Helmer Fuller dies at 86

Sam Fuller, iconoclastic director of low-budget films and a cult favorite for 40 years, died Oct. 30 of natural causes at his home in the Hollywood Hills. Fuller, who lived in France until recently, had a stroke several years ago. He was 86. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Fuller’s hard-bitten, low-budget war stories and urban dramas like “The Steel Helmet” and “Pickup on South Street” rarely reached wide popularity with audiences. But he developed a strong following among critics and a generation of filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. He was even more highly regarded in European film circles, especially among the French.

Andrew Sarris dubbed him an “authentic primitive,” and director Jean-Luc Godard, who had Fuller play himself in “Pierrot Le Fou” (1965), allowed him to express his filmmaking philosophy in the movie. “Film is like a battleground,” he told actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, “love, hate, action, violence, death … in one word, emotion.”

The description seemed to encapsulate Fuller’s tabloid style of directing, noted for its amazing traveling camera shots and in-your-face closeups. He made relatively few films over a career that spanned half a century and railed at being called a B-movie director.

Low budgets were not an indicator of quality, he argued — a point that has come to appear prescient. Even the least of his movies is emblematic of a passion, though his pics also found their share of detractors, who claimed the plots were simplistic and the dialogue arch and often unintentionally funny.

But no one is likely to confuse a Sam Fuller film with one of any other A or B director. They are as distinctive as the prominent cigar hanging out of his mouth in many of the films in which he acted, including Wim Wenders’ “The American Friend,” Aki Kaurismaki’s “La Vie de Boheme” and Wenders’ recent “The End of Violence.”

Born Samuel Michael Fuller in Worcester, Mass., on Aug. 12, 1911, his adolescence was spent in New York. He began work by selling newspapers on street corners and, by the age of 14, was a copy boy. He was the youngest crime reporter in the city at age 17, when he worked for the New York Evening Graphic (where he worked with John Huston’s mother Rhea Gore).

Riding the rails

He spent the end of his teens riding the rails cross country, stopping occasionally to do some newspaper work and finally ending up at the San Diego Sun. The effect of these newspaper years was a no-nonsense, attention-getting style of writing — broad strokes and brash statements.

On the side, in the mid-’30s, he wrote pulp fiction novels like “Burn, Baby, Burn,” “Test Tube Baby” and “Make Up and Kiss.” Another novel, “The Dark Page,” a psychological drama published in 1944, was bought by Howard Hawks, though he later sold those rights. The 1952 film “Scandal Sheet” was based on “Dark Page,” but Fuller had nothing to do with its making.

A former editor, Gene Fowler, lured him to Los Angeles, where Fuller worked as a ghostwriter. He got his first screen credit on the low-budget “Gangs of New York” in 1938. A second credit, “Confirm or Deny” in 1941, was a wartime story.

But the real war interrupted his career. He served as a corporal in North Africa and then in Europe. World War II would become the basis for several of his best films, especially “The Big Red One.” His memory was aided by an assignment to write combat reports. Twice wounded, he received a Bronze Star, a Silver Star and a Purple Heart.

After the war he was hired as a staff writer by Warner Bros., but none of his work was produced. Frustrated, he agreed to write a film for low pay if he could also direct. The result was the 1949 low-budget classic “I Shot Jesse James.” Sarris wrote that the film contained “close-ups of an oppressive intensity the cinema has not experienced since Carl Dreyer’s ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc.’ ”

A second film, “The Baron of Arizona,” was shot on a similarly tiny budget, as was the widely lauded “The Steel Helmet,” which in 1950 was the first film about the Korean War. The film, budgeted at $100,000, grossed an astonishing $6 million — even more amazing in that it was an independent release at a time when the studios had a virtual lock on the nation’s theaters (despite the Consent Decree).

Twentieth Century Fox put him under contract, his first effort being “Fixed Bayonets” in 1951, also about Korea. Also for Fox he did the 1953 “Pickup on South Street,” an acclaimed noir story set in New York. His favorite film, “Park Row,” about newspaper corruption in the late 1800s, was independently made, but lost Fuller most of the money he’d earned on “Steel Helmet.”

He kept busy during the 1950s and early ’60s with low-budget Westerns like “Run of the Arrow” and “Forty Guns,” and two hit war movies, “China Gate” and “Merrill’s Marauders.”

In 1963, he made two of his most controversial films. “Shock Corridor” concerns a newspaperman who gets himself committed to an insane asylum to solve a murder; it was followed by “The Naked Kiss,” about a prostitute. Both films were melodramatic, dime-store-novel type films — the mood was deep purple, even though they were in sharp, crisp black-and-white.

Fuller worked intermittently after the failure of these films, occasionally in television, where he directed episodes of “The Virginian” and tried to get two TV series off the ground. His 1969 “Shark!” was re-edited and disowned by the director. The German-made “Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street” in 1972 was barely released in the U.S.

A helping hand

He also doctored scripts without credit, including Peter Bogdanovich’s “Targets.” When Bogdanovich hit big, he helped Fuller get his long-cherished war story “The Big Red One,” based on his own WWII experiences, to the screen. Released in 1980, it revived Fuller’s reputation.

But his career was back on rocky ground with the 1982 “White Dog,” about a dog trained to attack blacks. Based on a Romain Gary novel and produced under the Don Simpson/Michael Eisner regime at Paramount, it was held from release due to protests by the NAACP. Intended to be anti-racist, according to Fuller, “White Dog” was only shown in theaters abroad and on cable in the U.S. (It was finally released in 1991, launching a major Fuller retrospective in New York.)

He continued to write and publish novels throughout the 1980s and, after moving to Paris, directed “Thieves After Dark” and “Street of No Return.” In 1989 he made “Day of Reckoning,” part of a 12-part television series.

This summer, Fuller was the subject of a major retrospective at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles, which he attended.

He is survived by his second wife, Christa Lang, and daughter Samantha.

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