Samuel Fuller's film career began in the late 1930s, when he collaborated on the screenplays for numerous relatively minor films. He served in the U.S. military during WWII, including stints in North Africa and Europe as part of the First Infantry Division. His career resumed slowly after the war, but when it did resume, he was involved in a markedly more substantial variety of films, such as Douglas Sirk's Shockproof (1948). Fuller directed his first film in 1949, I Shot Jesse James, and soon afterwards, he directed two taut Korean war dramas, The The Steel Helmet (1950) and Fixed Bayonets (1951). Fuller's career remained focused on masculine hard-edged themes and situations; however, his films are distinctive due to their emotional outbursts and amoral heroes. Fuller's career is peppered with films that flirt with the film noir style -- such as Pickup On South Street (1953), House of Bamboo (1955), The Crimson Kimono (1959), Underworld U.S.A (1961), and The Naked Kiss (1965) -- but his films are not necessarily easy to categorize. The following interview focuses on Samuel Fuller's thoughts concerning his crime dramas and their relationship to film noir .

--publisher's note
 


Samuel Fuller
Q: Your first work in film noir was as a screenwriter.
Fuller: I wrote a couple of scripts in which the main characters were in a real bind. In Scandal Sheet, a newspaper editor has killed a wife he abandoned long ago and keeps getting in deeper: he has to kill a guy who finds an incriminating photo. He's trying to conceal what he did but at the same time trying to make it look like he wants a reporter to get the facts for his paper. Of course, if the facts are found out, he's done for. In Shockproof, a parole agent falls for a woman parolee and runs off with her. Both men have to go against their jobs, and that fact torments them emotionally.

Q: Scandal Sheet was from your own novel.
Fuller: Yeah, and initially I tried to keep too much of the book in the script. Seeing how others directed my scripts before making my first picture was a good learning experience.

Q: How did you come to make Pick-up on South Street?
Fuller: I got a kick out of the thought of the three main characters being a pickpocket, a hooker, and a stool pigeon/bag lady. These three, the lowest rungs on the social ladder, were in the front line of the cold war. It evolved from a courtroom drama that they wanted me to do. I told [Darryl] Zanuck I wanted to do a real story about a cannon, a professional thief, with authentic dialogue. In this story, crime pays. It's a business. They aren't criminals out of choice, because they always wanted to be; they do it because it's the only way they can make a living. This character, McCoy, he lived alone, he was alone, in his own jungle, in a cocoon. Somebody penetrated that, took a beating for him. Nobody before would ever lift a finger to help him, let alone suffer physical injury for him. Then he saw red. It became personal.

We shot the picture in 20 days, making downtown L.A. look like New York City. We had a couple of sets--the subway where the guy gets pulled down and plays chopsticks on the stairs with his chin. Richard Kiley's character is not a true true believer; he's just another grifter being paid by the Commies. I really don't care about ideologies. That's all a yawn; but the people who believe, who work for, who kill for the ideologies, now those are characters that I can relate to. I played down the politics because that's boring, and I had no interest in the political structure of the Communist Party in the U.S. or anywhere else. This is about espionage, a risk occupation just like lifting wallets--a grifter is a grifter after all whatever the grift. Even the American agents are left vague; they're just government men. There was a guy in England, Fuchs I think, who got slammed around the time I was writing the script for being a double-agent, so I threw a reference in there: "You know about Fuchs (or whatever his name was). You know what he did and what's going to happen to him." Widmark's answer is "Who cares about that?" I wanted the contrast between the political view, the Red Menace, all of that stuff, and the reality for a grifter: which is "who cares?" I'm down here two steps up from the gutter. Political motives are from the moon.

Q: [House of Bamboo has a personal dimension, but it also] has a sexual dimension…
Fuller: Oh, very much so. It was a sexual relationship, and when Spanier, the Bob Stack character shows up, he skews it. Of course, the only one who caught on to that while were shooting was Ryan. He thought it was funny as hell and said, "I'll try to give it to you a couple of times." And I said, "There's only one time you need to do it, when you look at him and ask, 'Why did I stick my neck out for you?' It's how you should say, 'You.' Imagine that you're talking to a woman when you say that line. There's a softness. Then you catch yourself because your men are listening. And then you get hard when you say 'You are not my brother. You are not my friend.' We'll only go so far and only there."

That's the real issue for Ryan, but there is no sense of conflict for Bob Stack. As a theme, there is only betrayal, with all the Freudian bits, the love between men. After all, why does Ryan not kill Stack when he's wounded? There's something between them, not father/son, not man to man, but something. And it is that betrayal, the emotional betrayal, that galls him. There's a line in The Godfather to the effect that "It's not personal, it's business. I tried to kill your father because of business." Ryan makes it personal, and then gets betrayed, so it is not business. And that is the cause of his downfall, not living by those harsh principles--kill your wounded--that is his undoing, and that, I guess, if kind of noir.

Q: So the ostensible hero, Stack's character Spanier, is the real betrayer.
Fuller: When Spanier makes the girl lie, and he does it violently. He slaps her and says, "Now tell the truth." He has no choice; he's a double agent. He is playing a false parental role, that the Ryan character genuinely embraces. The thing that I wanted to emphasize is not that your hands are tied or anything like that. The real irony, the reason that I liked the Ryan character, was that sense of code. I wanted the audience, if not to like him, at least to respect him. Was he really hurting anyone? He stole some money, but the people he killed were his own men. He's not setting fire to an old folks' home or robbing an orphanage. He's knocking over illegal gambling joints. Who cares about that? The real heavy is the government agency. My attitude towards the Stack character--towards any character in any picture I do--depends on the question, "Is he doing an unnecessary job?" He is. So I can portray him as the lowest sort of double-crosser.

Personally, the thrill I got out of making House of Bamboo was shooting in Japan, having a major studio budget and enough money and working counter to stereotypes. In terms of style, I wanted the wide screen and the color. I loathe this cliché vision of the underworld. Dark alleys and wet streets. I've done it. Everybody's done it. It becomes fake, and I don't like it.

Q: How does it become fake?
Fuller: When it's done to conform to what we call mood. It's easy to set a pictorial mood, to fill an alley up with shadows and ash cans and black cats. I prefer to focus on something sinister at the edge of a beautiful playground or by children playing around pagodas--to use contrast.

Q: You've dealt with other cultural views in a number of your pictures, [such as] The Crimson Kimono.
Fuller: Crimson Kimono is really just a reversal of the old GI concept: "Let's change our luck." That means let's go out and get some local talent, someone of a race or creed other than our own. The Japanese cop in Crimson Kimono is in a reverse position. He is involved with a white girl and wondering to himself, does she want me for me or has she been dumped by some white guy and is just trying to change her luck. That's the idea that got me started on Crimson Kimono. That and the triangle aspect, the two partners, the girl who has to chose between them. As you know, the white partner is not a racist; he has been steeped in Japanese culture and loves his partner. But when a white girl picks a Japanese guy instead of him, that anger comes out of him. I hate those pat, anti-racist movies of the Fifties with those long-suffering Joes who let a pal have the girl without a fight. This was about two things: I am pissed because you took my girl and although I may know about all the things that are good and noble about the Japanese and their culture, why did she pick you over me? Did I lose her straight up? In fact, it is the Japanese character who, like many actual Asians, has a hard time overcoming his own racism. He's the one with the bigoted ideas, not his partner. He's the one who suspects people of being racists while acting like one himself.

The thing that is noir about Crimson Kimono to me is how we shot it. We were in Little Tokyo and lots of other actual locations downtown, with cameras hidden in trucks, shooting at night with fast film because we could not put out lights, so that it had a hard, gritty realistic look. The opening scene was really tough. I had three cameras, one up high on a roof, two others in vehicles, and we just shot it live, no rehearsal, in real traffic. Ironically, I really did not get much dramatic reaction. This girl was running down a street and nobody seemed to care. Nobody looked. An almost naked, six-foot-tall blonde is running for her life down the street and nobody does a double take. When I fired a gun-shot and she fell to the pavement, nobody ran over and nobody ran away. People were in a daze. Some guy in a local store called the cops, and we had to pack up and high-tail it out of there before I could get my close-ups.

Q: Underworld USA was made after the classic era of film noir had ended. So were Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss.
Fuller: You think Underworld USA is noir. To me, it's just a revenge romance, like The Count of Monte Cristo. I even had a character reading the book. Except that Tolly Devlin [Cliff Robertson] figures out a better way: he'll let the cops take out the people on his list. I also liked working against the cliché--gangster idiom or noir or whatever you want to call it--of hoodlums being in dingy, poorly lit offices, the milieu that we talked about earlier. These guys sit around the pool on sunny afternoons and cold-bloodedly plan who they're going to bribe, who they're going to rub out, all in a middle-class, up-scale day's work. The mob boss gives a little lecture on how it works: "We go to church, we pay taxes, donate to local charity, be part of the PTA," and that's why he believes they'll win. Tolly is the dark figure. These mob guys are businessmen, part of society, maybe members of the Rotary club. Tolly is the outcast, the loose cannon. The mob killer is all business. It's a job and he's good at it. Like I said before, business, not personal. To separate himself from the dirty part of the business, the hit man has these dark glasses that he puts on. That switches on the killer. Afterwards he takes them off and he's a regular guy, good to his mother, pets his dog. Tolly is the one who is eaten up inside, who can't sleep at night for thinking about what he has to do. I guess that would be what you guys call a noir character. This is the theme that I can sink my teeth into in a picture. The guy is not trying to be a hero, he is doing something for personal reasons. Not business, not moral, not political, he just has to do it. I don't think Shock Corridor or The Naked Kiss can really be considered film noir. True they're in black-and-white but that's about it.

Q: What about the main character in The Naked Kiss, a hooker, and the upstanding citizen who's a child molester? That's pretty dark.
Fuller: Well, sure, I wanted it to be a shocking film. You know the opening, the victim's point of view as the call girl beats on him, the visual shock when her wig comes off; but after that, the audience knows who she is. There's no surprise there. What I wanted was the whole concept of a a caste system--not the formal one like they have in India or Japan--but a real sense among the social outcasts that there is something so vile, so low, that even they must scorn it. In prisons, you know, the convicts all revile the child molesters. They call them chicken hawks, and a lot of them get killed by murderers and thieves who are outraged at what they did. And that's the hypocrisy in our society. Constance Towers is a hooker but she has a moral belief. She tries to change her life, thinks it's going to happen, finds out this guy is scum, and kills him. And when they find out about her past everybody assumes she's guilty as hell. I guess that is something of a film noir situation, but for me the irony was more straight-forward. She is a hooker for business reasons. She loves children for personal reasons. She can love kids and be a good person and still go back to being a hooker without a second thought because that's just business. Again I hate the cliché, whether it's the whore with a heart of gold or that stupid, self-sacrificing stuff, like Stella Dallas. You know, the guy loves her anyway, or he's a phony but someone genuine turns up, or she walks away in the rain. Whatever the ending, it's phony and it stinks.

Q: So you were most interested in realism?
Fuller: Oh, yeah. I researched every milieu. If I were to do a movie tomorrow about a fashion designer, say, I would have to spend some time to find out what language they spoke. Because I would never be satisfied with my dialogue, I want something that gives you the color of that character right away. In The Naked Kiss, I had more time than with Pick-up to work on that. But you also have to create interest. The Constance Towers character wants to rise above her station, quotes from books. That's all to make an impression. A real hooker would not be interested in any of that. It wouldn't mean anything unless it made money for her. A whore-house story is always great. Just great! The way they hang around and discuss the men and pull together in their outlook. Hollywood could never deal with that. And television has a different kind of whore: they all have Black pimps. No Black pastors, teachers, bus drivers--they're all pimps. I don't understand it. And this is coming into people's homes...

In The Naked Kiss I had to rewrite a scene, and I resented it. The Shurlock office, the new version of the Breen and Hays Offices, the "censor," didn't like the speech Constance Towers made at the end. This was the first time I used profanity, and my argument was that this real profanity suggests the depth of her anger. She is not trying to be dirty if she says, "I moved to this town to get away from shit." Then she realizes that the Chamber of Commerce, the American Legion, the D.A.R., that's the real shit. Of course, the censors suggested that I should use another word and not mention the D.A.R. etc. So I said the hell with it, I need to get a [Motion Picture Code] Seal or this movie doesn't get released.

Being a hooker does not mean being evil. The same with a pick-pocket, or even a thief. You do what you do out of necessity. The people who look down on you are just prejudiced, like the townspeople who deride Constance Towers when they think she's a killer and find out about her past and then cannot face her when they discover she actually did something heroic. That's what I wanted to show and that's what I thought was shocking. The irony was a woman who has struggled, finds what she thinks is happiness, the whole nine yards, then finds out it's all a lie. After it's all smashed to bits, she can still pick up the pieces because she still has her own integrity. But nobody got it. It went over like a lead balloon, probably because it was too shocking and distasteful.

Q: Did you have a style in mind in any of these films, were you aware of film noir?
Fuller: When I was making these damned pictures, I never knew about film noir. If you had asked me about it then, I probably would have pointed to something like Bill Wellman's Oxbow Incident, the best Western I ever saw and very much in the style of film noir. To get back to what you said about milieu, I don't care if it's a mystery story, a Western, or the story of Julius Caesar. To me it's the emotion, the lies, the double-cross, whether it's Brutus doing it to Caesar or Bob Stack doing it to Robert Ryan [in House of Bamboo] that defines what kind of drama it is.

I wanted that world, where people lived on the edge, to be very isolated. Not many people, lots of close-ups, focused on the people. With Jean Peters, I wanted to be able to move with her. I told the cameraman to "keep it loose." Movement should be a counter, whether in action scenes or dialogue or whatever. It counters where your eye is going. This style thing, for me it's all fitted to the action, to the script, to the characters.
 


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Billy Wilder: About Film Noir
An interview by Robert Porfirio

 

This interview is a composite of several interviews conducted by Robert Porfirio and James Ursini from 1972 to 1976. The full interview is published in Film Noir Reader 3, edited by Robert Porfirio, Alain Silver, and James Ursini (November 2001; Limelight Editions).

Porfirio has written for Sight and Sound and Literature/Film Quarterly. He co-edited Overlook's Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style and contributed to Film Noir Reader and Film Noir Reader 2.

James Ursini co-authored (with Alain Silver) The Noir Style and The Vampire Film. He co-edited (also with Silver) Film Noir Reader and Film Noir Reader 2.