A conventional revenge quest: Sam Fuller’s “Underworld USA”

 If I hadn’t known otherwise in advance, I’d have thought that Sam Fuller‘s 1961 “Underworld U.S.A.” dated from a decade or so earlier, when the existence of organized crime above the local level was first being explained to Hollywood movie audiences — movies like “The Street with No Name” (1948). “Thieves Highway” (1949 and “Phenix City Story” (1955)..

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“Underworld USA”  does not seem to me to be more violent a revenge noir than “The Big Heat” (1953). It is also less outlandish than most Fuller movies, lacking the quirkiness of “Pickup on South Street” (1953) and others I think that it is the most conventional Sam Fuller movie I’ve seen.

At the start a fourteen-year-old boy sees his father gunned down outside the “Elite,” the dive run by his father’s girlfriend Sandy (Beatrice Kay), Tolly Devlin refuses to tell the police investigator, Driscoll (Larry Gates), but swears to make the killer pay.

Tolly is a safe cracker and serves a 5-year prison term, during which he finds one of the four, Vic Farrar, learns the names of the other three and slits Farrar’s throat.

Out of prison, staying with Sandy, Tolly (Cliff Robertson plays the adult Tolly) begins infiltrating the rackets, starting with Gela (Paul Dubov) and the other killers who have become bosses of particular rackets, Gunther (Gerald Milton), and Smith (Allan Gruener). (They are underlins of Conners (Robert Emhardt), who spends his time in a bathrobe by a swimming pool where “underprivileged children” have meets once a month.)

Tolly acquires a peroxided moll, Cuddles (Dolores Dorn) who seems to have had a heroin habit and was about to be bumbed off by Gela’s muscle, Gus (Richard Rust, the most memorable gunsel since/after Elisha Cook, Jr. in “The Maltese Falcon,” but much better at his job).

With the aid of Driscoll or aiding Driscoll, Tolly sets up his father’s killers to stop trusting each other and to kill each other off. Cuddles wants to settle down and live happily ever after with him — after testifying that is. Witnesses don’t generally live to take the stand, but…

I particularly enjoyed the scene in which Sandy lights into Tolly, calling Cuddles a giant and Tolly a midget. I guess Sandy’s collection of baby dolls is a trace of the usual Fuller perversity, and the femmes fatales with hearts of cold under tough exteriors in Fuller movies tended to platinum/peroxide blond (Constance Tower being the most memorable one in “The Naked Kiss”).

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Other than the ferocity of Cliff Robertson’s performance, there is nothing out of the ordinary in this relatively late noir that feels like an earlier organized crime illustration. Robertson had quite a vicious gleam and played some ruthless characters during the early 1960s (The Best Man, for one). It is said that “you can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time,” but it seems that the mob bosses here are easily fooled.

There’s not much (if any!) chemistry between Robertson and Dolores Dorn, but he does relate convincingly with Beatrice Kay as his surrogate mother.

Cinematographer Hal Mohr shot movies in many genres, but was not a notable noir cinematographer (except for Don Siegel’s 1958 “The Lineup”; I haven’t seen “Woman on the Run” or Siegel’s “Babyface Nelson”).

The pacing is erratic, there is (as in all Fuller movies) some clumsy dialogue along with the quirky women and obsessive men. There are worse ways to while away 99 minutes, but there are also many better noirs and gangster movies.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

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Sam Fuller’s Tokyo-set neo-noir

The primary interest in “House of Bamboo” is the wide-screen CinemaScope color photography (by Joe MacDonald) of Tokyo ca. 1954 (with lots of fire-engine reds in most every scene). The final shoot-out has an interesting locale, but it and the rest of the movie lack the drive of the original (1948) undercover cop drama “The Street with No Name,” which had a prototypical noir look and a more complicated, more conflicted, and, in-short, more-noirish hero (played by Mark Stevens). The one here, portrayed by Robert Stack—who showed a dark side in other mid-1950s movies, notably “Tarnished Angels”—never shows the slightest doubt about the side he is on, never shows a glimmer of temptation to go over to the criminal side.

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Director Samuel Fuller gave himself credit for “additional dialogue,” though blame for the banal dialogue, particularly in long, slack expository scenes between Robert Stack and Shirley Yamaguchi seems to me more deserving of assessing than credit. “House of Bamboo” runs 11 minutes longer than “The Street with No Name” (102:91), but seems to meander at least half an hour longer. For a “thriller,” it is remarkably slack. There are a few visually striking scenes, shot from above or below (“Street” had a lot of upward camera angles), but even the fancy final shoot-out lacks tension. It also lacks the twist at the end that made “Street” particularly notable (though copying the set-up—literally prop-up—for the police arrival from “Street”).

The agonies of undercover work are barely touched upon. Getting the policeman planted is treated perfunctorily. It seems that the mole supplying information to the American mobsters operating in Tokyo in “House” is not even uncovered by the officials, which was a primary part of the operation in “Street”. The plot and dilemmas did not seem to interest Fuller (who had recently made a real noir, “Pickup on South Street,” with a low-life antihero played by Richard Widmark, who had played the narcissistic gang leader in “The Street with No Name”). I guess he wanted to go to Tokyo to shoot a movie and didn’t much care about the movie beyond that. As a police procedural tale, the movie is subpar.

To come out and say what I have only implied, Robert Stack herein is bland, seeming to go through the motions as Eddie. As Mariko, “the kimono” who falls for Eddie and whom Eddie comes to rely on very quickly, Shirley Yamaguchi is also bland. (She has a much bigger part than Barbara Lawrence had in “Street,” but does little more than look concerned.) Eddie’s handlers are rarely on screen. This leaves the movie to Robert Ryan, as the smug and usually ruthless gang leader, Sandy Dawson, who seems to have some repressed paternal or fraternal or erotic longing for Eddie (considerably more obscure than Ryan’s Claggart had for Terence Stamp’s Billy Budd), though no apparent jealousy of Mariko. The open jealousy is displayed by Griff (Cameron Mitchell) who had been Sandy’s favorite and second-in-command until Eddie showed up and became the new favorite (though not formally top lieutenant). This souring provides nearly the only interpersonal drama in the movie. It ain’t enough!… though it does end photogenically. OK, I’ll have to admit that Eddie and Sandy “meet cute” (worth at least a chuckle).

The ending is entertaining, seemingly influenced by the end of James Cagney’s gang boss in “White Heat” more than by the end of Richard Widmark’s in “Street With No Name.” As in an earlier shoot-out, the cops (including the US Army sergeant) are very bad shots and the robbers very good ones.

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Jean-Luc Godard, in his film critic days, proclaimed “House of Bamboo” and the preposterous Barbara Stanwyck western “40 Guns” Fuller’s best films. I can see a link between the perfunctoriness of them and Godard’s increasingly anti-dramatic movies (though not the high pitch of hysteria from “40 Guns”). The racial dynamics (American condescension) are much better dramatized in Fuller’s “The Steel Helmet,” which is also one of the best Korean War movies. I’ve already mentioned “Pickup on South Street” as far superior an underworld movie (and a real noir, shot in black and white and without a one-dimensional hero).

Since Fuller was not interested in making a noirish thriller, one might think he’d have used the opportunity to explore the place of the occupying 8th Army in the period of transition to Japanese policing and governing, but he had nothing to say about that. There is not even a hint that Japanese gangsters “yakuza” existed and might have provided some competition for the gang of highly conspicuous foreigner thugs. I’d be hard-pressed to infer anything about Fuller’s views of Japanese culture or the impact of American occupation of Japan on either the Japanese or the occupiers from the movie beyond a flicker of sympathy of the lot of the Japanese woman (Mariko) being ostracized for moving in with a gaijin (foreigner, that is, Eddie). There is no firm evidence that Fuller did not share the contemptuous view of the “kimonos” of the other gang members.

The bright (daytime) colors have been well preserved (or restored), but the movie was a major disappointment, even for someone unimpressed with Fuller’s (later) “The Big Red One” (which is similar to the marksmanship in “House of Bamboo” with the German soldiers unable to hit the five American ones as they more-or-less win World War II across the African and European WWII campaigns). Although I think Fuller is a director inordinately championed by French auterists and over-rated by American champions of “termite art,” I think that Fuller made some interesting movies (Steel Helmet, Pickup on South Street, Shock Corridor, Run of the Arrow, Verboten!, White Dog, and even Park Row).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Early Cold War spy thriller with great performances by Richard Widmark and Thelma Ritter

Extravagant claims are made for thw noirish 1953 spy film “Pickup on South Street” and for its director, Sam Fuller. It has its moments of technical brilliance in lighting and camera placement, and two superb performances (by Richard Widmark as Skip, a professional pickpocket just released from his third prison term, and Thelma Ritter as Moe, who sells information and neckties).

The plot, centering on microfilm being followed by FBI agents en route to a Soviet agent when a pickpocket takes the billfold it is in out of the courier’s purse on a subway, is hard to swallow, but what is even more difficult to accept is that a hardened courier Candy (who within the semiotics of 1950s film censorship is signaled as being a prostitute) finds love at first punch with a three-time loser (Skip). It’s not “love at first sight,” because their first contact is him punching her out in the dark. He then revives her by pouring cold beer in her face, but his kiss is like that of none of the many men who have kissed her. . . And she is soon risking her life to protect him. Meanwhile, he despises her as being a communist, though he is willing to deal the microfilm to the enemies of civilization for a price. (25 grand to be exact).

Interestingly, the information professional, Moe, is not. The action stops for her aria on being tired of life and drawing the line at selling information to the highest bidder when it comes to communists. Despite being given the most propagandistic lines in the whole propagandistic film, Ritter makes them at least momentarily believable (and was robbed of an Oscar by voters choosing Donna Reed’s totally unconvincing prostitute in “From Here to Eternity” for the award). She certainly makes being too tired to care if she goes on believable, and a willingness to dispense even with her goal of saving up enough money to have a proper funeral.

As far as I can remember, all the violence in the movie is visited on women. The policeman (can he really be a captain?) has gotten into trouble before for beating up Skip, so Skip is able to taunt him and invite fresh shots.

The very ordinary-looking (and therefore all the more dangerous a subversive) Joey, played by Richard Kiley, can still make demands (the last job: wasn’t that already a cliché in 1953?) on ex-girlfriend Candy. (Or are we supposed to see him as her pimp? But then why is she going to be free after delivering the microfilm?) Crooks and bad girls rally to the flag. (Apparently, the FBI was displeased at the representation of one of its agents buying information.)

There are many tight close-ups, especially of the new lovers kissing and of Widmark’s trademark contemptuous smirk. By careful, often quite eloquently expressionist camera placement, Fuller did a lot with a small budget (here and elsewhere). It’s hard not to be amused by the snitch picking up his price with chopsticks and then returning to shoveling unseen (and probably nonexistent) rice into his mouth with the same chopsticks.

The performers

After his sensational debut as a psychotic killer in “Kiss of Death” in 1947, Richard Widmark appeared in some other noirish classics, including No Way Out, Road House, Don’t Bother to Knock, and (as the hero) in Panic in the Streets. He went on to such ensembles of stars as Judgment at Nuremberg, How the West, and Cheyenne Autumn before sinking into made-for-TV movies.

If Jean Peters is remembered at all, it is for “A Man Called Peter” or “Three Coins in the Fountain.” Her career for all practical purposes lasted from 1952 (“Viva Zapata”) to 1955 (“Peter”). She was a bit too wholesome to be a cinema noir femme fatale, but was not cast as one earlier, in the immediate postwar heyday of cinema noir.

Thelma Ritter played memorable roles in two of the best 1950s Hollywood films, “All About Eve” and “Rear Window” and was memorable in “With a Song in My Heart,” “Pillow Talk,” “The Misfits,” and “Birdman of Alcatraz.” She was nominated for Oscars six times, including in this film, but did not win any.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

Celebrating a late-19th-century newsman trampling his female rival

The fifth movie (from 1952) made by writer/director Sam Fuller (1911-1997), and, alas, not available even on VHS, let alone DVD, “Park Row” is at once very sentimental and quite misogynist. “War” is not a metaphor in the description “newspaper war” as Fuller portrays publishing in the New York City of the 1880s. Phineas Mitchell (Gene Evans) envisions better ways of doing things, including sponsoring the invention of linotype, inventing newspaper stands, and launching a campaign to raise funds to put up the Statue of Liberty (accepted by Congress without any appropriation of tax dollars for erecting it in New York Harbor).

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Across the street from his marginal facility for The Globe is the established Star, published by a ruthless woman misnamed “Charity” but with a fitting last name (Hackett). What seems like a Joan Crawford or Gale Sondergard role was played passionately by newcomer Mary Welch. (Sondergard was blacklisted. Welch made no other movies and died in childbirth in 1958.)

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An old sidekick of Horace Greeley named Josiah Davenport (Herbert Heyes) encourages Mitchell’s innovations and encourages Ms. Hackett to get out of a man’s business. After all such antagonism between a man and a woman can only mean they are in love, right?

Although the movie is difficult to get into and is filled with stock characters and hackneyed attitudes (starting with rampant misogyny), the look of the old-time machinery and Fuller’s talent for filming mayhem make an interesting spectacle. “Citizen Kane,” it ain’t, but Fuller did a lot without much budget or cast talent. Ordinary material and often cliched dialogue were filmed from some striking angles with very fluid (often tracking) camerawork (credited to Jack Russell, who would later film “Psycho” for Alfred Hitchcock).

Fuller also put a statue of Ben Franklin to interesting use.

“Park Row” is notably upbeat compared to some other Fuller movies such as “Shock Corridor” and “Steel Helmet,” and not as wild as others, such as “Run of the Arrow.”

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Vincent Price claiming to own Arizona

Criterion released a bare-bones (Eclipse) set of early Sam Fuller movies, including the 1950 “The Baron of Arizona” with Vincent Price playing the title role. Through most of the movie (having had some difficulty staying with it in the first half hour), I thought that it was less outlandish than the other two Fuller westerns I’ve seen—”Run of the Arrow” with a very eccentric portrayal of a bitter Confederate Army veteran (played by Rod Steiger with a strong Irish brogue) going native among Plains Indians and “40 Guns” with Barbara Stanwyck at her bossiest, bossing the 40 gunmen she employs.

I expect something extreme in Fuller movies. The scheme to claim the whole of Arizona Territory (18,000 square miles) by forging a Spanish land grant (a complicated project that includes carving three stones as well as getting into two places that are difficult to access in Spain) is pretty far-fetched, but the real Fuller(ian) twists come late. The opening frame, a bunch of self-satisfied leading Arizona citizens celebrating Arizona statehood in 1912, is stultifying, and the start of the lengthy flashback to 1880 about the scam James Addison Reavis (Vincent Price) concocted and executed over the space of many years to claim Arizona for an orphan whom he had had raised by Beulah Bondi (utterly wasted in the movie) and then married. Where the money to finance all the preparations came from is never addressed. Getting to the land grant books in Spain occupies nearly half the movie’s running time, and involves becoming a monk and then recruiting a band of gypsies (by seducing its de facto leader).

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Reavis was reputedly Price’s favorite role. As Reavis, Price has some charm, if more megalomania, and the movie turns quite romantic (I suspect Production Code demands of being a factor). I find it difficult to credit Reavis’s success as a seducer of a tough gypsy woman, but Price is quite good back in Arizona, extorting money (and turning down a very large settlement offer), and being challenged by John Griff, the Department of the Interior’s forgery expert, who is also the author of the book from which Reavis learned forgery (played by Reed Hadley, who played the title character in Fuller’s first movie, “The Man Who Shot Jesse James,” which is also in the Criterion Eclipse set).

Ellen Drew is not bad as the baroness who worships her husband, though uncomfortable about the amount of hatred the claims he makes for her land. Tina Pine is totally unconvincing as the gypsy leader.

My own favorite Vincent Price performance is in “His Kind of Woman” (1951 with Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum, directed by John Farrow), but he was often entertaining, as he was here.

Fuller seems to me to have had a weakness for melodrama and to have made a mistake in having Griff narrate the film, particularly to a group who could be presumed to know most of the story already. I think that, because he was so independent, Fuller has been overrated by auteurists (European and American), though the movie he made after “Baron,” “Steel Helmet” (1951) is a great one. (I also particularly like “The Naked Kiss,” (1964), find considerable interest in his 1953 “Pickup on South Street,” much of interest in “Shock Corridor” (1963), and find his magnum opus, “The Big One” (1980) almost entirely unbelievable. There are scenes that fall very flat in all of the Fuller movies I’ve seen. I think he is another director (like Clint Eastwood and Robert Duvall) who needed the aid of a strong editor.

I should make explicit that there is very little of a western here, though the main action scene definitely belongs in the genre of western. The movie is about an extortion scam—and love—not a shoot ’em up action picture.

There really were land grants forged by James Addison Reavis, who married the heir he selected and billed himself as “Baron of Arizona,” and the documents were proven to be forgeries by an expert named Royal Johnson. The court case in the movie bears little resemblance to the historical ones (not least in that Reavis was not an effective courtroom advocate for himself and that the real Reavis had forged alliances with rich and powerful figures, including George Hearst and the Southern Pacific Railway (which sent him off to check out claims in the first place).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

The other Korean War film Sam Fuller made in 1951

For being a writer-director who did things his own way, with minimal budgets and production values… and for being quite flamboyant, Samuel Fuller (1912-1997) has long been a favorite of auterist film critics. Although I think major defects in his work have been ignored by those mesmerized by Fuller’s personality, I also think that there are almost always some things of interest in his movies.

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I also think that, in 1951, while the Korean War was still raging, Fuller made one of the very best movies set in that conflict, “The Steel Helmet” with Gene Evans as a crusty sergeant. Later that same year, Fuller wrote and directed “Fixed Bayonets,” which also has as a crusty WWII-veteran sergeant. In both movies, the lieutenants are killed and command devolves down. In both movies, very small detachments of US soldiers are holding off the communist Chinese hordes. In “Fixed Bayonets,” a platoon is left to hold a pass while the division retreats and is supposed to “sound like a division.”

The situation is pretty much a replay of Thermopylae in the snows of the Sierra Nevadas (that are supposed to be Korea). The movie begins with fulsome thanks for cooperation from the US Army, and the first line spoken is that “it takes more than brains to be a general in the United States Army, it takes guts.” This is not a view expressed with much frequency by those on the front lines, and I felt that I had been given notice that Fuller (a WWII infantryman) was producing propaganda.

Much of the rest of the movie involves a corporal who had been in Officer Training School and is unable to shoot enemy soldiers or give commands being turned into a killer and leader of men. There is one private, Jonesy (Pat Hogan), who saw Cpl. Denno (Richard Basehart) not fire at an oncoming Chinese soldier and who expresses contempt openly for Denno. Sgt. Rock (Gene Evans) is aware that Denno is terrified of taking command and prepares him as well as he can, recognizing that Denno has brains and guts along with crippling self-doubt.

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Some of the action scenes are quite good and Basehart was great at playing ambivalence. There is, however, much that is very predictable in the plot (can anyone with any familiarity with Hollywood ear movies doubt that Denno is eventually going to be in charge and rise to the challenge?). Even at the length of 92 minutes, the movie drags—particularly for a round of internal monologues from soldiers who have not been distinguished from each other before (except for the know-it-all “Whitey” played by Skip Homeier, grown up from “Tomorrow, the World!”). There is also a puddle of water that is presumably very cold in a cave that everyone stomps through, rather than skirting. The studio cave also has some very phony-looking stalactites.

There are no DVD extras on the Fox release, but the cinematography of Lucien Ballard (who later shot “The Wild Bunch” and other Peckinpah films) is preserved/transferred to disc. The great(er!) “Steel Helmet” has alsobecome available on DVD (Criterion Eclipse, so also without any bonus features).

Entirely BTW, it seems to me that the command is “Fix Bayonets!” so that I don’t understand the exclamation in the descriptive title “Fixed Bayonets.” (Bayonets are attached to rifles at least twice, but only one of them is used.)

And James Dean is supposed to have had a bit part, but, if so, I missed it, and suspect that it was cut. (The soldier who says “Who goes there?” near the end cannot be Dean, nor can either of the other two men on guard with him by the river.)

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray