The American Cinematheque’s new series — “Two-Fisted Tales: The Explosive Cinema of Sam Fuller” — kicks off Friday with a 40th anniversary screening of “Forty Guns.” The honoree will attend the Saturday screening of the picture and a latenight double bill of his first two features, “I Shot Jesse James” and “The Baron of Arizona.” “Guns” co-star Gene Barry also will attend.
Fuller truly earned the series sobriquet. A crime reporter in the 1930s, he segued into pulp fiction writing and screenplays before World War II. Then he joined the infantry and trooped through North Africa and Europe, earning a chest-full of medals, including the Purple Heart.
Between 1949 and 1989, Fuller created a distinctive body of hard-edged, provocative and unsentimental Westerns, newspaper stories, combat films and crime mellers. They were terse, yet poetic, prompting critic Andrew Sarris to dub him a “true American primitive.”
His films combine a raw beauty with a sense of truth that’s disarming. Though he rarely got the “A” assignment and often worked for indie producers, he made some great films that became enduring classics. All war films that followed his 1951 Korean-war set “The Steel Helmet” owe a debt to Fuller, and such films as “Pickup on South Street,” “Underworld USA” and especially “Shock Corridor” are gems that require no defining or restrictive adjectives of genre or scale.
Fuller’s influence on subsequent generations of filmmakers has been palpable, with such diverse talents as John Cassavetes and Quentin Tarantino acknowledging their debt and his influence. It wasn’t that his stories were exceptional. They were good and sometimes better. But he was a great storyteller and somehow figured a way to bend the camera to fit his brusque, ironic and colorful perspective.
Impressive guest list
The series, which runs though Aug. 30, has attracted an unusual and impressive set of guest program hosts that include Paul Mazursky, Glenne Headly and Joe Dante. There also will be a special evening devoted to “The Big Red One,” the Lee Marvin starrer chronicling Fuller’s infantry experience. Considered by many his masterwork, “Red” was released theatrically in a version considerably truncated from the filmmaker’s concept, and there have been renewed recent efforts to have it revived as it was initially intended to be seen.
However, the last words on Sam always belong to Sam, and nothing says it better than what he told Jean-Paul Belmondo about cinema in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou”: “Film is like a battleground. Love, hate, action, violence, death. In a word, Emotion!”
Further information on the series is available by contacting the Cinematheque at (213) 466-3456. All screenings are at the Raleigh Studio.