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The macho man of the movies

A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking, Samuel Fuller, Alfred A. Knopf: 594 pp., $35

November 17, 2002|Clancy Sigal | Clancy Sigal, a screenwriter, is the author of "Going Away" and "The Secret Defector."

Sam Fuller's gloriously robust memoir is the inspirational book of the year, if not decade, for anyone even remotely connected to the film business. His life story, told in the punchy tabloid prose he learned as a 16-year-old crime reporter covering suicides and executions for the New York Graphic, a lurid sex-and-scandal sheet, seizes you by the scruff and flings you headlong into his harsh, funny, violent universe of independent filmmaking on the far edge of a bygone Hollywood where deals were consummated by a handshake, not a studio lawyer's 1,000-page small-print contract.

This posthumously published autobiography -- Fuller died five years ago and it took nearly that long for the manuscript and the tapes he left behind to be edited and transcribed -- is not a how-to, yet somehow you learn more from it about how to make good movies than in almost all the technical cinema texts I have read. Sam Fuller -- his father's birth name was Rabinovitch -- is a good teacher because he had guts, passion, anarchic emotions under the strict control of tough deadlines and a true lover's addiction to film. Holy cow! -- to use one of his favorite expressions -- what a read, what a ride.

At the very least, Fuller's story -- his yarn, as he liked to say -- should help us seriously reconsider some of his best films. Such as his masterpiece, "The Big Red One," his Korean War-era movies "The Steel Helmet" and "Fixed Bayonets," the searing, satiric Cold War drama "Pickup on South Street" and his quirky westerns, including the phallus-ridden "Forty Guns."

In a way, his memoir is an impassioned love letter to an up-and-coming generation of filmmakers. He had a special fondness for young filmmakers such as Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who all adored his work and attached themselves to him, especially during his 13-year exile in Europe. (Martin Scorsese has written the memoir's introduction.) In his characteristic growl, Fuller talks directly to novices. "You young people sitting around watching ... television! Get off your asses and go see the world!"

Yet there's hardly a false or self-pitying or retributive note in his book. The man was in love with life, with movies and with telling the gutter truth as he saw it. And because of his background as a crime reporter and later as a virtually geriatric infantryman (at 31) with the combat-decimated "The Big Red One" division, his truth could be ugly, vicious, short, sharp and brutal. At the same time, he pays generous tribute to old-line producers, such as Darryl Zanuck, Bob Lippert and Jack Warner, who gave Fuller such latitude on some very strange projects. Perhaps it was because he worked fast and under budget -- and carried a loaded Luger pistol, which he fired instead of shouting "Action!"

Fuller worked as a tabloid reporter in the 1930s when "tabloid" wasn't a dirty word, merely the New York Times written in street vernacular. Over and over again he urges young directors: " ... seize your audience ... as soon as the credits hit the screen ... ! Smack people right in the face with the passion of your story!"

In outrageously over-the-top movies like "Shock Corridor" and "The Naked Kiss," he opposed -- with his kick-'em-in-the-gut screenplays, choice of camera angles and near-anonymous casting -- the prevailing sentimentality of most Hollywood product. When Howard Hawks asked him to direct Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises," Sam Fuller lost the job by insisting that the film open with the hero lying naked on an operating table as the surgeon drops his sawed-off testicle in a tin cup. Take that, "Three Coins in the Fountain"!

Fuller's whole life is a study in the strategies of a scrappy "peewee" kid from a poor family -- his widowed mother raised seven children on almost no money -- thrown into the reasonless chaos of a merciless Depression-soiled adult world. He sold newspapers on street corners, joined hobos in boxcars, chummed with whores and murderers, hustled and muscled -- and wrote -- his way out of poverty. Pulp fiction was his metier; he wrote a dozen down-market novels before being lured to Hollywood by older journalists who waved their big fat checks in front of Fuller's dazzled eyes.

In post-World War II Hollywood, Fuller was one of the very few with battlefield experience. Miraculously, he had come out of the war ("the greatest crime story of the century") alive, with a bullet in his chest and a Silver Star for gallantry. He endured combat in North Africa, Sicily, the Normandy landing on D-day all the way through the French hedgerows and wild-dog Nazi resistance inside Germany. Somehow he stayed sane, buoyed by a gift for survival he would need to play, and buck, the Hollywood system. Part of this talent lay in his choice of mentors, or what he calls "father figures": the great popular newspaper editor Arthur Brisbane, director John Ford, even colonels and generals in the Army who befriended him.

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