By Elias Savada.
Samantha Fuller watched her journalist-turned-novelist-then-screenwriter, director and occasional actor dad grow old and angry with the Hollywood studio system. Fuller fille (born in 1975 to his second wife, actress Christa Lang) appeared in small roles in two of Sam Fuller’s later efforts, including White Dog, a racism-themed drama that was dropped by distributor Paramount Pictures prior to its 1982 release. That story is but a small piece of A Fuller Life.
Samantha, the director of this documentary who introduces this journey into her father’s past, adds a semi-serious touch to the affair. “He was a teenage crime reporter,” she half-grimly intones in the prologue of her film, then reels off some of his other accomplishments. It’s a table of contents that leads to a slim yet thoughtful volume (82 minutes, including six for the end credits and Kickstarter thank yous) about the pulp director. At ease in front of the camera, she allows us into her dad’s cluttered office. There’s a treat in store — friends and family reading from his memoir, clips from his features, and moments snatched from over 100 16mm home movie reels Samantha found under his desk (and forever identified in the film as “-Samuel Fuller Archives-” on the bottom of the screen). I hope more of the latter makes it to an enhanced DVD/Blu-ray release.
She also makes a bold announcement — that every word spoken in her film was written by her dad. Plucked from his autobiography A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting & Filmmaking or heard in the dialogue in the films he created, Fuller definitely had a larger-than-life persona. The camera parades about the various memorabilia he collected. Guns, rifles, maps from WWII. A souvenir “ticket” announcing Samantha’s birth in lieu of the plain vanilla variety note.
James Franco, Jennifer Beals, Bill Duke, James Toback, and about a dozen other actors and directors appear and read from chapters, as the stock footage and photos flow (Ken Burns style) in the visual plane. Foley artists add subtle, infrequent background sound effects, except for the explosive amphibious assault on Omaha Beach. You are being served a Cliff’s Notes life achievement platter.
Shock Corridor, Underworld U.S.A., Scandal Sheet, and many other of Fuller’s films are captured in too-short clips, segueing to the more obscure The Madonna and the Dragon. These short scenes generally mimic the master director’s cigar-chomping newspaper style. He’s a great storyteller, examining the lower and darker fringes of society. His freelance reporter days led to a freelance screenwriting career. Sidetracked by a world at war, he ending up landing on the beach in Normandy on D-Day, and later filmed that experience in 1980 as The Big Red One. His war experiences take up a good portion of A Fuller Life. Likewise, he made Great War movies.
The Hollywood segments of the film begin with a handshake deal with Robert L. Lippert for I Shot Jesse James, his feature directorial debut. He had a great camaraderie (and six-picture deal) with Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox. Ultimately he rejected a lot of big budget films being offered him, settling instead for his independence and creativity. He detested studio interference on his script and casting choices. He made fewer films in the 1960s, mostly because Hollywood wasn’t calling. “Tough going,” Fuller said. The 1970s is but a momentary blur in the film, stopping to introduce himself as a father at age 63. Then The Big Red One, the highly personal film he was hankering to make for so many years, was made, thanks to producer Gene Corman figuring out he could make it on the cheap by shooting in Israel. And finally the condensed ruminations (appropriately narrated by William Friedkin) on the misguided studio interpretation of White Dog, which brought the devoted integrationist Fuller to seek comfort in France. Regrettably the controversy is not fully examined (it could be a film in itself).
When the disappointments of the world (whether Hollywood or J. Edgar Hoover) left him sleepless, Sam Fuller opted for the calming pleasantries of music. The rest of the time, when not directing, he was forever writing.
Cinephiles and history (especially WWII) enthusiasts will find a lot to like in the film. Fans of Fuller (we are legion) will have their appetites lightly whetted. It’s time to watch again some of his films. For others, it’s a different sort of documentary destined to be lost in a field already heavily crowded. A Fuller Life is a too brief look at an American maverick, one in which the jazz infused score by Paul Alexander Fuller fits comfortably, even if Sam Fuller preferred Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart.
A Fuller Life will screen at this year’s Reel East Film Festival on August 22, 2015.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.