As I grow older, I’d like to feel that my thoughts and observations on film have matured and that my younger more opinionated self has taken a back seat to a more considered cinematic perspective.
Then comes Shea Serrano. A frustrating part of a recent Esquire interview, in which a beaming Serrano seemingly boasts proudly of his disinterest in older films while promoting a book on film, reminded me of why I found myself an irritating spoiled brat when it came to movies. People feel I have a problem with modern movies, as I often don’t give the same level of interest and empathy on certain popular titles as everybody else. There are times where I can already see myself receding into the “old man yells at cloud” stereotype because I didn’t wildly go bananas at the latest franchise film but find myself fascinated by a classic of a bygone era. Particularly now where I seem to visit the cinema less. I’m an Abe Simpson trapped in an audience sea of Serranos. People more interested in a myopic view of film in terms of genre and present relevance.
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It’s harder to explain that I find a richness in watching older movies, especially now as we move further away from a more monolithic presence of film viewing and into more fractured disseminated ways of viewing media. Like listening to a particular strain of hip hop, watching older movies can feel like you are listening to the song before it gets sampled. Before it both gains and loses certain meaning. Yes, I am that pretentious, but also I like to feel that I’m still open to what all movies can give.
So I felt fortunate to get the opportunity to review the Blu-ray collection of director Samuel Fuller’s time at Fox; a fascinating time in which a major studio allowed a bullish, cigar-chomping B-movie director the chance to make films on their dime. As opposed to the modern-day, where we have filmmakers complaining about how “woke culture” wouldn’t allow them to make the movies they wished to make, Fuller took his B-Movie sensibilities and placed them into a variety of different genres, from Westerns, war films and Noir to straight-up crime. This period in the ’50s was a fruitful one for a director who is often more remembered by his American final film: White Dog (1982), which was needlessly surrounded with controversy for its challenging view on American racism.
Despite this collection of films coming across as a slightly mixed bag, even the weakest film of the collection – 1954’s war feature Hell and High Water – holds a richness which still makes the entry worth investing in. Hell and High Water, a cold war action feature, for all its rigidness in a mystery which feels that it should be a far more invigorating, is still an amazing chance to watch a film in which a filmmaker decides to incorporate the wide-angle format of Cinemascope. This doesn’t only showcase Fuller’s excellent blocking and staging of scenes (something that often feels like an afterthought in some modern movies) but allows a unique sense of scale within the confines of a location that is noted in cinema for its claustrophobic atmosphere. While it doesn’t hold the more complicated dynamics which make other Fuller features so engaging, it is still an exercise of hard-nosed heroism.
It’s within films like 1955’s House of Bamboo that Fuller flexes his more interesting cinematic muscles. The first American film to be shot in Japan, Fuller’s straight-edged Noir captures a film in which its location and characters are wedged between its traditional past and the creeping influence of western culture. Fuller is a director who can sum up such films with simple visuals, and does so with a simple staging of a traditional eastern dance, which merges into swinging fifties rock-and-roll in one swoop. All the while framed in lavish widescreen. Eureka’s masterful restorations of the prints not only bring out the beauty and vibrancy that Fuller could stage in a sequence, but also highlight how narrow modern films can sometimes feel when we consider building a scene to even colour palettes. Camera pans swing with urgency; backgrounds are not just Easter eggs for fans, but details that enrich the themes. The film’s inciting incident of a military train is captured wordlessly and ruthlessly. The brutal and most striking shot of the victim’s investigation scene, which is also the Blu-ray’s menu screen, has a dead American, murdered on foreign soil, shot with his feet in the foreground, while the foreboding Japanese mountains loom large in the background. With so many ways to shoot and end a scene, Fuller’s wish to finish a sequence with such an exclamation point highlights that Fuller wasn’t looking to waste his chance working for the studios.
Fuller’s steely approach to filmmaking is also highly apparent in the short yet effective western Forty Guns (1957). The type of steely determination that Fuller brings to a movie is summed up in the no-nonsense casting of one Barbara Stanwyck, who plays an Arizona rancher who rules the small town of Tombstone with a small cowboy army and an iron first. Her world is disrupted when a reformed gunslinger, Griff Bonnell, walks into his town with his brothers, with aims to set the small town right. In its tight running time, Fuller gives us a smart Western, with dialogue harder than nails, and characters chiseled from granite. We see love, loss, shootings, and redemption all within 80 minutes, but the crafting of the story ensures the characters and world are fully formed and fulfilling. It’s also a film worth noting for 49-year-old film star Stanwyck performing a wildly dangerous stunt which involved being dragged by a horse; something her own stunt woman was unwilling to do. It’s not just Tom Cruise who’s up for middle-aged stunt fever.
Fuller’s more confrontational and challenging movies are still found in the likes of his more independent fare such as Park Row (1952) or Shock Corridor (1963). However, this highlights what a filmmaker like Fuller could do when given studio parameters. This collection shows a filmmaker whose studio films still maintain the bluntness of his indies. He still manages to make incisive commentary on race and war, while wrapping them inside straight-edged and engrossing narratives. The dialogue still hits home, and Fuller’s love of the cinemascope format allows him to create beautifully filled compositions. These are rich, creative and fruitful productions. Modern film writers may act as if they have no use for old films, but I thank the heavens above that boutique distributors still give a damn.
Fuller at Fox: Five Films 1951-1957 (Fixed Bayonets!, Pickup on South Street, Hell and High Water, House of Bamboo, Forty Guns) is released on Blu-ray on 11th November from Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema collection.