There's Reality Is Unrealistic, and then there's screenwriter/director Samuel Michael Fuller (August 12, 1912 October 30, 1997).
Born in Worcester, Massachusetts to a Russian Jewish family called Rabinowitz (which had anglicized to Fuller), he was named after Dr. Samuel Fuller, who served on the Mayflower. This pedigree and lineage defined Fuller, a Working-Class Hero who was an outsider but who was paradoxically more American than American, and represented the same profile to his European fans as satirists like Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken.
After his father's death, Fuller's mother arrived in New York, where Fuller's autodidactic zest eventually led him to skip school and work as a newspaper boy. This started an association with the Hearst press, and Fuller eventually became a copyboy, and then left the newspaper and became a crime journalist. His first big story was the death of Broadway star, Jeanne Eagles. In the years of The Great Depression, Fuller traveled the land, covering strikes, race riots, brothels, bar dives and the Klan in the South. He even ran into Al Capone. Then he became a pulp fiction writer, then he went to Hollywood as a screenwriter and then World War II broke out and Fuller enlisted as a US First Infantryman serving several tours of duty in North Africa, Sicily and he was part of the first waves on Omaha Beach on D-Day. All this, before directing his first film in 1949 at the age of 36.
There's Taught by Experience and there's a life that allows you, in Fuller's words, "to cover the biggest crime story of the century". The very first film Fuller shot was footage of the liberation of the concentration camp Falkenau, an experience which needless to say left a mark on him. When Fuller made his films, he had little time for sentiment or phony gimmicks, possessing a journalist's instinct to get to the heart of things. The result is some of the most visually exciting and unforgettable films of the 50s, in genres like The Western, Film Noir and especially War Movies. He also made some Genre-Busting satirical films like Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss and White Dog, which explored the underbelly of America. As a director, Fuller's personality was incredibly charismatic and large hearted and he was never without his impressive cigar, instead of calling action, he would fire a revolver on set. He wrote, produced and directed his best films and was prized in France for being an auteur, counting many a famous fan like Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and others.
The Fall of the Studio System led to a period in wilderness for Fuller, where he worked in Television and as a screenwriter for hire with many projects stuck in Development Hell. Paradoxically, Fuller became a Living Legend, appearing in films by other directors and regarded as an Old Master who young directors took pilgrimages to seek advice and inspiration from. He was the first choice for the role of Hyman Roth in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather Part II, and an audition with him and Al Pacino exists (the role was passed over by Elia Kazan and was later played by acting teacher Lee Strasberg). Eventually, Fuller made his comeback with the film he waited all his life to make, The Big Red One starring Lee Marvin and Mark Hamill. Executive Meddling prevented it from becoming a major hit (a Re-Cut after his death restores the full vision of Fuller's great film). It's the only major World War II film shot by an actual veteran infantryman and survivor and is uncanny for its accuracy in portraying the psychology of warfare. His second film of the 80s was White Dog, about a dog trained to attack black people; it was shelved and Misblamed although it would be Vindicated by History. Fuller made TV films after that, and retired in France where he had a daughter in his later years and spent his final years working on his autobiography with the distinct title, A Third Face : My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Film-making which was published and edited by his wife Christa Fuller (herself an actress who appeared in Godard's Alphaville).
The list of people influenced by Fuller are legendary, including Steven Spielberg (who cast him in his 1941 in a brief cameo), Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Quentin Tarantino, and Jim Jarmusch in addition to his large following in Europe. There's a street named after him in Finland. Put it simply, they don't make 'em like Sammy Fuller anymore.
- I Shot Jesse James (1949)
- The Steel Helmet (1951)
- Park Row (1952)
- Pickup on South Street (1953)
- House of Bamboo (1955)
- Run of the Arrow (1957)
- Forty Guns (1957)
- The Crimson Kimono (1959)
- Underworld U.S.A. (1961)
- Shock Corridor (1963)
- The Naked Kiss (1964)
- The American Friend (1977) (actor only)
- The Big Red One (1980) (Re-Cut version released in 2004)
- White Dog (1982)
Tropes from his movies.
- Ambiguously Gay : Or not so ambiguous, his first film I Shot Jesse James asserts this of Robert Ford and also in House of Bamboo via gang leader Robert Ryan.
- Anti-Hero : Many types show up. But this is a common feature of his movies.
- Backed by the Pentagon : A major subversion. His film The Steel Helmet made at the height of the Red Scare made controversial anti-racist statements and showed American soldiers violating the Geneva convention which earned him an invitation to the Pentagon to explain himself. Years later, Fuller was proud when a screening of The Big Red One by Army brass resulted in one officer lamenting it had "no recruitment potential".
- Fuller stated broadly that he was always skeptical of people enlisting because of how war looks good in the movies. He tried to avert this in his own works by showing it for what it is.
- Cultured Badass: Fuller was an infantryman, a WWII veteran and before that a crime reporter and an all around tough guy but also a genuine gentleman, he was also a voracious reader all his life, drawing from Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, William Shakespeare and he became a great film-maker with a powerful visual style, highly influential on the European avant-garde.
- Cool Old Guy: Among his admirers, and in his video interviews, he gives this impression. Also borne out in his wonderful autobiography filled with anecdotes. His many cameo appearances in films by Godard, Wim Wenders and others also have him portray cool old guys who often shine as One-Scene Wonder.
- Creative Closing Credits: Quite famous for this in the Golden Age where instead of "The End" he would use different phrases:
- The Steel Helmet states "There is no end to this picture" befitting the fact that the soldiers having survived the siege against the Reds and regrouping with another unit, go on to fight the next battle which they may or may not survive.
- Park Row ends with the phrase "thirty" old fashioned newspaper tradition to end every wire with a thirty at the end.
- Run of the Arrow ends with "The End of this Story can only be written by you!"
- Darker and Edgier : To American cinema on the whole, Fuller's films were much less sentimental, harder and more brutal than earlier crime films or westerns at the time. In particular, his Western Run of the Arrow is reportedly the first movie to use squibs to simulate bullet hits.
- Deadly Sparring: In The Crimson Kimono, an exhibition kendo match between the Japanese-American cop Joe and his white partner Charlie turns into a brutal brawl due to a combination of their rivalry over a woman and suppressed racial tensions between the two of them.
- Deconstruction : He was especially concerned with how war and violence was shown in movies. The Steel Helmet has a Jerkass Anti-Hero deliberately making fun of No One Gets Left Behind when one private insists on recovering dog tags from a corpse, and ends up getting blown up by a booby-trapped body. His films even attack the Band of Brothers sentimentalism, with a squad composed of soldiers who are bound more by Teeth-Clenched Teamwork, with each one focused on their survival and they avoid people they consider incompetent and accident prone and avoid forming bonds with newer soldiers or "replacements" once they become veterans.
- Fuller's films constantly deconstructed the underbelly of America, showing them as being closer to the mainstream than they would allow, with The Naked Kiss criticizing a Stepford Suburbia which turns out to be more corrupt than the brothel the Hooker with a Heart of Gold is fleeing. Gangsters likewise are shown as Punch-Clock Villain and Anti-Villain.
- Film Noir: Pickup on South Street. Underworld USA, The Naked Kiss, and Shock Corridor also use elements of noir.
- Freak Out : His films in scenes of great emotion and violence and action feature wild camera movements and editing tricks, which has this effect.
- Go Among Mad People : His film Shock Corridor is a famous example of this trope.
- Gun Nut: For example, instead of yelling "Action!", he would fire a revolver in the air.
- My Country Tis of Thee That I Sting: Fuller was a veteran infantryman so he definitely loved America and was a true patriot but he was also quite critical of American society in films like Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss and White Dog as well as the empty patriotism that characterized the Red Scare (Widmark in Pickup on South Street mocks the police officer for "waving the flag at me"). The scientist Boden (Played by Fuller regular Gene Evans) in Shock Corridor probably serves as an Author Avatar when he remarks:"I love my country even if it gives me ulcers"
- Old Master : Had this reputation in the 60s and 70s among the directors who looked up at him. They would visit him for script advice and other anecdotes or cast him in their movies in cameos.
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Underworld USA. Interesting take on this as the protagonist—whose father was killed by mobsters—is given an effective license to do this by the FBI!
- Seen It All : Before he directed his first film, he covered urban riots, city crime, waterfronts, fascist rallies in America and during the war, he saw tours of duty across North Africa and Europe, and participated in the liberation of a concentration camp which haunted him for the rest of his life. All this before directing his first film.
- Sophisticated as Hell : This is perhaps the truest definition of Fuller's style. His dialogue and plots were over-the-top and obvious but they were also intelligent, critical and brilliant, mixing high and low culture frequently.
- War Is Glorious : Fuller has the last word, the final narration of The Big Red One narrated by Author Avatar who is retelling the story,"We'd all made it through we were alive. I'm gonna dedicate my book to those who shot but didn't get shot, because it's about survivors. And surviving is the only glory in war, if you know what I mean."
- War Is Hell : Fuller's movies show that war for the foot-soldier is a painful trudge through trenches, dense forest and dirt cover, surrounded by a squad who are out for their own neck when their incompetence is not likely going to get you killed and where most of the time, you can't see your enemy and can not feel any real ideological connection to why you are fighting.
- Wide-Eyed Idealist: Despite how dark and grim his movies are, Fuller was himself this, a patriot who believed that if America came to terms with its flaws it could be an even better place.