March 2003

A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking
(Applause Books, 608 pages, $18.95)
By Samuel Fuller

According to the jacket blurb, legendary helmer Sam Fuller was born in Worcester, Mass., 1911; however inside the actual narrative says 1912. Factual inconsistency is a recurrent feature of this dense text, but it matters not one bit really, as the facts and fiction here blur together into one seamless whole. This teller of tall tales, or as the author would prefer to say "yarns," delivers in his autobiography, a powerful document of a life well and truly lived.

Fuller's later uncompromising films seem to have sprung like fully formed demons from the melange of experience earned as a child-seller of newspapers, tabloid copy boy, freelance journalist and spinner of pulp fiction. Upon the death of his father, Fuller's mother Rebecca (whom he adored), moved Sam and his five brothers and sisters to New York, where the 11 year old immediately went to work hawking papers on the street to help make ends meet. He found his joy, and a future in the news business beckoned. This part of the tome is fascinating, recounting as it does his gravitation to beat reporter on the mortuary detail. Uncovering corpses (including actress Jeanne Eagels), attending executions, (particularly electrocutions which scorched a huge welt on the young man's retina), all helped to cement his world-weary yet optimistic persona. His first novel, Burn Baby Burn, published in 1935, was torn directly from his seared psyche, a cathartic way to exorcise the burning bodies he'd seen on death row.

And there are the people he knew along the way: Ring Lardner, William Randolph Hearst, Gene Fowler, Damon Runyan, Bill Farnsworth, and Rhea Gore (John Huston's mother), who was a wealthy socialite doing crime reporting on the side. When Sam's ambitions are temporarily thwarted, he leaves the paper to travel across the country, living like a hobo in Hoovervilles, the tent cities of Depression-era America. Inevitably, Sam winds up in Hollywood fashioning melodramas out of his many "yarns" as well as exhibiting no little amount of skill as a cartoonist. Making a lot of "dough" but clearly restless and unfulfilled, he enlists in 1942 and becomes a private in the First U.S. Infantry Division, also known as "The Big Red One." His three-year tour of duty encompasses just about every major action of the war, and the cumulative heap of horror he witnessed informs all his later movie work, and was detailed explicitly in the labor of love named for his unit which didn't come to fruition till the late seventies. Kasserine, Sicily, Omaha Beach, the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of Falkenau concentration camp haunted his dreams for the rest of his life.

Returning to Hollywood, Sam's gritty writing elevates his career to "auteur" status before the term existed. Using the war as his template The Steel Helmet (1951), Fixed Bayonets (1951), Hell and High Water (1954), House of Bamboo (1955), Forty Guns (1957) and China Gate (1957) gave him seemingly total financial and artistic freedom, making him the ultimate hyphenate. Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox was his principal protector, and when Zanuck disappeared overseas, the wheels came off Fuller's wagon. Without elaborating too much on the whys and wherefores, in fact he places nothing about his life and work in the wider context, he begins to slip into a mishmash of independent productions, becoming vulnerable in the process to unscrupulous producers all too willing to sell him out for the price of a cigar.

His personal life remains a mystery too — he marries a woman named Martha who seems like a bit of a trophy wife, (we know nothing about her) and they cohabit in opulent style. His mother Rebecca remains the quintessential woman in his life, and her death devastates him to an incapacitating degree. Martha comes and goes — as does his career, although he doesn't search for reasons. Perhaps things just are. Past 50, his money and studio protectors gone, Fuller gets Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1963) made, but they don't lead to a comeback. Short of "dough" and a future, he hightails it to France where he is feted by Andre Bazin and the writers of Cahiers du Cinema. Driven by nightmares of the war, and unexplained guilts and anxieties, Fuller's filmmaking life, the second half of the book, doesn't connect. He's wildly succesful one minute, (he doesn't care why) and wildly unsuccessful the next (equally baffling). He draws no comparison between the vivid cartoons of his imagination and his later striking directorial style.

Maybe like other hard men of yesterday, Ford, Hawks, Walsh, it's simply too unmanly to rummage in the closet of the subconscious. Fuller's Third Face, he tells us, is that side of you nobody sees — apparently not even him. In Paris he meets the love of his life, Christa Lange, an actress more than thirty years his junior. They marry and have a daughter, Samantha, his only child. Fuller stays productive to the end, cranking out "yarns" by the score. His body of work, as a director, novelist and screenwriter is unthinkable for anyone in the business today. Thanks to the patronage of directors like Peter Bogdanovich, Jean-Luc Godard, Wim Wenders, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese and Curtis Hanson, Fuller kept working, mostly as an actor in his friends' productions. His dream of The Big Red One (1980) finally came true, but his heart was broken by its reediting, reducing it from more than four hours in length to two. (As we speak Warners is in the process of restoring it.) This disaster was immediately followed by White Dog (1982) which was shelved by the studio after accusations of racist overtones. Fuller, a lifelong supporter of "world culture," was horrified. He returned to Europe, where he lived until a near-fatal stroke in 1994. In the final analysis his book is a damn fine "yarn," terse, grim, principled and humorous. A worldly, international man, Fuller chomps his cigars and burns with magnesium intensity. At one point, as the book is winding down, he just can't help himself — breaking the fourth wall he addresses the reader: "You young people sitting around watching the goddamned television! Get off your asses and go see the world!" Sam Fuller was a man with a mission — and he played his string right out to the end.

Review written by Nick Redman


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