There’s a biting moral edge to Sam Fuller’s Park Row, a masterful look at the rise of a small independent newspaper during New York City’s journalism boom in the 1880’s. The importance of a free press rests at the heart of Fuller’s expose, a riveting theme which feels just as vital today as it did at the height of the McCarthy era.
As in The Steel Helmet and Fixed Bayonets, Fuller puts Gene Evans front and center as the director’s alter ego, this time playing hard-nosed newspaper editor Phineas Mitchell. Showing a true testament to ethics and ambition, Mitchell fights off doubt and economics and challenges the behemoth publishing giant The Star, brutally reminding the big business/yellow journalism types of the core values newspapers must abide by.
In typical Fuller fashion, the colorful characters and snappy dialogue crackle, highlighting a professional life brimming with passion and heartache. Fuller hypnotically glides through his layered set design with a fluid camera, the highlights being a series of tracking shots that foreshadow the steadicam some thirty years later, proving once again Fuller’s innovation as a filmmaker. Park Row, made for a modest 200,000 dollars out of Fuller’s own pocket, represents a true independent vision built around universal commentaries worthy of discussion.
Fuller’s directing debut is a hodgepodge of revisionist history and tepid drama, slowly grazing over the events surrounding the shooting of Jesse James and the guilt-ridden demise of his assassin Robert Ford. It might be unfair to judge this so harshly being somewhat biased after recently watching Andrew Dominik’s masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but Fuller’s film never really gains a rhythm and becomes more sporadic as it progresses. As the likable but obtuse Bob Ford, John Ireland seems lost in a daze and Fuller’s direction can’t quite pin down what’s most interesting about the actor or the character. Still, I Shot Jesse James has a polish and admiration for the Western that shows up later and with greater impact in the director’s film Forty Guns, making this opening salvo quality viewing for Fuller enthusiasts in spite of the extensive faults.
History becomes a hoax in Sam Fuller’s The Baron of Arizona, the story of James Reavis’ (Vincent Price) attempt to swindle the entire state of Arizona away from the United States government through falsified documents and grants. Overall the proceedings are incredibly dull, a ploy that adds up to little more than fluffy melodrama and bland direction. However, there’s an interesting underlining theme concerning corporate corruption/cowardice, seen best when a wealthy railroad man folds under Reavis’ ruse just to find the bottom line. The Baron of Arizona is a disappointing effort from Fuller, who at this point in his career seemed to be learning the ropes of a Hollywood journeyman. Luckily, he delved deep into his past horrors as an infantryman in his next film, the brilliant The Steel Helmet.
Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet might be the greatest film to deal with the death of emotion in combat. In the masterful opening scene, Fuller holds on the static shot of a helmet pierced by a bullet hole, the camera pulling out to reveal it’s owner Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans), having just miraculously survived an execution, being rescued from imminent death by a South Korean boy. This immediately instills a sense of connection between seemingly conflicting experiences, a motif which builds as Zack and his Korean companion meet up with a lost infantry patrol constructed of a mosaic of ethnicities. Fuller believes honor in war cannot exist since the situation and action inevitably kills all human emotion, but he enables his characters moments of heroism anyways. Overcoming the inhumanity becomes next to impossible since one must become inhuman to survive such brutal conflict. The end battle sequence in an epic temple only confirms what Fuller has been building toward the entire way – that in war, the survivors remain tortured by the dreaded experience of losing those they’ve grown to care about. As multiple ideologies converge in high tension situations, humanity clings to those moments that connect us, and The Steel Helmet greatly infuses these haunting glimpses with revelations of pain, suffering, and recognition for those who come out the other side scarred and tormented, but still alive.
Unlike the Fuller films I’ve seen previously, Hell and High Water gets bogged down with tepid melodrama, detracting from the film’s core, action oriented plot line. But Fuller does inject this men (and woman) on a submarine picture with many moments of his patented brutality and social malaise, including a brilliant night time action scene packed with machine gun tracer fire and a fiery explosion and later a tried and true sacrfice by a Chinese soldier for Widmark’s American Capt. Not one of his best, but I’ve learned that mediocre Fuller resides higher on the cinematic echelon than the majority of his peers.
Fixed Bayonets! represents Sam Fuller at his roughest and most restrained. His war picture follows an Army platoon, entrenched in the middle of the snow packed Korean War, ordered to decoy and fend off the advancing Chinese army so a large division of soldiers can retreat. Richard Baseheart plays Cpl. Denno, fourth in command of the platoon and Fuller’s anxious and reluctant hero. The soldiers reach a snowy pass, set up a barricade, gun positions, and shelter, and await the advancing Communist army and imminent death. Fuller crafts some brilliant long takes using a crane to dolly up and down the steep mountain pass, creating a sense of unity between the men and a realistic sense of space, even though the entire film is shot in a studio. With each Chinese advance, another commanding officers falls, drawing Denno closer to taking control of the outfit. Denno even goes out of his way to heroically rescue one officer just to prolong his lower status. This breathtaking scene, where Denno navigates an icy minefield, creates a central mode of tension, showing the lengths one man can go to stave off the responsibility of military leadership. Fuller makes sure to stress Denno’s not a coward, nor stupid, just adverse to the psychological load of sending men to their deaths. Fuller eventually gives him no choice, and the final battle sequence shows how leadership is born through brutal circumstances, no matter if you like it or not. Fuller keeps close to the soldiers, his fluid camera rarely veering off to the Chinese perspective. This adds even more emphasis on Denno, as if Fuller, nor the viewer can let him off the hook when so many lives are at stake. Fixed Bayonets! might showcase the harsh mental and physical conditions of men in battle, but in typical Fuller fashion, it also reveals a concern for humanity within times of collective horror.