Too often dismissed as little more than a genre filmmaker, Samuel Fuller was instead one of the earliest and most uncompromising forces in American independent cinema. Noted for his tabloid-influenced storytelling style, breathless camera work, and extreme close-ups, Fuller was a pugnacious, tough-as-nails man whose movies reflect a uniquely personal vision; obsessed with themes of falsehood and deception, his films illuminated the cultural divisions at the heart of American society, depicting a grim, immoral world far removed from the placid surface typically on display in more mainstream fare. Celebrated as a genius by his fans -- and denounced as a sensationalist by his detractors -- Fuller was a deeply patriotic man quick to criticize his country's flaws, as well as a raw, anarchic filmmaker capable of moments of inexpressible beauty; such contradictions fueled and ultimately defined both him and his body of work, which continues to exert tremendous influence over such prominent filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Jim Jarmusch.
Samuel Michael Fuller was born August 12, 1911, in Worcester, MA, and raised in New York City; at the age of 13 he quit school to work as a copy boy for the New York Journal and within two years was working as the personal copy boy of the tabloid's crusading editor, Arthur Brisbane. When Brisbane quit after an explosive quarrel with his boss, the infamous William Randolph Hearst, Fuller exited as well, briefly joining the staff of the New York Evening Graphic before moving west to accept a position with the San Diego Sun, where he became one of the youngest crime reporters in the country. While honing a brash, no-nonsense style of journalism, his job led him back and forth across the United States, interviewing notorious murderers and the like; he finally quit the position to pursue his wanderlust full-time, spending much of the Depression era riding the rails throughout the American South. In 1935 Fuller finally settled down long enough to write a pulp novel, Burn Baby Burn; other titles like Test Tube Baby and Kiss and Make Up followed in the years to come, many of them published under pseudonyms.
Lured to Los Angeles in 1936 by a former editor, Gene Fowler, Fuller began his film career by ghostwriting the script to the Boris Petroff picture Hats Off; a year later he collaborated on Harry Lachman's It Happened in Hollywood before earning his first screen credit for 1938's Gangs of New York. Several other projects followed, but Fuller did not receive another credit prior to 1941's war drama Confirm or Deny; the following year he enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving as a corporal in the First Infantry Division, more commonly known as "the Big Red One" on account of their distinctive shoulder patches. He was also assigned to write a series of combat reports, and was twice wounded in battle, receiving a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star for his bravery. Fuller's wartime experiences proved to be a major turning point, shaping and influencing his art for the remainder of his life; upon his discharge he returned to Hollywood, where his novel The Dark Page -- published in 1944 -- had been purchased by Howard Hawks. A film adaptation was not produced until 1952, when it was released under the title Scandal Sheet and directed by Phil Karlson.
Despite steady work as a script writer, Fuller became increasingly frustrated with his lack of success in Hollywood; hired as a staffer at Warner Bros., he looked on helplessly as not one of his screenplays ever reached the production stage. When Lippert Productions approached him to author a number of low-budget Westerns, Fuller offered to work for scale in order to write and direct his own material; Lippert executives agreed, and in 1949 he delivered I Shot Jesse James, introducing his distinctive, close-up intensive cinematic style. Neither the picture nor its 1950 follow-up, the Vincent Price vehicle The Baron of Arizona, earned Fuller much attention, but with his third film The Steel Helmet he began to make significant waves. Produced in less than two weeks for under $100,000, it was the first fictional film made on the subject of the Korean War, and also broke new ground by making explicit reference to the U.S.'s Japanese internment camps during World War II. Equally important, The Steel Helmet grossed an astounding six million dollars -- a particularly impressive effort for an independent feature during an era when the studios held almost total control over the nation's theaters -- and its success earned Fuller a contract with 20th Century Fox.
At Fox, Fuller resurfaced in 1951 with Fixed Bayonets, another tale of the Korean War; it was not nearly as successful at its predecessor, however, and he set up his own production company for the following year's Park Row, an homage to the newspaper business set at the turn of the century. Fuller claimed it as his favorite among his films, but it was a financial disaster, and it cost him virtually all of his earnings from The Steel Helmet. He then returned to Fox to helm 1953's Pickup on South Street, a film noir cult classic which won the Bronze Lion at the Venice Film Festival but was criticized by many reviewers during its theatrical release as crass anti-Communist propaganda. Its star, Richard Widmark, also headlined Fuller's next project, Hell and High Water, a submarine drama produced at Fox's request to demonstrate the continued ability to employ conventional camera movements within an enclosed space while filming in the new CinemaScope process. After 1955's House of Bamboo, a meditation on issues of national identity and conflicted loyalties, Fuller founded a second production company, Globe Enterprises, to mount the 1957 Western Run of the Arrow, the film which first began earning him praise from the staff of the influential French film journal Cahiers du Cinema. Later that same year Fuller delivered both China Gate, the first American feature to touch on the struggles beginning to sweep through Vietnam, and the bold Western Forty Guns, a major favorite among his increasing European critical fan base for its exploration of the genre's eroticism as well as its elliptical narrative and strange editing patterns. Fuller next filmed 1958's Verboten!, a denunciation of neo-Nazism composed of less than 100 shots, one of them alone clocking in at over five minutes; he followed with another meditation on racial injustice, 1959's The Crimson Kimono, which explored a Los Angeles cop's shame over his Japanese heritage. The optimism so long an integral part of Fuller's vision had virtually dissolved by the point of 1961's Underworld USA, a portrait of an American society swallowed by its own apathy; among his most brutal and harsh pictures, it was also the final production of Globe Enterprises, and he made his next film, 1962's Merrill's Marauders, under the auspices of Warner Bros. Fuller then agreed to make a pair of pictures for Leon Fromkess and Sam Firks which so polarized critics and alienated mainstream audiences that they ultimately led to his expulsion from the Hollywood system.
The first was 1963's Shock Corridor, considered by many Fuller's masterpiece. The story of a reporter who commits himself to a state mental institution in order to catch a killer and win the Pulitzer Prize, the film was so over-the-top in its depiction of the grotesqueries of asylum life -- clearly intended as a portrait of American society in microcosm -- that contemporary reviewers dismissed it as pure sensationalism. The critics had even less regard for 1964's The Naked Kiss, the hallucinatory tale of a prostitute (Constance Towers) who flees the streets for the seeming comforts of the suburbs, only to discover sickness and degradation unlike anything she'd ever encountered. A grim indictment of American hypocrisy, The Naked Kiss is today regarded among Fuller's most brilliant efforts, but it was met with such hostility from the media and audiences that it crippled the director's career; with no offers from Hollywood to make films of his own, he traveled to France, appearing as himself in Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou in 1965 before finally returning to the U.S. to film 1968's Shark! Again, the fates were against him, and shooting was almost abandoned after a Mexican stuntman was killed during production. Though the picture was finally released, a dispute over editing forced Fuller to disown the project, and he returned to Europe.
Only in 1972 was Fuller again offered the opportunity to return to the director's chair, and in West Germany he began work on Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street; while admired by critics, it earned only limited distribution, and his career was widely considered to be finished. He spent the remainder of the decade in front of the camera, occasionally delivering cameos in films like Wim Wenders' 1977 thriller Der Amerikanische Freund. To the surprise of many, Fuller then announced the fruition of a project he'd been discussing as far back as 1956: The Big Red One, an autobiographical account of his experiences in World War II. Filming in Israel, he shot upwards of 30 hours of footage, finally handing in a four and one-half hour director's cut; reportedly against his wishes, a 120-minute version was released, and while perhaps not the story he wanted told, The Big Red One was nevertheless his first viable mainstream release since The Steel Helmet, with a cast including Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill, and Robert Carradine as Zab, a proxy for Fuller himself. It was a hit, and suddenly the studios were welcoming him back with open arms.
Fuller then began work on White Dog, based on a novel by his friend Romain Gary; the tale of a dog trained by its owner to attack African-Americans, its anti-racist message was widely misconstrued, and even the NAACP called for a boycott. When the studio threatened to re-cut the film, Fuller and producer Jon Davison kidnapped the negatives and ran off to Mexico; it was never released theatrically in America, appearing only in dramatically edited form on cable and in European cinemas. Fuller declared he would never work in Hollywood again, and moved to France. There he filmed 1983's Les Voleurs de la Nuit, his final directorial project for several years; apart from a few small acting roles, he did not mount another major project prior to 1989's Street of No Return, and with the 1990 television project The Day of Reckoning his career was finished. Still, Fuller remained a cult figure of much interest; in 1994, he sat down with acolyte Jim Jarmusch in Mika Kaurismäki's Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made, and in 1995 was the focus of the documentary portrait The Typewriter, The Rifle, and the Movie Camera. After suffering a stroke Fuller returned to Hollywood, where he made his final screen appearance in Wim Wenders' The End of Violence. He died on October 30, 1997, at the age of 86.