Monday, April 11, 2011

Samuel Fuller: White Dog, House of Bamboo, China Gate

This week I plan to use the Quick Picks entries to highlight films that I have put on my "In My Queue" list, and give brief reasons why I plan to watch them later in the day.  First up this week is Samuel Fuller's White Dog.

Fuller is well known for his tough war dramas (Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets!), bold noirs (Pickup on South Street, House of Bamboo) and sensationalist melodramas (Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss).  His unique voice in American cinema endeared him to filmmakers in the French New Wave, and Godard featured Fuller in a cameo in Pierrot le Fou (1965).  Godard's film features Fuller stating his philosophy about filmmaking: “The film is like a battleground; love, hate, action, violence, death. In one word EMOTION.”  Fuller had few directing opportunities in the 1970s, but he triumphantly returned with the  semi-autobiographical war film, The Big Red One (1980) which was a critical success but a commercial disappointment.  Still, Fuller was back on the radar, which led screenwriter Curtis Hanson and producer Jon Davidson to approach Fuller to direct an adaptation of Romain Gary's racial allegory, White Dog.

In his Criterion Collection essay on the film, J. Hoberman describes the sensibility that Fuller brings to the film: "filmed in headlines, framed as allegory, a movie of constant hyperbole and borderline absurdity, White Dog combines hard-boiled sentimentality and hysterical violence, sometimes in the same take."  Hoberman goes on to explain how objections from the NAACP and lukewarm test audiences led Paramount to shelve the film. The film was barely seen in America outside of occasional cable television airings until a Film Forum screening in 1991.  Fuller was devastated, and after moving to France (where White Dog had a limited release) he never completed another feature film in Hollywood (his last two, Thieves after Dark and Street of No Return were French productions).

Despite their reliance on conventions of popular genre filmmaking, Fuller's films are always just a bit off-center in terms of narrative and style, and Fuller was never reluctant to utilize any tool available to him to heighten emotional affect. But even when he rubs you the wrong way, Fuller is always admirable for his untethered fearlessness. I'm not anticipating anything subtle when I finally catch up with White Dog this afternoon, but I will see a treatment of sensitive issue by someone whose primary interest was always, in one word, "EMOTION," not sensitivity.  If you decide to join me, either today or in the near future, I look forward to your comments in the discussion section below.


White Dog (Samuel Fuller, USA, 1982, 89 minutes)
After hitting a German shepherd with her car, young actress Julie (Kristy McNichol) adopts it and nurses it back to health. When she discovers that her pet has been trained to viciously attack black people, she convinces dog trainer Keys (Paul Winfield) to try to cure the animal. Samuel Fuller directs this controversial, chilling drama based on Romain Gary's 1970 memoir, Chien Blanc. Burl Ives co-stars. Netflix link.

Netflix Watch Instantly also currently has two other Samuel Fuller films.  Of the two, I've seen House of Bamboo, which is fantastic in its use of vibrant widescreen cinematography and location shooting.  Again, despite being a relatively straight forward genre film, at times the compositions seem almost flat and abstract, inspiring later filmmakers like Godard.

House of Bamboo (Samuel Fuller, USA, 1955, 102 minutes)
Netflix: Filmed in Japan and featuring stunning photography, Sam Fuller's 1955 crime noir tells the story of Eddie Kenner (Robert Stack), a U.S. army operative sent to Tokyo to investigate ex-soldier Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan). Working undercover, Kenner must gain the trust of Dawson, who now heads a gang that's robbed several ammunition trains. Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi), the secret wife of a dead American soldier, comes forward to help Kenner. Netflix link.

China Gate (Samuel Fuller, USA, 1957, 95 minutes)
Netflix: Mercenaries infiltrate the Chinese border to blow up an arms depot during the French phase of the Vietnam War. A Eurasian smuggler, Lucky Legs (Angie Dickinson), cuts a deal with the mercenaries, agreeing to help them in exchange for her son's safe passage to America. Spaghetti Western legend Lee Van Cleef and crooner Nat King Cole also star in this action thriller by celebrated director Samuel Fuller. Netflix link.

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