100 Years: Remembering Sam Fuller, An American Maverick

Remembering a gentle giant of the independent film world on what would have been his 100th birthday.

A figure no less influential in the history of the cinema than Martin Scorsese authors the foreword to Sam Fuller’s autobiography, A Third Face (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002). He writes: “I think that if you don’t like the films of Sam Fuller, then you just don’t like cinema. Or at least you don’t understand it.” For those that understand, Sam Fuller is the name of a true American independent filmmaker, a consummate film artist working (mostly) within the Hollywood studio system, but always against the grain; paving the way for the nobility of art instead of the bean counting of commerce. Sam was a writer, fighter, father, husband, lover and, above all, one of the greatest filmmakers and men that ever walked among us.

If he were still alive, today would be Sammy’s (as he preferred to be called) one-hundredth birthday. As I gradually realize that nearly all the monumental figures of the cinema will die within my lifetime, recounting memories either personal or widely known seems more important than ever before. For many who never knew him, no doubt Sammy’s work as a writer and director will be the primary way he is remembered. In this way, it is what he left behind that continues to motivate: action and inspiration as the true judge of a man’s character.

This piece is neither an obituary, nor is it a history, but rather a personal remembrance. Nobody tells the Sam Fuller story like Sammy himself – for that, I recommend his book.

Paradoxically, I never knew Sam Fuller. He died of natural causes in October 1997, which means that at the time I was turning ten, still living in Michigan, and had never even seen one of his films. How can an author write a remembrance of a subject he never knew? Good question. Thirteen years later, I would find myself in Los Angeles, steeped in the world of academia and meeting people every weekend I had previously either only seen onscreen or read about in books. It’s that fairytale quality of L.A. that can make it a great place to live, aside from the painfully cruel and sometimes true stereotypes of the city. It’s that quality of Los Angeles that makes me miss living there the most, the idea that being in close proximity to your dreams or even reaching them can often be a reality.

When I was nineteen-going-on-twenty, I bought A Third Face and so started to learn more than the basics about Sam. Prior to this, I had seen Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, but not much else. It wasn’t until late 2010 or early 2011 that I started discovering Sam Fuller’s films in more detail and moving beyond his feature films to television work that although not often talked about, certainly should be – all while a UCLA grad student. I discovered a title that is still one of my favorite films I have ever seen, Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (1973), a feature-length made-for-German-television adaptation of a popular crime series Tatort. I first saw it as a well-worn VHS transfer, loved to death by its previous owner. Even with its muted colors and static interruption, the film read as a gritty, pulpy noir unabashedly shot entirely in daylight, featuring a wry sense of humor. It was unlike anything I had seen before or since. I knew it was an undeniably special film.

The film stars Glenn Corbett, best known for his rugged Western personalities in Shenandoah (1965) and Chisum (1970), and Christa Lang, now Christa Fuller, Sam’s widow. It is a detective story in the simplest sense, but also a story of political blackmail. To say more would be to spoil the romp around Germany that is the film. Short of Caine (1969), it may be his most underrated or criminally unknown film. In my hunger for more information, I soon discovered that the UCLA Film & Television Archive had a rare 35mm print of the film in its collection. As part of a UCLA grad student film society, I made a pitch and arranged for a screening of the rare film in May of 2011. This event is how I came to know and befriend both Christa Lang Fuller and her daughter, Samantha.

Christa and Samantha are phenomenal storytellers and uncommon individuals, who keep Sammy’s legacy as a husband, father and filmmaker alive today in every word and deed. Since Dead Pigeon, we three have shared many an evening buried in conversation, at art galleries, seeing movies old and new play on the big screen, every moment memorable. It is entirely my pleasure to call them both my friend. Dead Pigeon has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray, remains out-of-print on VHS, and so is difficult to locate. The results of our initial meeting may see this change in years to come, as Sam’s television works come to be discovered and appreciated in the way that they deserve to be.

For the moment, commemorating Sammy’s one hundredth is a personally important gesture, as he is someone who in the past two years of my life I feel I have come to know, without actually ever knowing him at all. Sammy was a pioneer, a rebel spirit, but a gentle giant of the independent world. His films dealt with enduring issues of humanity when few American films were about more than pomp and circumstance. White Dog (1982) still haunts me with its raw, honest metaphor on American race relations, itself an echo of his earlier and better-known film Shock Corridor. By the everyman and for the everyman, his films were and are real in a way that deftly avoids modern criticism. Sammy just resonates.

You don’t need to look hard to find the traces of his influence. Ask any filmmaker of the past twenty-five years to name an American influence and inevitably the name Fuller pops up. In Xan Cassavetes’ documentary film Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, Quentin Tarantino waxes poetic about borrowing videotapes of Fuller films illegally recorded off of the Z Channel, a Los Angeles-based pay cable station focusing on great contemporary and classic films – the first of its kind, before HBO, Showtime and others. In fact, some of Sammy’s friends and admirers have come together on the occasion of his hundredth under the direction of Samantha Fuller, Sam’s daughter, to produce a documentary film in loving tribute to her father. Titled A Fuller Life: The Story of a True American Maverick, the documentary combines excerpts from his autobiography read by the likes of Wim Wenders, Tim Roth and Monte Hellman with footage Sam shot while on the ground in World War II and elsewhere throughout his adventurous lifetime. A Kickstarter project went live earlier this week to secure the last leg of funding necessary to complete the film and to properly preserve all of Sammy’s original 16mm footage shot with his now infamous Bell & Howell camera.

On the occasion of Sammy’s centennial, I can think of no better way to commemorate his work and his life than to do my part to contribute to this bold, important and original documentary feature. If you’re at all like me, you can’t wait to see the finished product.