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A SECOND LOOK

DVDs: 'The Samuel Fuller Collection'

The writer-director's vivid, hard-hitting style is fully captured in a new seven-disc set featuring commentaries by Martin Scorsese, Curtis Hanson and Tim Robbins.

October 25, 2009|Dennis Lim

Samuel Fuller was a director with a signature style: blunt verging on brutal, partial to shock cuts and mega close-ups. As a screenwriter, this former crime reporter was no less distinctive, favoring hot-button issues and hard-boiled repartee.

A superb new seven-disc set, "The Samuel Fuller Collection" ($79.95, Sony, out Tuesday), which contains two films written and directed by Fuller and five earlier efforts on which he has a writing or story credit, is an intriguing auteurist study that shows the Fuller personality both as the driving force of a film and as an (often powerful) ingredient in the mix.

The Fuller-directed movies, "The Crimson Kimono" (1959) and "Underworld U.S.A." (1961), are superior B-pictures, prime examples of his uncanny ability to combine brisk, graphic filmmaking with psychological complexity. A compact mob epic that often approaches operatic intensity, "Underworld U.S.A." is one of Fuller's most in-your-face movies, which is saying something.

As Martin Scorsese puts it in one of the DVD supplements: "Almost every shot hits you like a punch." The set, being released in partnership with Scorsese's film preservation organization, the Film Foundation, also features interviews with Fuller's widow, Christa, and filmmakers Curtis Hanson and Tim Robbins.

As a boy, the movie's anti-hero, Tolly Devlin, witnesses the back-alley killing of his father -- an indelible scene, rendered as shadows on a wall. As an adult, played by a glowering Cliff Robertson, he exacts revenge, disposing of the murderers and taking down their crime syndicate with help from a prostitute named Cuddles (Dolores Dorn).

Tolly's single-minded mania seems to infect the increasingly heated filmmaking. The final shot -- a zoom-in to Tolly's clenched knuckles -- echoes the famous moment from Fuller's directing debut, 1949's "I Shot Jesse James," when a punch is landed on the camera.

Fuller dealt directly and provocatively with race throughout his career, from "The Steel Helmet," a multiethnic platoon movie, to "White Dog," about a racist German shepherd. Like those films, "The Crimson Kimono" (1959) seems years ahead of its time.

A nominal murder mystery, the movie is more interested in the love triangle that forms among two police detectives -- one white (Glenn Corbett), the other Japanese American (James Shigeta), good friends who met while fighting in the Korean War -- and the winsome artist they encounter in the course of their investigation (Victoria Shaw).

Fuller ventures into the rice-cake factories and Buddhist temples of L.A.'s Little Tokyo and sets the film's physical and psychological climax at a kendo tournament. When the romantic battle tips in favor of the Japanese cop, the reactions of all parties are surprising and complicated, not least that of the Shigeta character, whose guilt is warped by reflexive paranoia and self-loathing.

The two earliest films in the set are not especially Fuller-esque. "It Happened in Hollywood" (1937), directed by Harry Lachman, is an amusing oddity about a star of silent westerns whose career is derailed by the advent of sound. "Adventure in Sahara" (1938), a "Mutiny on the Bounty" knockoff, suffers from plodding direction by D. Ross Lederman.

In keeping with Fuller's reputation as a tabloid poet, there are also a pair of newsroom potboilers. "Power of the Press" (1943), the story of an internal struggle at a big-city paper, is padded out with monologues on the dangers of wartime isolationism. "Scandal Sheet" (1952), a noir directed by genre specialist Phil Karlson and adapted from Fuller's novel "The Back Page," has a pleasingly karmic set-up: a tabloid sensationalist kills his wife and finds his paper's prize newshound hot on his trail.

The oddest film in the set, "Shockproof" (1949), is a fascinating marriage of feverish sensibilities as well as a casualty of studio meddling: Douglas Sirk directing a Fuller script that had its nihilistic ending incongruously altered.

The outrageous conflicts of the central romance, between a convicted murderess (Patricia Knight) and her upright parole officer (Cornel Wilde), are vintage Fuller, but the mirrored surfaces and rippling ironies are pure Sirk.

The nonsensical happy ending evidently annoyed Sirk, but Fuller appears to have been less bothered. He devotes a mere paragraph to "Shockproof" in his supremely readable memoir, "A Third Face," noting that his original title was "The Lovers." But, he added: "One of my postwar scripts had finally been made into a movie, so I didn't give a damn what they called it."

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