CRIME & THE CITY SOLUTION, part III
“Isn’t there a story about a guy all alone in a desert for years and years, and he meets an ocean? I sure like the way you kiss.” – Cuddles, Underworld, U.S.A.
Noir City’s third week is a triple-threat of Samuel Fuller. For a film noir snob like myself, there are some quibbles I could have with these choices. For starters, the three films range from 1959 to 1964, and there is a case to be made for the movement having run its course already, with Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly providing the ultimate abstraction of the form (life is so incredibly meaningless that the destruction of it is no longer down to man vs. man, but man vs. a power bigger than us all) and Orson Welles’ 1958 masterpiece Touch of Evil perfecting it.
My second quibble is that Fuller’s pulpy gusto, particularly in this period, is not very noirish. Film noir’s inhabitants are often restrained, being held back by the sins of the past and a code of conduct (or a measure of fear?) that prevents them from throwing themselves fully into any experience. There is always a guard up, some kind of veneer, that keeps them from enjoying life. A Fuller character loves life, and he doesn’t mind if he looks foolish or if anyone sees the big, meaty, romantic heart beating in his breast.
Still, these Samuel Fuller movies are like a nice addendum to the noir tradition, and we’ll let them slide, because any excuse to see more Fuller is a good one.
The first movie in the series is The Crimson Kimono (1959), a cop drama set in Los Angeles. Fuller opens on a fictional Main Street, zooming through its seedy blocks to a strip club where Sugar Torch is just getting off the stage. She heads back to her dressing room, but someone is inside with a gun. She tries to run, but Sugar is shot down in the middle of the street. Enter our detectives, Charlie and Joe, played by Glen Corbett and James Shigeta (follow the imdb link above to check any actor resumes). Charlie is your average white meathead, and Joe is a Japanese American with a touch more sensitivity. They’ve been friends since they were in the same unit in the Korean War. Fuller makes several visual side notes about the war, including showing memorials for other Asians who served in the armed forces and a sly revelation of an Army propaganda sign on the streets of Little Tokyo (which pops up again in the background of Underworld, U.S.A.). In fact, Fuller shows a surprising sensitivity for race in this film, using real locations, Asian actors, and shining a spotlight on the friendship between the detectives and the questions of racism and interracial romance that come between them. In fact, he is so interested in this side trip, he pretty much lets the murder case drop for most of the final reel of the film. You see, the key witness is a young painter named Chris (Victoria Shaw), and Charlie falls for her pretty hard. Joe does, too, and the guy can’t help but lure her away just by being much more well-versed in the sorts of things an artist would be interested in. He doesn’t want to act on it, but the two can’t resist, and when the pair finally reveals their feelings to Charlie, Joe misinterprets the various reactions that follow as racism. Everything becomes wrapped up in Joe figuring out he’s wrong.
The murder does get solved. The plot is tied around the participants in creating a geisha-themed stage act for Sugar Torch, which is where the titular crimson kimono comes from. The hunt for the killer culminates in a chase through a parade in Little Tokyo, and its resolution directly relates to Joe’s getting his head straight. Fuller is always fun. He’s not interested in subtlety. Even when Joe talks about the way his artist father delicately painted cobwebs, Fuller hits you over the head with the poetry. But that’s the point of his movies. The audience straps itself in and rides with him. Unfortunately, the print the NW Film Center acquired was of inconsistent quality, and it was often badly spliced--not a good thing when you consider that Fuller’s editing here was rivaling Seijun Suzuki for jump cutting. Still, nothing bad enough to really mar the experience.
The second movie is 1961’s Underworld, U.S.A., which I ended up watching on video instead of going to the theatre (saving both time and money.) This is one of Fuller’s most tightly scripted films. It opens with a quick assault on the viewer. Our protagonist, age 14, is Tolly Devlin, and when he sees a drunk stumble out of a bar, he takes the opportunity and robs him. Another kid sees and demands a cut. When Tolly refuses, the kid smashes a bottle into his eye. The implication is obvious: we are Tolly, and Sam Fuller is going to put our vision under attack.
Immediately after, Tolly sees his father beaten in the street, a spectacular sequence played in shadow. He becomes determined to find the men who killed his old man, and we jump ahead thirteen years to when Tolly has become a safecracker. Played by Cliff Robertson, he’s a collection of tough guy tics, single-minded in his pursuit of his revenge. He ends up becoming part of a larger scheme, though: the men he is after are the heads of the city’s crime syndicate, and themselves part of a much larger, national organization that hides behind the façade of big business. Rather than take the conventional route of vengeance, Tolly gets involved with the crusading district attorney trying to topple the group, and sets an operatic drama into motion. The only problem is, he can’t keep his hands as clean as he thought, and jumping out of the game he started isn’t going to be so easy. He thinks there is a sweet life waiting for him with Cuddles (Dolores Dorn), the prostitute he first used for information and then fell in love with, but his gangster pals may have something to say about that. You don’t go from being tough as nails to soft as a pillow, and just as he opened with a striking visual cue, Fuller closes with one last image to drive this point home: Tolly, dead in an alleyway, his hand on his stomach, closed in a fist. The camera zooms in on all five knuckles, one final punch to the audience’s face.
Finally, this Thursday, the series will be showing 1964’s The Naked Kiss. I’ve already seen this film, thanks to the folks at Criterion, but it’s always worth another viewing. The Naked Kiss is Fuller at his gonzo best. Any movie that opens with a bald woman having her wig ripped off is okay by me! The plot here is actually pretty noirish: someone with a checkered past runs to a small, rural town to try to escape it. Except in this case it’s a not some chisel-jawed anti-hero, it’s a tired-out prostitute, Kelly (Constance Towers). As is to be expected, once her past is revealed, there is nothing Kelly can do to live it down. Even working with handicapped children isn't enough to make people forget you used to sell your body. All Kelly wants is a little love, but if there is anything film noir has taught us, we can’t escape our own misdeeds. I find The Naked Kiss’s story to be a little shaky at times, with the aforementioned tendency of Fuller’s to jump from point A to point C coming to full bloom, but instead of having a sought-after object as his Maguffin to hang the story on, the story in The Naked Kiss itself is its own Maguffin: just an unnecessary object for Sam Fuller to drape his crazy ideas over. Don’t ask why you just got socked in the jaw, just savor the taste of blood in your mouth.
Bonus Beats: A couple of days ago, I posted my new destop wallpaper, and I kept meaning to post the previous one, because it's a pretty cool image (which is why I chose it, obviously), and it serves my ego to imagine you care:
It's Scarlett Johansson.
Current Sountrack: The Smiths, Rank; Morrissey, Introducing Morrissey VHS
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2004 Jamie S. Rich