Samuel Fuller had one of the most fascinating of Hollywood careers — a 50-plus-year self-mythologizing rampage that began with scriptsmith work in the mid 1930s at the age of 24, evolving into one of the most distinctive auteurs America has ever produced, writing/directing some 25 movies and having a hand in writing 25 more, helplessly manufacturing himself into a crusty man’s-man Hollywood gadfly in the process, readily available for manic interviews and iconic appearances in young auteurs’ self-conscious films.
There are always corners in his career that you, whomever you are, haven’t yet explored (honestly, any single Fuller film remains half-experienced if you’ve only seen it once), and so the new Sony set of Fulleriania is a prize, beginning as it does with “It Happened in Hollywood” (1937), Fuller’s first screenplay credit, and an utterly freakish, Charlie Kaufman-esque launch of meta-ness that centers on Hollywood’s discomfiting transition from silents to talkies, barely a decade after it happened and 15 years before “Singin’ in the Rain.” Richard Dix, essentially playing himself, is an aw-shucks cowboy star for whom both the demands of dialogue and the moral compromises of early gangster roles proves too much, but it’s clear that Dix is indeed a terrible actor past his dubious prime, playing an inept matinee icon and moseying through a scenario about his own career’s demise.
Though the dynamic suggests “The Wrestler,” Dix keeps to his old westerns’ dull and pious persona, initiating a kind of hall-of-mirrors journey that climaxes, phenomenally, with a huge house party populated with a forgotten class of Hollywood creatures: actual stand-ins, look-alikes playing themselves playing their studio stars in a creepy alternative Golden Age where slightly off Mae Wests, Marlene Dietrichs, Eddie Cantors and Clark Gables wander the rolling lawns of Beverly Hills, like a live version of those Warner Brothers cartoons bustling with caricatured celebrity cameos.
It’s an early clue to the degree of irony and distance inherent in all of Fuller’s work, and it’s a unique thing in a filmography of one-of-a-kinds. The DVD box includes six other films (along with four new interview supplements with Tim Robbins, Wim Wenders, Martin Scorsese and Curtis Hanson), including “Underworld U.S.A.” (1961), an arch, lurid crime nightmare in which every frame is a cluttered knot of perspectives, contrasts and spite, and which, it seems to me, is precisely where film noir, properly defined, died, burned at the stake of Fuller’s psychodramatic hyperbole. But because Fuller’s voice was unmistakably his, the sensibility collisions in the films directed by others are the revelations. “Scandal Sheet” (1952) was directed by Phil Karlson, who was as much of a confrontational, subtlety-immune noiriste as Fuller, but whose style was much more pseudo-documentary.
Fuller had no hand in the movie — it’s based on his novel “The Dark Page,” published in 1944 while Fuller was fighting in Europe with the Big Red One. Still, it boils over with his storytelling energy and his signature reflex, the urge to discover, expressionistically, the painful, hard-boiled reality as he knew it within the movie-movie universe of Golden Age Hollywood. The set-up itself is nearly autobiographical: Fuller used to work on the New York Graphic, a screaming-mimi, truth-manipulating exploitative tabloid on Park Row that makes the contemporary New York Post look like The London Review of Books.
Broderick Crawford’s bulldog editor pulls the daily out of its economic doldrums with lurid front pages and invented news; John Derek is his amoral star reporter, the two of them heading a newsroom that has only Donna Reed to recommend it in the way of moral compunction and compassion. The thorny patter and amoral brio proceeds apace until Crawford is confronted at a publicity event by a middle-aged woman, who summons an entire unwanted past that eventually leads to her manslaughter and a hot news story that must be pursued even if Crawford is its last station. It’s a fast-gabbing, meat-eating show, with only one typical handicap: pretty boy star Derek (future husband of Bo) is a baby-faced cipher beside the roaring rockface of Crawford, and even the quick-eyed beauty of Reed. But the story is expertly fashioned, scanning today as a prescient indictment of Rupert Murdoch-style media exploitation.
“Shockproof” (1949) is even odder — a hard-boiled egg of a Fuller script (co-written with women’s-picture foghorn Helen Deutsch), but directed by existentialist-romantic Douglas Sirk, tracking parole officer Cornel Wilde as he attempts to keep smokin’ released murderess Patricia Knight away from her flimflam boyfriend and out of the hoosegow. Of course, the story twists up with romantic passion and another murder, and Knight’s bitter modern woman so bristles with betrayal that we never know who she wants, but it eventually ends up on the road in a kind of domestic hellfire of poverty and paranoia, a year after “They Live by Night” and before “Gun Crazy.” Fullerish in its hidden impulses but Sirkian in its expressionism and moaning self-pity, the movie is a minor and forgotten schizo miracle.