Samuel Fuller was the godfather of pulpy B-pictures. What made him stand out was his chutzpah and vulgarity as a director. This new box set contains five of his high 50s classics. Previous reissues – Fixed Bayonets! (1951) and the western Forty Guns (1957) – have been reviewed in the Wee Review before though the latter has been newly authored from Twentieth Century Fox’s 4k restoration.
Of the others Pick up on South Street (1953) is one of Fuller’s best. This stylish, noir, spy thriller sees Richard Widmark as the pickpocket who accidentally lifts commie microfilm from slutty courier Jean Peters. Thelma Ritter plays the cops’ snout who’d sell out her best pal for a few dollars. Set in the mean streets of New York (gloriously photographed with impressive tracking shots by Joseph MacDonald) the film has a grubby, seedy real-life feel – like one of those Weegee crime scene photographs. It should come as no surprise that Fuller started his career as a tabloid reporter.
House of Bamboo (1955) is about a set of hoodlums smoothed over by army service who are now, post-war, fully-fledged gangsters in sharkskin suits operating out of Tokyo (years before it became the meg acity it is today). There’s a bit of the original Ocean’s 11 in the picture and something of Bond too. Robert Stack plays the good guy who investigates/infiltrates the gang and Robert Ryan is the sadistic gang boss. Shot on location in the Japanese capital the film leaves no stereotype unexposed – from cherry blossom to kimonos. (Unlike most of Fuller’s work this is a colour picture, it sometimes looks like a saturated vintage postcard.) It’s not one of Fuller’s best movies – the pacing is sluggish and an emotional subplot involving a geisha (Shirley Yamaguchi) just gets in the way. But it has a splendid graphic quality.
In one scene the hoods are running in black suits and hats against the bleached sheds of the docks. It sharply recalls scenes from Reservoir Dogs. There’s more going on to all this than just the chases and gun play of your average actioner: from an interracial love affair to a disguised gay attraction between the two male lead characters and the idea of ex-soldiers acting as gangsters in the capital of a conquered land; factors that make the film full of extra meaning and worthy of repeat viewings.
There is also a dramatic shootout of finale on a globe-shaped funfair ride that is pure Hitchcock. For once Fuller’s main female character is milky and insipid. Usually, as in Pickup and Hell and High Water (1954), his women are gutsy and fully in command.
Hell and High Water is a Cold War thriller. To discover who is testing nuclear bombs in the Arctic a set of international scientists and top brass hire Richard Widmark and a batch of his hand-picked men. Widmark will skipper a reconditioned but rusty “sewer pipe” submarine and head out to explore the northerly archipelago to try to learn which nation is up to no good. Apart from the obvious risks his handicap is his cargo, a French nuclear professor scientist and has nuclear professor scientist assistant (Bella Darvi) who is female, sexy and multilingual. She is a startling addition to the beefy, sweaty all-male crew who form an oozing, shirtless scrum whenever she appears.
A fine score (from maestro Alfred Newman), Widmark’s trademark frightened-ferret performance and the claustrophobic sub interior make for much tension. Eye language between Widmark and the ‘lady professor’ doesn’t get in the way of discovering the secret atomic base. The plan is to take out the nuclear bomb even if it means blowing it up (which rather defeats the purpose). Never mind, it’s all perfect nonsense anyway but done with brio and imagination.
Available on Blu-ray now.