Friday, June 13, 2014

Two by Samuel Fuller

The story behind Shark seems to be something like this: after a fifteen year run of getting financing for his punchy low-budget films, Samuel Fuller hit a rough patch in the mid-60’s and couldn’t get anything. Perhaps out of desperation, he swallowed some misgivings and decided to work with some inexperienced producers on an adventure film set in a Sudanese port city. The experience was a mess, but Fuller escaped intact and cut the film to his general satisfaction; however, the producers messed around with it, to the extent that he unsuccessfully tried to get his name removed. Subsequently, despite being one of American cinema’s great raconteurs, he could hardly bring himself to mention the picture. His career never regained its earlier pace, but a decade later he managed to make at least two other astounding pictures: The Big Red One and White Dog.


When I watched the film again recently, it was as if the elements were conspiring to prevent a viewer from gleaning any sense of what Fuller might have had in mind. I watched it on DVD, but in a terrible print with awful sound quality. It was released on the Troma label, which is usually associated with consciously ridiculous exploitation movies, and although Troma’s intentions seemed entirely respectable – the disc contains several extras attempting to argue for the film’s merits – the fit seemed inherently weird. It’s subsequently been released again in a Blu-ray version, so I’m sure that would help in some respects, but with Fuller long gone and no apparent hope of recreating his original cut, it’ll always be a bloodied carcass of a film.

The film stars Burt Reynolds (at the very dawn of his film career) as Caine, a gunrunner stranded with few resources, looking for a way out. The only other Westerners around are a pathetic drunk of a doctor (Arthur Kennedy) and a man and woman engaged in some mysterious underwater “research,” looking for a new helper after the local boy they engaged was killed by a (of course) shark. Reynolds takes the job and soon discovers there’s more to the project than they’ve let on. The set-up also includes a conniving police chief and a local kid who latches onto Reynolds: it’s the kind of sparse set-up that’s powered hundreds of Hollywood movies, with vague echoes of Casablanca and Howard Hawks and plenty of others. Caine is a relentlessly self-defined protagonist, not without a moral code (he cares about the kid) but generally happy to work every angle, because everyone else is doing the same. The primary points of interest include some diverting local colour, good underwater sequences and a moderately clever twist ending, but none of this is fundamental to what one usually enjoys about Fuller’s cinema. The film, at least in this version, doesn’t have much sign of the compelling characterizations, visual force and clear attitude-striking that marks his best work.

House of Bamboo

Still, I have a weakness for these bereft back alleys of cinema, and allowed myself to imagine it might even be better viewed in this sorrowful condition than in Fuller’s ideal version. The film in this form has an end-of-the-world feeling to it, a stripping down to the edge of oblivion, where everyone wants only to escape the present, whether by inviting death at the bottom of the sea, or at the bottom of a bottle, or by repeated recklessness that can’t beat the odds forever, with the decaying sound and image and craft conspiring in the self-obliteration. The casting supports the sense of a weird, bleak melting pot: Reynolds on the verge of stardom but with a long decline to follow; Kennedy with five Oscar nominations behind him but heading into twenty years of trashy pictures. The femme fatale is played by Silvia Pinal, who a few years earlier had starred in some of Luis Bunuel’s best films; it’s hard to look at her, in this displaced dubbed version, without thinking of the surrealist master’s rebukes to society.

A few days later, feeling a desire for a more conventional and canonical Fuller experience, I watched one of his most famous films, the 1954 House of Bamboo. It stars Robert Stack as Eddie, an undercover army cop who infiltrates himself into an American crime gang operating in Tokyo; Robert Ryan is Sandy, the man in charge. This time, the quality was gorgeous, showcasing Fuller’s wonderfully precise execution and the magnificent CinemaScope imagery. This is one of the Fuller films where you can feel the man behind the camera, wholly engaged and on top of his game, tolerating no slackness or wrong turns. Of course, it’s expressed through the conventions of the day – Stack’s hard-boiled manner is rather ridiculous by contemporary standards (which is probably why Ryan, working through more subtle shadings, has had the more lasting reputation) and although the film starts by emphasizing its use of real Japanese locations (and makes remarkable use of those at several points, particularly in its high-concept shoot-out finale), it’s still a highly stylized portrayal of the country and society.

World turning

But in Fuller’s peak period, this was one of the most effective cinematic vocabularies ever devised. Sandy’s gang is made up entirely of former GIs who went bad in one way or another during the war, now exiled in the strangest of societies, where they hide in plain sight, each man with a “kimono” to soothe his rough edges. The apparent exception is Sandy himself, whose affinity for Eddie has a classic unexpressed homoerotic element (forming a bridge to the anguished domestic melodramas of the time, some of which also starred Stack). Eddie falls for the Japanese widow of a former gang member; while investigating what happened to the dead man, he’s actually drawn largely into retracing his footsteps, acting out a psychological exile that intersects with the gang’s polished nihilism (they all wear nice suits and behave like businessmen, but Sandy dictates that any man injured on the job must be shot dead on the spot – the rule holds until he breaks it, to save Eddie).

The distance between the two films seems to evidence a multi-faceted decline in confidence and certainty: not just that in Fuller’s own circumstances, but in the industry surrounding him, and in the surrounding world (which, via an amusement park exhibit, ominously circles at the end of House of Bamboo). The first film reflects a post-WW2 clarity; beneath the cultural differences and psychological shakiness, there’s still a relative morality that powers crisp narrative, and lays a claim to razor-sharp imagery. A decade and a half later, the underlying trauma and fractures have caused that surface to degrade, demanding a new suitably conflicted breed of artist (as Fuller was eclipsed, Peckinpah rose). Modern American cinema draws on both strands I suppose, while seldom addressing how even the sharks are in danger now.

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