Part Hollywood film lore, part ethnographic documentary, “Tigrero” never quite decides what kind of film it’s going to be, as viewers interested in the Karaja people of Brazil’s Mato Grosso may not be the same viewers fascinated by hearing Sam Fuller tell Jim Jarmusch about a 1950s project that was never made. This is a genuine oddity.
It seems that in 1954, after he made “Hell and High Water” and before “House of Bamboo,” Fuller was asked by Darryl F. Zanuck to tackle a book, “Tigrero,” which had been purchased by 20th Century Fox. Zanuck wanted only the title of the book, not the plot, and sent Fuller to Brazil to get some ideas for a screenplay.
Taking with him a 16mm camera, 75 boxes of cigars and two cases of Polish vodka, Fuller arrived at a village between two rivers, the Araguaia and the Rio das Mortes; he was one of the first “gringos” to meet the Karaja people, who greeted him cordially and allowed him to film their lives.
He returned to Hollywood and wrote a screenplay designed for a formidable cast. John Wayne would play Tigrero, a guide and hunter; Tyrone Power would be a convict whose loyal wife, played by Ava Gardner, frees him from a Brazilian prison after killing a guard. They flee to the jungle with Tigrero as their guide, and there Gardner discovers that Power “loves himself a little more than he loves her.”
Fox’s insurance company balked at the idea of three big stars working on such a dangerous location, and the project was abandoned, although some of the footage Fuller shot in 1954 was used as inserts in his later mental-hospital thriller, “Shock Corridor.”
Feisty, excitable and brimming with enthusiasm, Fuller relates this story, and other ideas he had for “Tigrero,” to an ultracool Jarmusch as they sit in the Karaja village. But most of the film is taken up with Jarmusch’s reaction to the Karaja, and with Fuller’s talking to villagers who recognize now-dead relatives after a screening of the 1954 footage.
It’s all fascinating, if a little overextended. A must for the fest route, with limited distrib indicated, but possibly a life on video and certainly on TV , “Tigrero” brings to light a forgotten footnote in Hollywood history in an exotic format.