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THE FIRST FILMS OF SAMUEL FULLER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Director:  Samuel Fuller
Audio:  Dolby Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Eclipse from the Criterion Collection
Features:  None
Length:  262 Minutes
Release Date:  August 14, 2007

Set ***1/2

Samuel Fuller has been called a cult director, with movies that pushed all kinds of envelopes in an unapologetic over-the-top style.  His body of work ranged from the cheesy to the profound, and sometimes, they were the same film.  Whether it was the absurd but enthralling The Naked Kiss or the flamboyantly provocative Shock Corridor, whether it was the subversive but brilliant Pickup on South Street or the unflinching The Big Red One, Fullerís career was marked with triumphs and setbacks, and of constantly forcing audiences to re-evaluate both their own perceptions and himself as an artist.

With Criterionís Eclipse collection The First Films of Samuel Fuller, fans can gain remarkable insight into his beginnings.  His first three movies are presented here, and they showcase the developing style and fortitude that would bring Fuller both acclaim and derision over the course of his career.

I Shot Jesse James ***

ďTURN AROUND, KELLEY!Ē

Fullerís first film is a lurid little melodrama based on the true story of Robert Ford, the member of the James Gang who shot the notorious Jesse in the back to acquire amnesty for himself.  In Fullerís hands, it becomes a tale akin to that of Judas or Brutus, or even Benedict Arnold.

Jesse James gained infamy and immortality as a Western outlaw, but he trusted his friends a little too much.  When the governor offers a full pardon to any gang member who turns him in, it gives Ford the idea that he can wipe his own slate clean and be free to marry his longtime sweetheart Cynthy.  However, once the deed is done, he learns thereís now a price on his head wherever he goes.  Shooting the man who shot Jesse James would make anyone the new top gun in the west.

Fordís act of treason weighs heavy on him throughout.  His gal doesnít see him in the same light.  Jesseís brother Frank is out to get him.  In one of two memorable sequences that only Fuller could deliver, Ford accepts a job in the theatre, reenacting the shooting of Jesse James on the stage, forcing him to relieve his guilty moment night after night.

The other memorable sequence involves a traveling singer, who ends up singing a song about Fordís cowardly act right in front of him, only realizing half way through that heís playing his tune to the real Robert Ford.  And Ford, under full pressure from his conscience, forces the nervous singer to carry the song through to the end.

Like most early westerns, this 1949 film ends with a duel and a proper comeuppance.  Itís not high art, but very stylish, very in-your-face, and establishes some of Fullerís style as a writer and a director that would remain prevalent throughout his career.

The Baron of Arizona ****

ďIíve known many womenÖbut with you, Iím afraid.Ē

Though it may lack some of Fullerís usual distinctions, The Baron of Arizona is superb entertainment that engrosses right from the start.  It stars Vincent Price in the title role, and it was one the legendary actor always counted amongst his favorite parts.

Like I Shot Jesse James, The Baron of Arizona plays around with a piece of real history.  Price plays James Reavis, a man who attempted to orchestrate the greatest land swindle in U.S. history.  Using an abandoned orphan child and years of study of forgery, he concocts a scheme that this girl, Sofia, is the rightful heir to Arizona, as granted by the Spanish King Ferdinand VI.  His plot takes him all over the world, creating records, faking burial sites, and covering his tracks.

Itís an engaging look at a perfect crime, but in the movies, crimes are never perfect.  We follow Reavis as he carefully constructs and executes his plans, including marrying Sofia, and then we follow as his elaborate hoax begins to unravel.

Apart from a horrific mob scene at the climax, this film is more subdued than you might expect from Fuller.  But for what he lacks in over-the-top style, he makes up for with sheer brilliance in storytelling, and by constructing a tight, well-paced film that will have you invested for the long haul.  Not to mention thinking how different the States might have been had Reavis been able to pull off his swindle to its intended conclusion!

The Steel Helmet ****

THERE IS NO END TO THIS STORY.

Fullerís third film firmly established him as a significant cinematic force.  The Steel Helmet was a gripping look at the then-current Korean War, and focuses on a gruff, battle-hardened Sergeant named Zack and a rag tag, racially mixed infantry trying to set up an observation post in a Buddhist temple. 

Fuller never shied away from the topic of race in his career, and here he makes comment when a North Korean prisoner of war marvels at the group:  how an African American medic would serve side by side with men he couldnít even ride the bus with in his own country, and a Japanese American who saw his fellow countrymen interred in the previous war.

Fuller obviously drew on his own military experiences, and presented combat in a hard, unflinching way.  The climax, when hundreds of Communist soldiers descend on the temple, leaving this small group to try and save the post, is explosive and hard-hitting. 

The film is dedicated to the United States infantry, and though Fuller may have had issues with Americaís racial injustice, he still found much to admire about the courage and valor of her soldiers, and the way they bonded as equals under fire.

Video ***

These old black and white transfers are well preserved, and boast terrific clarity and contrast for the most part.  There are occasional artifacts of age here and there, and a touch of grain and murkiness in the more darker scenes, but overall, these represent solid efforts from Criterion.

Audio **1/2

The mono soundtracks are also serviceable, and thanks to the music score, boast a little more dynamic range than you might expect.  Dialogue is clean and clear, and noise and age interference is very minimal.

Features (zero stars)

None, but this is part of Criterionís Eclipse seriesÖno extras, but much easier on the budget.

Summary:

The First Films of Samuel Fuller marks an engaging and important slice of history as one of cinemaís most pronounced iconoclasts began to make his mark on the world of film.  The movies showcase a rapid development of an artist with a signature style while providing firm foundation for one of the art formís truly unique careers.

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