Tag Archives: Samuel Fuller

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Eulogy for a Repertory Film Program

imagesAs an angst-ridden loner child who always carried with him the vague feeling that he didn’t belong anywhere, going to the movies was a kind of sacred ritual that I purposefully experienced on my own. I would go to the movies several times a week through my teenage years, but things changed when I discovered the  now-defunct repertory theatre in my home town, which was the only place adventurous moviegoers could escape to in order to avoid the mainstream Hollywood onslaught.

During a sweltering Kansas Summer in 1998, at the age of 15, Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor opened up a world of demented filmmaking that expanded the possibilities of the cinema for me. I first saw Fuller’s 1963 film as part of a now-defunct repertory program in my hometown that few people attended, which was run by a guy named Jake, who simply programmed films out of a love for the cinema. Shock Corridor was one of innumerable masterpieces that Fuller made outside the Hollywood system, and it was artistically and politically far ahead of most of the movies I had seen as a budding cinephile during the mid-to-late ’90s. The film turns on its head all polite notions of political correctness, good filmmaking, good taste, and the pseudo-seriousness of all of the big-budget Hollywood trash that major studios co-opted from more modest B-movies from previous years (Michael Bay’s Armageddon came out weeks earlier, and literally made me physically ill for about three days). And no other movie punched me in the gut as hard, up to that point in my life, and nor had I seen work by any filmmaker (R. Fassbinder comes close) who had the balls to make such a tough movie. Fuller’s sledge-hammer, surrealist style in Shock Corridor filtered the world through a dark, cynical lens that ran contrary not only to early 1960s American society, but also to the world as I knew it as a movie-obsessed teenager growing up in the Midwest at the end of the 20th century. I was instantly hooked by Fuller’s hard-boiled style, his odd mixture of unintentionally arty surrealism, its chaotic subjectivity through the use of nonsensical moments,  splashes of color stock footage, the sense of psychosis that permeated the whole work and gave the impression, as it flickered across the screen in a befittingly damaged 16mm print, that I too was trapped in the senseless, crazy milieu of its characters.

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For those who are unaware: On its surface, Shock Corridor follows ambitious crime reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) as he sets out to solve the murder of a patient by having himself committed to the hospital where the killing happened, in order to solve the crime and win a Pulitzer Prize. He enlists his nudie-bar dancer girlfriend (Constance Towers) to pose as his sister, who reports Johnny to the authorities by saying that her “brother” raped her. After Johnny is committed, a slow descent into madness takes place, and Johnny goes insane. On another level, many of the darker parts of American society that dismayed and disturbed Fuller were critiqued in Shock Corridor in the forms of some of its most deranged characters. Barrett, on his quest to solve the murder, comes across characters who subvert the Patriotic facade of America during the Cold War years. One patient who may have witnessed the murder was committed after he defected to the side of the Soviets because he was disgusted by all of the bigotry that was forced down his throat by his parents. There is the scientist who was driven insane by the crushing guilt of having helped develop the atomic bomb; he has been reduced to a child-like state. And then there is the African American college student who was driven insane by all of the racism that he experienced on his college campus. All of these characters are victims of American political and social problems that Fuller attacked by saying that the country we live in is like one big insane asylum.

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Growing up, I always had an obsessive interest in film, which deepened during the Summer of ’98 when I started showing up to regular screenings at the Wichita Center for the Arts’ film series, held during various times throughout the  year. With the exception of certain well-known films, I was often the lone spectator in the theatre. Screenings were comprised mostly of 16mm prints of classic Hollywood, foreign films, cult classics, and the occasional oddball art film. That Summer, the film series also screened Abbas Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry, one of the first non-English-speaking films I had ever seen. To this day, that film’s  attitude towards the subject of suicide is oddly contemplative, strangely life-affirming. Weeks later, I saw Jay Rosenblatt’s experimental film Human Remains, which offered banal portraits of real-life fascist dictators, and had the effect of making its subjects all the more terrifying. A little later, I saw Happiness, and I realized that Todd Solondz was the master of American dark comedy. I was hooked. The town I grew up in as a kid isn’t known for its repertory film programs, and so the Center for the Arts’ film programming was a safe haven for a kid who was instantly drawn to all things subversive, transgressive, counter-culture. I could only watch so many big-budget Hollywood releases at the local mall that I could not relate to on any personal level, before retreating towards the flickering glow inside the Center for the Arts’ theatre.

A local denizen of the arts named Jake Eueker was the programmer at the Wichita Center for the Arts, and he is responsible for opening my eyes to all of the possibilities of cinema as I now understand them. On nights he programmed a really obscure movie that no one in town had heard of, I was often the only person in attendance. I dutifully attended screenings like a student who was there to learn some kind of lesson that I knew I was not going to get anywhere else. I walked five miles in the cold just to see Jean Luc Godard’s Weekend for the first time. I was the only patron Jake greeted by name. I often thought that my lone attendance was the only thing propping up the Center’s film series. The kind of romanticizing that cinephiles expound when it comes to sitting in the dark and connecting with a great film came from the regular screenings I attended. Years before I attended film school, my cinematic education started there.

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Not only was Shock Corridor one of the first films I saw at the Center for the Arts, but it was also one of the first movies that expanded for me the the possibilities of cinema as an art form. Shock Corridor, like most of Fuller’s work, as I later discovered, made trenchant critiques of the society we live in, but it also pushed the boundaries, visually, towards a demented style of filmmaking that no one has matched since its initial release. Utilizing a limited budget (the film was made independently, when the Hollywood system had no more use for Fuller), the film was better able to convey the insanity that its main protagonist Johnny Barrett was diving into: Looking at the forced perspective of the film’s main set, the corridor that the mental patience whittled away their time in, allows the film to convey its sense of psychosis in strictly visual terms. Stanley Cortez, who was also the cinematographer for the equally brilliant and demented Night of the Hunter, used images and lighting for Shock Corridor that were often flat and high in contrasts between light and shadow, adding to the claustrophobic, institutionalized feel of the film.

After I saw Shock Corridor, I went to nearly every single screening that the Center for the Arts held for several more years. Within this time period, I was lucky enough to see Eraserhead, The Red Shoes, John Waters’ Female Trouble, Nights of Cabiria, 8 1/2, Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, Imitations of Life, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the vastly underrated and still little-seen films of Mohsen Makhmalbaf and his daughter Samira, and countless other foreign and independent films, many of which were screened in 16mm prints.

As I got a little older and became a little more dismayed with life in general, and after I got out of my hometown as quickly as possible, I stopped going to the Center for the Arts’ film programs. In 2002, the Center started screening their films using a video projector, a then-new novelty for regular moviegoers and a sacrilegious way to view movies in a theatrical setting. The visibly large pixilation projected onto the screen lacked the warmth of the 16mm prints that the Center previously screened. There was something lifeless about the act of watching a DVD or VHS cassette of a film in a theatre. Now, sadly, digital projection in movie theatres has become so ubiquitous that no one questions watching movies this way.

Beginning in 2003, I had stopped going to the Center  altogether, and, soon after, they discontinued their film series. There was no other place within several hundred miles that showed the kinds of bizarre B-movie treasures and obscure independent and foreign films that Jake showed at the Wichita Center for the Arts.

Nine years after leaving my hometown of Wichita, KS, I accidentally came across Jake’s online obituary. He died of natural causes in 2012 at the age of 50. An article in the local paper noted his active involvement in my hometown’s small arts scene. He seemed to have thrived on providing cultural experiences through music, film, and visual art, for a town that is hardly known for supporting the arts. As a lonely kid who experienced the world by sitting in dark theatres, he was the facilitator of all of the beautiful, ecstatic moments I had while watching movies. I’m not sure if my eyes would have been opened to the possibilities of film as an art form, had it not been because of him. When I read that Jake died, one of the first experiences the news of his death recalled was watching Shock Corridor for the first time, the absolute ecstatic, intoxicating feeling that I had in a movie theatre while watching Fuller’s masterpiece, and of every other great experience I had, sitting alone – yet, not alone – in a darkened theatre.

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Budd Boetticher: A Maverick Voice from the Past

It never occurred to me when I began working on my book Lee Marvin: Point Blank back in 1994, that it would take almost 20 years to get published. That may have proven to be a good thing as I was lucky enough to encounter many of the greats who worked with Marvin but, are no longer with us. Case in point, maverick director Budd Boetticher who passed away in 2001.

Sadly overlooked for many years by Hollywood, toward the end of his life cinephiles rediscovered his gritty brilliance. Filmmakers as diverse as Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino have paid homage to him (Michael Madsen’s character in Kill Bill is named Budd). Boetticher’s films, especially the Westerns, had a special sparse quality. Not as taut as Sam Fuller, nor as grandiose as John Ford, his style fit comfortably somewhere in between. His personal life would make a fascinating film itself as it included athletics, bullfighting, brushes with the law, and a self-imposed exile to Mexico. What is most amazing is that in spite of undeniable setbacks that would weaken a lesser man, Boetticher’s indefatigable spirit and optimism remained intact to the end of his life.

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I interviewed him by phonefor my book on October 30, 1994, and as will be seen, his anecdotes go beyond his work with Lee Marvin and are compelling in their own right. World Cinema Paradise thought so as well and agreed to run the interview here. It is intact, and, it is the first time it has ever seen the light of the day in its entirety.

Dwayne Epstein: Good morning, Mr. Boetticher.

Budd Boetticher: Hello, Dwayne. You’re up bright and early.

DE: Actually, I thought I was calling a little late.

BB: Sounds like you forgot to set your clock back.

DE: (Pause) Geez, I forgot all about it! I guess I’m on time, then [both laugh]

BB: You wanted to talk about Lee Marvin, right?

DE: Absolutely. You made two films with Lee Marvin, right? Seminole (1953) and 7 Men from Now (1956)?

BB: Yes, I did. The films I made with Randy (Scott), four or five are back in theaters, and not just on video. In Europe, they’ve been re-released on the big screen where they belong.

DE: Do you recall which ones?

BB: Sure. Ride Lonesome (1959), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), The Tall T (1957), and Comanche Station (1960). I haven’t seen them in a while and the Director’s Guild held a retrospective recently. I must say they’re pretty damn good.

DE: That’s terrific! Before we go any further, I just wanted to tell you that the gangster film you made is one of my favorites…

BB: Oh yeah, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960). with Ray Danton. That also had a young Warren Oates and Dyan Cannon making their debuts.

DE: Very cool. So, the first picture you used Lee in was Seminole, right?

BB:  Right. He played Sgt. Magruder and he was very, very good. [Screenwriter] Burt Kennedy brought him in. He suggested Lee to play the second lead on my next picture with Randy [Scott]. Now Duke Wayne [as producer], and you can quote me on this, Duke was either a son-of-a-bitch or the best friend you ever had, depending on the mood he was in. Burt asked Duke, “Who should we use?” Duke said, “Let’s use Randy. He’s through.”

DE: [laughs] Well, that was nice of him.

BB: Yes, well in every Randolph Scott movie there was always a breakout star because Randy didn’t really care. But Duke…he was another story.

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DE: How was Lee Marvin to work with on 7 Men from Now?

BB: He was wonderful. He was an ex-Marine. He was one of the few actors who really knew how to handle a gun. I wanted to try something I had never seen in a Western before. I’ve never seen in a Western, while a gunfighter was urinating or whatever, I’ve never seen him practicing his draw. So, what I did was every chance I could, I had Lee draw and practice. His death was so dramatic when Randy shot him because of that. He just stood there for a minute and stared at his gun in his hand in disbelief. The audience loved it. The reaction, when we previewed it at the Pantages, was something I had never seen before. They stopped the film and reran the scene.

DE: Wow, I’ve never heard of that being done before.

BB: Yeah, the sneak preview — if you can believe it — it was a double bill with Serenade (1956) starring Mario Lanza. Nobody in the audience was under forty. The marquee outside the theater only mentioned Serenade. I turned to John Wayne and said, “Jesus Kee-rist, Duke!” People started to walk out when they saw it was a Western starring Randy. Once it started, and people started watching it, though, they stayed and really enjoyed it. Yeah, but Lee was great.

DE: Did you ever want to work with him after that?

BB: Actually, I wrote Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) with him in mind. What happened was I went and saw Lee in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and thought to myself that he was drunk. Be careful how you write this part. Anyway…

DE: Well, I spoke with Woody Strode who told me Lee was drunk.

BB: How’s Woody doing? I worked with him on City Beneath the Sea (1953).

DE: Well, he’s doing fine, considering. He’s a very sweet man and was forthcoming with a lot of information. He still lives in Glendora but he’s alone a lot now.

BB: Well, would you do me a favor and give him my number? I’d love to talk to him again.

DE:  I sure will. So you thought Lee was drunk in Liberty Valance?

BB: Well, that was the rumor. I asked around. I checked him out through others and they said he was. I thought he drank too much and couldn’t work with him.

DE: What happened to the script?

BB: Universal eventually made it and they screwed it up. I tell you, you can’t quote me, but Eastwood’s character has to be an idiot not to smell liquor and cigars on her breath. In my version she was a courtesan not a prostitute [Shirley MacLaine’s character is a prostitute disguised as a nun]. Anyway, I found out years later that Martin Scorsese was a big fan of my work and wanted some memorabilia. I found the original screenplay to Sister Sara. It was over twenty years old and falling apart. I had to Xerox it because it was falling apart. I sent the original and a copy to Scorsese and made a copy for myself. I read it again and thought it was just great. I’ll tell you a funny story about that. A few years back they were showing it on late night TV and I got a call about 1 a.m. This gruff voice asked me, “I missed all the credits. Did you direct this piece of shit Sister Sarah I just watched?” I said, “No, I only wrote screenplay…” The voice said, “Good!” and slammed down the phone. It was John Ford. [Both laugh]. Okay, what else do you want to know about Lee Marvin?

DE: You said you didn’t want to work with Marvin?

BB: Well, I heard he drank too much.

DE: [Stuntman] Tony Epper referred to him as a bottle actor. He thought he did his best work when he drank.

BB: I don’t believe that. You can work hard without drinking and then relax after five, like everyone else. Duke had a [screenwriter] friend named James Edward Grant. He wanted to direct but he believed that if he couldn’t drink, he couldn’t direct. That’s a lot of crap. No actor is better unless you catch him on the third drink. But he’s usually on the fifth drink and by then he can’t finish the picture.

DE: Did you ever consider him for anything else?

BB: No, not really. I’ve been working on this book about bullfighting called When, in Disgrace. You should read it sometime. I think it’s available at Samuel French or Larry Edmunds Bookstore. It’s all about bullfighting. See, I started in the business with a job most women would kill for. I had to show Tyrone Power how to move as a bullfighter for Blood and Sand (1941). When I started making westerns with Randy, I gave them what they wanted. If they wanted a movie to run an hour and 26 minutes, I brought it in at an hour and 27 minutes. It usually only took 18 days. The great things about those movies were the scripts. Burt Kennedy worked on most of them and we had Lucien Ballard as a cinematographer. Lucien did great work for us. They held a retrospective of my work in Dallas, recently, and they gave me some kind of pretentious award. I had not seen some of my films in years and was quite surprised they were so good. We didn’t have any dirty words. There was no open mouth kissing. The films they make today…I went to Mexico and stopped making films. I went to Mexico for seven years and worked on the book about [bullfighter Carlos] Arruza. I finally got a screenplay out of it and we’re going to filming it soon.

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DE: Well, I’m glad it paid off for you.

BB: See, the great thing about my career is that I never won an Academy Award, or an Emmy, or any of that shit. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association gave me the Career Achievement Award in 1992. That meant something because you can’t fool around with it. [Laughs] They can’t agree on anything but they voted unanimously on the Career Achievement Award.

DE: That’s quite an honor. Interesting how you weren’t appreciated before but now…

BB: Yeah, if you stick around long enough. It’s funny. I made 37 pictures and only ten were westerns, so they call me a western director. I made a couple of gangster pictures and they call me a gangster director.

DE: What made you stop directing?

BB: I don’t believe a lady should say “fuck” to establish a character. I didn’t want to be involved in that kind of filmmaking. But, I am working again. I just waited until the right project came along. I’m going to be directing A Horse for Mr. Barnum.

DE: What’s it about?

BB: It’s a true story about P.T. Barnum picking up several Andalusian horses and the cowboys he hires to bring them back.

DE: That sounds interesting. Is a cast lined up?

BB: Well, we got Robert Mitchum as Barnum and Jorge Rivero, who’s the biggest star in Mexico, as one of the cowboys. James Coburn is in it, too. We’ll be using Lippizans.

DE: I’ll be looking forward to it.

BB: I’m delighted you’re writing this book on Lee Marvin. He was a great actor. He gave more to a director than you could ask for.

DE: How did he get along with Randolph Scott?

BB: He got along with everybody.

DE: How did Scott get along with him? Did they establish a good rapport?

BB: Scott had very little report with anybody. He wasn’t the guy wearing white all the time type of hero.

DE: With the square jaw.

BB: Right. He just kept to himself. When Burt and I were having dinner one night, after shooting that day, he said, “What’s the kid in the red underwear?” I said, “James Coburn. He said, “He’s pretty good. Write him some more lyrics.” In six of the seven pictures I made with Randy, the second lead stole the show. If the second lead killed Randy, no one would care, not like in a John Wayne picture. The second lead often made it very big after working with Randy. We had Richard Boone, Pernell Roberts, James Coburn; a whole bunch of good actors.

DE: It sure sounds like it.

BB: I’ll tell you a funny story about Richard Boone. He was starring on the TV show Medic and I wanted to use him in the picture I was doing with Randy called The Tall T. Now, if Harry Cohn was still there, I wouldn’t have had a problem. But Sam Briskin was running Columbia, and he said to me, “You don’t want Boone. He’s got no sense of humor and he’s got all kinds of pock marks…” I had to find out for myself. I called Boone and told him I wanted him for a film. I said Briskin didn’t think he had a sense of humor. Boone said, “I guess he doesn’t think heart operations are pretty fucking funny.”

DE: [Laughing] Sounds like he had a sense humor, to me. You know, your career is a lot like Sam Fuller’s in that you both got recognition later in your career.

BB: My agent, who’s Jewish — that’s probably why he’s so good at it — he got me a three-picture deal. He told me, “You know, you’re the Gentile Sam Fuller.” I told him, “I’d rather be the Jewish John Ford.”