A Book Review by John Duncan Talbird.
In his 1968 study The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, Andrew Sarris wrote that Samuel Fuller was an “authentic American primitive,” to mean, I assume, that Fuller, like primitive painters, was untrained. It’s true that Fuller didn’t work his way up on the set to the role of director, as was more common in Hollywood in the first half of the century. Fuller, instead, jumped from writer to director, mainly because he didn’t like the films that directors had made from his scripts. So in many ways, I would agree with Sarris, especially looking at Fuller’s first directorial effort, I Shot Jesse James (1949), as much a noir as a Western with its shadowy sets, skewed camera angles, and sweaty close-ups. Although Fuller is famous for being a film director – an auteur beloved by the French cineastes because he so easily fit into their ideas about directorial signature even across very different genre boundaries – he was also a novelist, writing fiction (mostly of the pulp variety) from the 1930s up through the early nineties.
His last novel, Brainquake, was never published in English, only in French (of course) and Japanese. It’s a strange beast, just out in English from Hard Case Crime, a paperback imprint of beautiful crime titles, mostly of the “hardboiled” type, dark existential narratives from the post-War era, the book covers (this one by Glen Orbik) imitating their pulp progenitors with their grainy images of men with guns and half-naked women, their titles in lurid font. Which is why I had a feeling of dissonance as I read this novel and, about a hundred pages in, President Bush (the first one) pins the American Humanitarian Medal (whatever that is) on the chest of the mobster-in-legit-businessman’s-clothing, Cornelius Hampshire. Of course, this is the type of irony that Fuller loved, the murderous, ruthless kingpin who walks amongst us. It brings to mind the greasy mob boss Earl Connors (played by the great character actor Robert Emhardt) from Fuller’s Underworld U.S.A. (1961), particularly in the rapid-fire dialogue a couple chapters later between Hampshire and a couple associates. This novel is so much of a type – crime fiction with spare description, fast plots with even faster dialogue – like Hammett, Chandler, and the great Jim Thompson – that it’s difficult to place the story in this 1990s milieu. Perhaps because so much of the setting evokes a time of the past. The shack that the protagonist, Paul, a bagman for the mafia, lives in is in New York City’s Bowery, a place that evokes one of Fuller’s best movies, Pickup on South Street (1953) and the similar harbor shack that Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), the slimy small-time pickpocket lives in. Except that that film is set in the mid-50s (and was filmed in the 50s) and this novel is set in the 90s. I’m pretty sure there haven’t been shacks in the Bowery in a long time.
Despite these anachronisms, much of the writing in this novel is electric, alive. Check out this opening:
Sixty seconds before the baby shot its father, leaves fell lazily in Central Park. Sparrow-weight with bulging jugular, the balloon peddler shuffled past the man sitting on the bench near the path bend, saw nothing to remember in Paul’s thirty-year-old cipher face. Paul was half-hidden behind a book of poems. Reading and re-reading Emily Dickinson’s If I can ease one life the aching, Paul relived the ten-year-old Paul suffocating his mother with a pillow. She didn’t struggle. He lifted the pillow. She weighed 97 pounds dead.
Much of the writing in this novel sings. It sounds – and yes, you can often hear it in your head – like a combination of the already-mentioned crime greats above and perhaps William Burroughs or Céline. Which is apt. Fuller always aspired to creating art, not simply pulp. He shows this in his first film, Jesse James, where the failed theater manager Harry Kane (J. Edward Bromberg) quotes Shakespeare (“…or maybe it was Aristotle, I can’t remember.”) and shows it in his last novel, Brainquake’s Paul reading and rereading one of the 19th century’s great American poets, then attempting to woo the femme fatale of this tale by writing his own poems.
Paul is a fascinating character. He is said repeatedly to have a “cipher face,” unreadable. He is probably autistic or has some other kind of affective disorder, though the novel leaves that ambiguous. He’s also afflicted by what he calls “brainquake,” agonizing headaches that cause him to hallucinate. He also can’t read others’ expressions. Because of this disorder he is unattached, no wife, no girlfriend, apparently a requirement for bagmen in this particular multi-continent crime organization. Unattached until he becomes involved with the mother of the baby mentioned in the opening, even going so far as to steal ten million in cash and run away to France with her, in pursuit a frightening and vicious hit man, Father Flanagan, who kills in a clerical collar, his preferred method of assassination railroad spikes through the hands and feet of his victims. Despite his clownish brutality, Flanagan is a round character, an anti-hero, an assassin who goes to the trouble of scouting out a local orphanage in Paris so that he’ll know where the baby will end up when he kills the two caretakers. There’s a strain of sentimentalism that runs through Fuller, particularly when children are involved; children symbolize innocence in his violent and chaotic universe.
I love Samuel Fuller’s films. I think Pickup on South Street is one of the best noirs ever made. And I have a weakness for his weird 60s-era films like Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964). Fuller used actors that seemed like real people. Richard Widmark could only be a romantic hero in a Fuller film. And only in Fuller’s universe could the insectile, wide-eyed Constance Towers be the most beautiful woman in the room. The mental patients of Shock Corridor don’t look like actors, they look like real people, perhaps really insane. Unlike a lot of post-war cinematic violence, Fuller’s has aged well. In the climatic scene of Shock Corridor, you really believe Johnny Barrett’s (Peter Breck) threat to rip the ears off of the killer. When Joey (Richard Kiley) beats Candy (Jean Peters) in Pickup, it looks like real-life domestic abuse of the most brutal kind.
I also love well-written crime fiction, but I would be lying if I called this a great novel. It’s often very suspenseful, the dialogue is nearly always sharp, and the view of the underworld (usually) seems authoritative. But moments of suspense are followed by exposition so tedious, and sometimes redundant, that it can be difficult to continue. There are several ludicrous convenient coincidences. One would think that Paris is a college town with the way Father Flanagan keeps happening to run into people that he wants to kill. But for anyone who loves Fuller’s cinematic output, the book is definitely worth a read. Much of the imagery we know from his crime films are here, but there is also a goodness within the depravity, a sense of justice, a moral center to this tale that suggests that the bad will ultimately pay the price for their misdeeds.
Perhaps film was Fuller’s strongest medium, because film is a collaborative effort. A director, even when he’s also the author of his scripts as Fuller nearly always was, still is limited by the other participants – the actors and tech people, and probably most importantly, the producers with their backers and bags of money. The “primitive” Fuller probably needed the external discipline that this unwieldy Hollywood apparatus conferred upon him. I Shot Jesse James and The Steel Helmet (1951) are probably so great because they were so underfunded. As a fiction writer he was just a guy with a typewriter, and I suspect that was too much freedom for him.
John Duncan Talbird is the author of the just-released, limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, REAL and elsewhere. An English professor at Queensborough Community College, he lives with his wife in Brooklyn.