour of the Gun, the movie has something on its mind, and says it with surprising eloquence and panache. (The often radiant black-and-white cinematography is the work of Russell Harlan.) The movie has an uncertain beginning, perhaps prompted by their being no money for alternate set-ups: Ryan and Nehemiah Persoff discuss, in long shot and via disconcerting voice-over, what Blaise has in mind for the wire-fencing farmer. This is a decided deterrent to comprehension. The dialogue is occasionally, and deliberately, cryptic, which might not matter in a tight two-shot. The benefit of seeing faces speaking lines is that, even if we are not sure what they’e talking about or where it’s going, the actors’ looks automatically help us over the hurdle, even as seeing their lips move makes comprehension of lengthy dialogue easier to follow. (Yordan is on record saying De Toth simply ran out of money on location and brought the production back to Hollywood.)

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Burl Ives and Ryan preparing to face very different kinds of death on impassable mountain terrain.

Once this opening sequence ends, however, De Toth seldom makes a misstep. Like a less-gifted Samuel Fuller, he seems to understand instinctively where best to place his camera and his actors, not for artistic but for dramatic effect. Moreover, he and Harlan move us into geographic areas few, if any, contemporary Western filmmakers cared to go. The final quarter of Day of the Outlaw places us on an increasingly impassable mountainside, as Ryan’s Blaise leads the cut-throats to a deliberate dead-end; Blaise wants to allow the dying Bruhn (Ives) an honorable death, and he knows he’ll eventually be murdered by the outlaws when they discover his perfidy, but he’s beyond caring. There are moments, earlier in the movie, as the camera pans across the starkly lovely Wyoming vistas, when you may find yourself wishing Day of the Outlaw had been filmed in color. But as Ryan, Ives and the bandits set off into the wilds amid gale-force wind, the white of the snow around, and beneath, them, marks a visual poetry comparable to that of Ansel Adams which color could only dissipate, and you’re suddenly very grateful indeed for black and white film.

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That snow, so intensely beautiful, becomes a magnificent trap for the outlaws: A horse missteps and must be put down (rather horribly, but as the beast is carrying one of the more unsavory of Ives’ gang, that in itself is hideously in character.) One of the remaining marauders dies, in his sleep, of exposure. Another, giving chase to Ryan, simply gives up, and gives out, coming to rest in the drifts almost picturesquely, as though his life is ebbing away in slow-motion. (Could Robert Altman have seen this one? Day of the Outlaw is assuredly no McCain and Mrs. Miller, but the use of snow in both has striking similarities.) These men may live by the sword (or the gun) but they are, finally, helpless in the face of elements against which no firearm makes the slightest difference. Day of the Outlaw, despite that rather commonplace, utilitarian title, ultimately becomes a sort of transcendental cautionary tale. And the angry, covetous Blaise seems cleansed by the ordeal; when he returns, to no fanfare (not even the remarkable chamber score in this movie, by Alexander Courage, overstates) he quietly announces to Persoff that there’ll be no more killing. Fade-out. The moment is no more pointed than it needs to be.

That too is a hallmark of Robert Ryan, who never shouted unless he had to. Could we ever use him today!

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Sleeping on the skin of a nightmare: “The Naked Kiss” (1964)

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By Scott Ross

NAKED KISS1If I’ve seen a movie with a stronger, stranger, wilder and more compelling opening than Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss, I can’t remember it.

Even reading, in Fuller’s posthumously published memoir A Third Face, the basic plot of this astonishment, and how that remarkable opening was achieved, cannot quite prepare you for that first shot. Of the Fullers I’ve seen so far, it is this immediately involving visual statement that has best exemplified its progenitor’s “grab ’em by the balls” philosophy of filmmaking. I won’t spoil it for the uninitiated, but when you see it (and you should) bear in mind the writer-director’s youthful beginnings at the New York Graphic. Little Sammy learned early — at at time when most boys his age had not yet graduated to long pants — the innate value to the journalist of the strongman opening sentence. And there was surely no stronger cinematic opener in movie-houses of 1964 than this one, yet it’s only the beginning. When, 91 minutes later, The Naked Kiss ends, you’ll grant you’ve seen something utterly unlike anything else.

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The movies have had a fascination with prostitutes almost from the beginning, and it went on, enthusiasm undimmed even when the writers had, under the yoke of the odious, Catholic-driven, Production Code, to disguise their intentions beneath cloaks of obfuscation. The year before The Naked Kiss was released, Billy Wilder, taking advantage of the waning censorship standards, had his greatest box-office success with his and I.A.L. Diamond’s simultaneously unguarded and surprisingly poignant comedy Irma La Douce. (The original musical, from France via the West End, and from which Wilder extracted the musical numbers, benefited both from the more relaxed “moral” attitudes of the stage and the show’s own, charming, level of innocence.) But no contemporary film I can think of tackled the subject so head-on as this one, and definitely not for laughs.

There is nothing remotely funny about Kelly, or her situation. Having extricated herself from her seamy procurer and working solely on her own, she finds herself in a seemingly idealized small town and, all too bitterly aware that time is against her (“Nothing but the buck, the bed and the bottle for the rest of my life”) settles in, against the odds, as beloved nurse to a hospitalful of handicapped children. She even seems to find love, and the promise of future respectability, with the town’s wealthy scion. But as in life, though all too seldom at the movies, these things have a way of disintegrating. The Naked Kiss emerges, less as the “shocker” advertised than as one of the fullest portrayals ever made of a woman engaged, as they now say, in the sex trade, unparalleled until Jane Fonda’s fulsome portrait of Bree Daniels in Klute five years later.

Constance Towers' Kelly confronts her self, in a decisive moment from "The Naked Kiss."

Constance Towers’ Kelly confronts her self, in a decisive moment from “The Naked Kiss.”

Constance Towers, known to me before this only as a performer in musicals (she was and remains the Anna Leonowens of my dreams) has one of the strongest faces I’ve ever encountered in a movie; she’s in virtually every scene of The Naked Kiss but you’d be hard-pressed to take your eye off her even if she wasn’t. Towers had enormous regard for her director, and it’s clear that Fuller returned the esteem. He uses her extraordinary physiognomy both to conceal and to reveal. Even when you’re not sure why she’s reacting as she is, as in the sequence in which her wealthy suitor (Michael Dante) first kisses her, the moment has exceptional power.

Towers and Dante.

Towers and Dante.

Kelly is one of the most fully delineated female characters of her era, and I wish the man who created her had done more studies of complex, troubled, strong-willed women like her. For a filmmaker as concerned with masculine stories as Fuller, his conception of Kelly is a revelation. And for all his pulp entertainment sensibilities, and his occasionally unpolished dialogue, his sensitivity to Kelly (and, by extension, to women generally, in or out of “the profession”) is exquisitely limned. Kelly is a sister under the skin to such finely depicted Fuller heroines as Jean Peters’ Candy in Pickup on South Street, Barbara Stanwyck’s Jessica Drummond in 40 Guns and Shirley Yamaguchi’s Mariko in House of Bamboo — women who are flawed, proud, sometimes difficult, intermittently inexplicable, but imbued with an innate humanity that is never condescended to by their creator.

Samuel Fuller and his star on-set. The affection was surely mutual.

Samuel Fuller and his star on-set. The affection was surely mutual.

Working outside the Hollywood system, Fuller was able to get into The Naked Kiss some astonishing details. Kelly’s narrative arc does not merely take in the degrading, soul-killing life of the of prostitute; it encompasses explicitly stated (if discretely illuminated) pedophilia and the hypocrisy of the law. The police chief, Griff (Anthony Eisley) tries to run Kelly out of his town, but only after he has enjoyed her erotically himself. Other hypocrisies abound; of the many people in Grantville who come to love her, not one offers her comfort when she’s arrested, only after she’s released. Indeed, if I have any real quarrel with Fuller’s dramaturgy, it’s that I would prefer that Kelly, rather than embracing and kissing her women friends at the finale, had spat in their faces instead.

"Ten... ten... and five." Kelly repays the duplicitous madam (Virginia Grey) in one of the movie's most striking sequences.

“Ten… ten… and five.” Kelly repays the duplicitous madam (Virginia Grey) in one of the movie’s most striking sequences.

There are several splendid supporting performances in The Naked Kiss: the robust, jocular Patsy Kelly as the hospital’s head nurse; Marie Devereux as Buff, Kelly’s unhappy colleague who is drifting perilously close to the kind of life from which Kelly has walked away; Betty Bronson, the screen’s very first Peter Pan, in a lovely performance as Kelly’s landlady, witheringly referred to as the town’s oldest virgin; Virginia Grey as the soignée madam who gets an especially brutal comeuppance from Kelly and who will later return it in kind; and Gerald Michenaud as the legless child who is the special recipient of Kelly’s buried mother-love.

Fuller’s dialogue, despite some embarrassingly blunt passages, brims with his patented street eloquence, as when Kelly warns the wayward Buff away from the lure of selling herself: “You know what’s different about the first night? Nothing. Nothing… except it lasts forever, that’s all. You’ll be sleeping on the skin of a nightmare for the rest of your life… And you’ll meet men you live on… and men who live on you. And those are the only men you’ll meet… You’ll be every man’s wife-in-law, and no man’s wife.” He is also unafraid of showing Kelly’s lack of education, as when she mispronounces Gerthe’s name; she’s a dilettante, self-educated, a reader who has never heard the name of the poet she admires.

Kelly senses something off in Grant's kiss. What it is she doesn't say, and Fuller doesn't explain, until it suits them both to do so.

Kelly senses something off in Grant’s kiss. What it is she doesn’t say, and Fuller doesn’t explain, until it suits them both to do so.

Watching the extras on the Criterion edition, I was struck once again by how often Fuller’s most ardent defenders degrade him even as they enthuse over his work. Wim Wenders, for example, calls Fuller’s direction here “crude.” Why? Because he was unafraid of energy, even shock, as means of artistic expression? If Fuller’s is a pulp sensibility, then so is William Faulkner’s. There isn’t a frame of The Naked Kiss, exquisitely shot in black and white by the redoubtable Stanley Cortez (who also lit Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and the Charles Laughton-directed Night of the Hunter) that is less than eloquent, and frequently more than that. My only real issue with the movie is Paul Dunlap’s sappy, ultra-conventional score, square and old-hat where Fuller, and his movie, are anything but. Everything else is as startling, and as perfectly realized, as it must have been the day the movie opened in 1964. Its immediacy, seriousness of purpose, and aching humanism puts almost every other movie released that year to red-faced shame.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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

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

Surviving is the only glory: 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.

BigRedOne - Dark Deadline

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