November 23, 2009

0 Brief Reviews: Two by Samuel Fuller

"The picture that breaks the shock barrier!" proclaims the trailer to this movie directed by Samuel Fuller. The real shock here is that the man who directed Pickup on South Street and The Big Red One could have made such a preposterous movie as this one, evidently in perfect seriousness. In the film Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck), an investigative newspaper reporter of overpowering ambition, is convinced he will win a Pulitzer Prize by impersonating a madman, having himself admitted to a mental hospital, and solving the murder of a patient that took place there a year before. He plans to do this by pretending to have an incestuous sexual obsession with his sister, who is actually his girl friend, Cathy (Constance Towers).

This plot allows Fuller to portray mental illness in the most outrageous ways, his concept of mental illness consisting of a pastiche of a little bit of knowledge and a large helping of myth, imagination, and misinformation. The patients at the hospital show the most clichéd symptoms of psychosis, shuffling around like zombies, lounging about in catatonic stupors, or indulging in compulsive repetitive behaviors. In their "mad" scenes, the entire cast tends to overact without restraint. Fuller also throws in gratuitously lurid details (Cathy is a stripper in a sleazy nightclub) and dialogue: "My love for you goes up and down like a thermometer," Johnny says to an imaginary Cathy his first night in the hospital. "I used to work in the female wing, but the nympho ward got too dangerous for me," a friendly orderly confides to Johnny. In fact, the highlight of the movie is the scene in which Johnny gets trapped in the "nympho ward," where a pack of wild-eyed females surround him, throw him to the floor, and maul him.

Eventually Johnny gets around to interviewing the three witnesses to the murder, lunatics who fortunately snap into lucidity just long enough to reveal important evidence about the crime. These characters allow Fuller, who also wrote the screenplay, to inject into the plot heavy-handed commentary on some of the big political issues of the time—political defectors, segregation, and the Cold War. They also allow him to depict some of the more dramatic psychotic disorders—delusions of grandeur, dissociative identity (multiple personality) disorder, and regression to an infantile state. By the end of the movie, Johnny has solved the murder but been so traumatized by his experiences in the hospital that he develops a bad case of "catatonic schizophrenia."

Is there a reason to watch this movie? Well, yes, especially for fans of Fuller. Despite its sensationalistic excesses (and frequent unintentional hilarity), it is so flamboyantly directed, so imaginative in its visualizations (especially considering that it was shot in ten days on one set), and so unexpectedly and consistently over-the-top that it never fails to entertain.

THE STEEL HELMET (1951) ***½
In an excerpt from an interview I saw recently on Turner Classic Movies, Samuel Fuller spoke of the transition from being a journalist and novelist to becoming a movie director. He said he realized that as a film director he didn't need to use words to tell the story, that he could do this with the camera and the images. If Shock Corridor—with its long-winded speechifying and constant voice-over internal monologue narration by the main character—belies this observation, The Steel Helmet, in contrast, clearly illustrates it.

The movie takes place during the Korean War and was filmed during the early days of that conflict. Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans, excellent in the first of six films he made with Fuller), the lone survivor of a massacre by North Korean troops, tries to find his way back to his unit, along the way picking up a young Korean orphan and joining another group of soldiers who have become separated from their unit. After groping their way through a dense fog, the group eventually stumble on a deserted, pagoda-like Buddhist temple and hole up there, unaware that a North Korean sniper is hiding on the upper level of the building.

Visually, Fuller makes the most of the sequence in the fog and especially the temple, where much of the movie takes place. His camera glides around the interior of the temple and moves fluidly from level to level. Interspersed as a sort of unifying image are recurrent cuts to the giant statue of the Buddha dominating the interior of the temple, with its serene facial expression that forms such a contrast to the tension between the soldiers and to the danger they face from both the sniper inside the temple and the enemy troops closing in from outside.

But perhaps the most fascinating thing about the movie is how much it seems a trial version of Fuller's nearly three-hour long WW II epic The Big Red One (1980), with many elements from The Steel Helmet worked into that later masterwork and more fully developed. The Steel Helmet opens with a shot of Sgt. Zack lying in a field of dead soldiers with a bullet hole in his helmet, prefiguring the scene on the beach during the Normandy invasion in The Big Red One when The Sergeant (Lee Marvin) shoots a bullet through the helmet of a fallen soldier as a warning of what will happen to any soldiers who might pretend to be hit. The gruff Sgt. Zack, with his half-smoked cigar permanently stuck in his mouth, resembles both Fuller himself and Fuller's alter ego in The Big Red One, Pvt. Zab (Robert Carradine). The Korean orphan brings to mind the dying boy Marvin rescues from the concentration camp. At one point in The Steel Helmet Sgt. Zack tells of an enlisted man he served with in WW II who kept a detailed diary of his experiences, just like Pvt. Zab in The Big Red One. And he also reminisces about his sergeant in that war and quotes him as saying on the beach at Normandy on D-Day, "There are two kinds of men here: those who are dead and those who are about to die." This is, in fact, the most familiar line of dialogue from the later film, repeated verbatim by Marvin as he directs his soldiers when they land on the beach at Normandy. (Interestingly, Robert Mitchum has a very similar line in the 1962 D-Day epic The Longest Day: "Only two kinds of people are gonna stay on this beach: those that are already dead and those that are gonna die.")

Aside from some dated Cold War rhetoric, it's not necessary to gloss over any deficiencies in The Steel Helmet—filmed in ten days mostly in L.A.'s Griffith Park and in the studio with stock footage interpolated, on a budget reported to be only $100,000—to appreciate the feeling and the visual imagination Fuller put into the movie. And the resemblances to The Big Red One show how meaningful and how formative Fuller's own war experiences were to him and to the view of life he expressed in his films.


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