The title of a 1996 documentary on director Sam Fuller pretty much said it all: The Typewriter, The Rifle and the Movie Camera. Fuller, who's the subject of a semester-long retrospective at the UW Cinematheque (including a screening of the documentary this Saturday at 7:30 p.m., 4070 Vilas Hall), was already filing crime stories for the New York Journal when he was 17. Later, he served with the First Infantry Division in World War II, trudging through North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France, Germany and Czechoslovakia. And these two influences--journalism and war--would help shape one of the most idiosyncratically fascinating oeuvres in the history of cinema. With such movies as The Steel Helmet (1950), Pickup on South Street (1953), Underworld USA (1960), Shock Corridor (1963), The Naked Kiss (1964), The Big Red One (1980) and White Dog (1982), Fuller showed America a side of itself that most movies didn't even acknowledge existed--the vast underbelly, with its mangy skin and matted fur. Westerns, war movies, gangster films--Fuller worked in familiar genres, but he bent them to his own purposes, investing all his projects with the style and content of the tabloid newspapers he'd cut his teeth on. Some of the movies were about reporters--1952's Park Row, for example, which was an ink-stained valentine to the days of "Extra! Extra! Read All About It!" Other movies effectively served as scoops. The Steel Helmet warned us of the morass we were getting ourselves into in Southeast Asia. And long before Blue Velvet, The Naked Kiss showed us that, below the manicured lawns of small-town America, there was an insectile riot of depravity. But no matter what the subject, Fuller gave it the tabloid treatment, a form of melodramatic, sensationalistic storytelling that grabbed the viewers by their lapels and tried to shake some sense into them. At their worst, Fuller's scripts veer toward didacticism. At their best, they're vintage pulp fiction, the dialogue straight out of a dimestore paperback. "Fuller's scripts are grotesque jobs that might have been written by the bus driver in 'The Honeymooners,'" wrote critic Manny Farber in 1969. This may have been meant as a compliment, for surely Fuller is a classic example of what Farber lovingly called "termite art"--art that eats away at the wooden pretensions of Europe-derived masterpieces. Eventually, Fuller himself would move to Europe, a self-imposed exile brought on by his inability to secure financing in the United States. Ironically, just as Hollywood was turning its back on him, other parts of the world were discovering him for the first time. French critics--i.e., those movie nuts at Cahiers du Cinema--had been championing Fuller's work for years, and the news was starting to spread. This would eventually result in the last flowering of Fuller's talent with The Big Red One, which told the story of his war days, and White Dog, in which a young woman (Kristy McNichol) finds a stray German shepherd that's been trained to kill black people.
A tribute to Fuller's continuing ability to stir up trouble, White Dog wasn't released in American theaters until 1991. Deemed racist by some, it's just the opposite--or, if not the opposite, then a courageous journey through our body politic's heart of darkness. Over the years, Fuller has been accused of racism, sexism and fascism, if only because he refused the easy answers offered by liberals and conservatives (though he considered himself a liberal). "A film is like a battleground," he famously quipped while playing himself in Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou, and he surely had the shrapnel wounds to show for it. It's just too bad he can't be here in person, with his ubiquitous cigar and his thousand and one stories about the movie trade. "Yarns," he used to call his movies--tall tales born of the rat-tat-tat of a manual typewriter and the bang of the .45 revolver he used to fire on the set to signal "Action!" When this true original died in 1997, things suddenly got a lot quieter.