PRINT September 1969


Sam Fuller, Pickup on South Street, Steel Helmet, Run of the Arrow, and China Gate

Though he lacks the stamina and range of Chester Gould or the endlessly creative Fats Waller, Sam Fuller directs and writes an inadvertently charming film that has some of their qualities: lyricism, real iconoclasm, and a comic lack of self-consciousness. He has made 19 no-flab, low or middle budget films since 1949, any one of which could be described as “simpleminded corny stuff . . . colorful though,” a bit of John Foster Dulles, a good bit of Steve Canyon, sometimes so good as to be breathtaking, Pickup on South Street is a marvel of lower class nuttiness, Richard Widmark as a pickpocket working with a folded newspaper in the subway, almost all of it at night and each all-libido character acting uncorked, totally without propriety checks. Besides being a slow, awful movie, Steel Helmet and its insane hero, a big-faced character fighting a war against everybody but a little Korean boy, exemplifies the way Fuller touches everything with iconoclasm, turning it into black comedy. Run of the Arrow, one of the two movies that still embarrasses Rod Steiger (a mulish Confederate with a mysterious Irish accent and a hatred of Yankees that drives him into joining the Sioux nation), is totally unpredictable and always fresh.

The simplest way to describe his best film, Pickup on South Street, is to talk about his movie eye. A blunt melodrama about microfilm, stoolies and Soviet agents (Fuller’s scripts are grotesque jobs that might have been written by the bus driver in The Honeymooners: “OK, I’ll give you five minutes to clear out. If you’re not out, we’re going to burn the place down”), its quite long segments in a subway have a devilish moodiness, spareness, quietness. While Widmark’s Skip character goes to work in a crowded subway car, there is this light touch and satisfying balance between buildup and attention to the moment. Bresson in his own Pickpocket film doesn’t get close to the directness or the freshness: the ability to keep a scene going without cuts or camera tricks, fastening on enormously pungent faces, Widmark’s fine-boned and tight-skinned youthfulness, the way he moves through the car, approaching his victim, Jean Peters, and, in one of the most unexpected detail shots, his hand becomes like a seal’s sensitive flipper, dropping down below a newspaper and into a pocketbook. Part of the fun is the not-sure consternation on the faces of two FBI agents who are following the girl and have no expectation of seeing an expert pickpocket at work.

The movie is filled with good images (the girl walking across the avenue, Widmark, standing in his river shack drinking beer) that are always dependent on a trademark coziness to draw the spectator’s attention. Little nests or lairs instead of apartments, a hammock instead of a bed, a box lowered into the river in place of a refrigerator, violence that is never interrupted and includes Widmark’s friendly grin after nearly decapitating Jean Peters. Fuller’s concentration has the curiosity of a kitten: the fine thing about Peters is that her nervous defiance, her guileless and garrulous jabbering seem the pensive, unfortunate traits of a private person rather than an actress’s tricks.

Fuller is typically enthralled by material that George Stevens or Capra would consider hopelessly drab. He makes great scenes out of an aged woman’s talk about her fatigue. A conventional scene of spies questioning an unwitting accomplice becomes the meanest hotel scene, reminiscent of Diane Arbus’s camera eye, her obsession with picking up the down side of American life. The hub of the scene is its directness, the lack of fastidiousness with setting, people, dialogue. The stolid furniture is Moscow, 1940, the three men are square sauerbraten types, and Peters is a keyed-up, frenzied dame working through a debris of untalented dialogue: “Boy, you’ll never believe it. You know what he thinks we are: Commies. Can you beat that? There sure are nuts walking around.”

Once you’ve seen any of the uncut scenes or heard the blunt cartoon names (Short Round, Lucky Legs), it is impossible to forget the grotesque artist, the wackiness of his films. The movie is sincere about inexplicable mush: Nat King Cole at a crossroads in Asia, expending lavish concern shining a rifle, overpowered by his GI costume, singing about lost love at the China Gate. For a movie that is inordinately white supremacist, it is wild seeing Cole’s ecstatic grin at being an American soldier in a torn-up Asian battlefield.

All of his war films, loaded with fatuous brotherhood, show this unstomachable condescension of whites towards blacks, Orientals and Sioux, plus Cole’s type of demented happiness at being part of the white man’s inane projects, such as capturing a pointless pagoda in endless, scrubby woods. Apart from the madness for Oriental art work that has an undressed look and has been dropped onto an unlikely spot from a helicopter (after being constructed overnight by a single blind carpenter), the craziness of these propagandist films is that the white hero is such trash: unprincipled, stupid, loud-mouthed, mean, thinking nothing about mauling women or any man a foot shorter. Zack, who starts The Steel Helmet as a helmet with a hole in it, a bit like a turtle until the helmet rises an inch off the stubbled field to show these meagre, nasty eyes slowly shifting back and forth, casing the area, is like someone born on Torment Street between Malicious and Crude. Breughel has a study of a peasant on crutches, drawn from behind, that suggests the sunk-in-earth, tired squatness. One of F. M. Ford’s descriptions of Tietjens, “his body seemed to be constructed of meal sacks,” gets close to the soft leadenness, the rancidness with which he’s portrayed by Gene Evans, one of the most raucous guys in films. Evans plays the hotheaded showing off, the endless chewing on a cigar stump, with the blast effect of water issuing from a whale’s spout, bestial and grotesque as a charm spot in a film dedicated to the U.S. Infantry.

With its mangy, anonymous sets, lower class heroes who treat themselves as sages, and the primitivism (the lack of cutting, rawness with actors, whole violent episodes shot in one take), Steel Helmet antedates Godard’s equally propagandist work. From the bald and bereft sets to the ponderous, quirky messages that are written on small bits of paper and mailed out of the film like little newspapers (Please help Baldy to grow some Hair), his mangy characters are stubborn cousins to the similarly blocky ones that fight a war near Godard’s Santa Cruz. The countries involved are just as unknown, and below both careers is this obsession with renegades, people straddling two worlds, the sane and insane (Shock Corridor), the bourgeois and the revolutionary (La Chinoise). What’s good about his films is lovable: the daring, uninhibited use of semi-documentary techniques that save the movie from Fuller’s mind, an unthinking morass at best. Against so many insane scenes (Cameron Mitchell standing in a fake teahouse and screaming, “I’m your Itchi-ban, not him! I always sat next to you!” ) there is a straight technique that seems all movie, with no tie-ins to other media. No one has been so sly at inserting an animated cartoon into a fiction screen: showing the trajectory of an arrow through drawing when, if photographed, the arc would have been invisible. Blunt and abstract, he often measures a scene into stylized positions and chunks of time.

There are two instances of this non-illustrative composing in Run of the Arrow. A whole town stands on a bridge looking into the river, while a counterpoint conversation goes on between Rod Steiger and his mother, building a slow, pastoral effect and a haunting time sense. Another third into the movie and this classical-scene almost repeats itself; Steiger and Brian Keith sit at right angles to one another, staring into the prairie, neither party looking at the other. Keith says, “You can’t turn your back on your own people,” while Steiger is locked in his nursery rhyme verbal incantation, “I don’t like Yankees, none of us ever liked Yankees,” etc., etc. It’s a lovely scene: Steiger repeats this jingle in fifteen quiet, solidly stubborn ways, just as Godard has it done at a service station in France in Weekend (“You killed my boyfriend, he was beautiful and you’re ugly,” etc., etc.).

Fuller is one of the first to try for poetic purity through a merging of unlimited sadism, done candidly and closeup, with stretches of pastoral nostalgia in which there are flickers of myth. The opening scenes in Run of the Arrow establish one man’s bitterness toward the North, his vision of the South and a maximum heart-throbbing romanticism about General Lee (seen from a blacksmith’s shop on a prancing white horse), and it’s all done with lines and masses, a correct positioning of woods and fields and the decorum of a Corot. There is so much of this offbeat visual posturing, but the question remains: How much of it occurred accidentally?

Fuller has no aptitude for foreign milieu, but with his lingering passion for the exotic, he can’t stay away from it. It’s touching and ludicrous to see him lingering over bric-a-brac until he mauls the pagoda or the Buddha out of shape. (His Buddha, the highest one ever built out of wood, should have been sold to Macy’s for its Thanksgiving Day float.) There are a few other traits: a fixation about children, blunt violence, the lurking feeling that he’d like to do a movie all in close-ups. China Gate is so absurd that it becomes an enchantment to the camp taste. The whole opening is impossibly nutty: an adorable tot and his puppy run through a ruined city, being chased by a figure in black silk pajamas and ballet slippers who is ready to butcher the boy’s flop-eared pup for breakfast. A voice over all this says, “In this ravaged city where people are starving, all the dogs have been eaten except one.”

Manny Farber