A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking
Writer-director-producer Sam Fuller (1911-1997) has attracted a sizable cult following among filmmakers and film buffs for his lurid thrillers, gritty combat films, and unusual Westerns. Best known for his Cold War-themed film noir Pickup on South Street (1953), the insane asylum-set Shock Corridor (1963), and The Naked Kiss (1964)--the memorable opening scene of which has a bald prostitute pummeling her pimp and taking the money he owes her--Fuller made more than 20 films in all and wrote about a dozen more for other directors. But he was more than just a Hollywood maverick, as his colorful, posthumously published autobiography, A Third Face, makes clear: He worked as a crime reporter for a tabloid newspaper in Prohibition-era New York, wrote pulp novels, fought in World War II (his unit was one of the first to hit the beaches at Normandy on D-Day), and was a raconteur of the first order.
Critic Andrew Sarris described Fuller as "an American primitive" in his landmark book The American Cinema, and the label is apt in both its laudatory and derogatory connotations. His deliberately crude visual style, consisting of static medium shots punctuated by extreme closeups--closer to the French New Wave than to the prevailing Hollywood aesthetic--has an urgency that's absent from more elegant films of the period. Today, though, many of his films are hard to take seriously. His talky, often absurd scripts hammer away at obvious points. And because he worked on the periphery of the studio system, Fuller rarely had access to the class of actors who could have made his implausible characters compelling. It's no coincidence that his best, most convincing film, Pickup on South Street, features A-list stars Richard Widmark and Thelma Ritter.
Like his films, Fuller's autobiography lacks subtlety. But in this case, indelicacy serves him well. Fuller describes his varied experiences--breaking the story of an ingenue's suicide, wading ashore on the blood-soaked beaches of France, making the first American film in post-war Japan--with a refreshing bluntness that effectively de-romanticizes journalism, soldiering, and filmmaking while acknowledging the mixture of fear, excitement, and boredom inherent in all three.
In his foreword to Fuller's autobiography, Martin Scorsese writes, "I think that if you don't like the films of Sam Fuller, then you just don't like cinema." I love cinema and, thanks to A Third Face, I now have a better appreciation for Fuller's films as well.