Fuller's career passed from the obscurity of B pictures to intense critical controversy. But he made no concessions to inteqrreters. Many of his films were made at desperate speed and with little money, and yet they boast some of the most complex and successful traveling camera shots ever put on film. Although his material is at one level gutter plots, Fuller is the complete author— “written, produced, and directed by . . .”
His opponents call him barbarous and even fascist, and his supporters have quoted Hobbes to elucidate him. In truth he is barbarous and that is why he is unique. No other American director has described American experience with such unremitting and participatory relish for its competitive corruption. Nicholas Garnham’s monograph on Fuller constantly relates the films to the works of Norman Mailer. In many ways the men are different, but Fuller is familiar with the creeping madness that Mailer warns against.
His films are staggering visual achievements. But there is no assurance of the director’s being aware of what he is doing. It is a good thing that he is not, for there is a vulgarity in Fuller that would move swiftly from the impulsive to the ponderous if he once listened to his best critics. Fuller may be a tabloid director, as witness the sense of identity and commitment in Park Row, a newspaper stoiy. That sort of outrageous vulgarity has always to resist respectability and seriousness; self-consciousness is the greatest enemy. If the director does not need to comprehend his own art, then it is not art—but raw cinema. In that case, the real meaning of Fuller’s films is in the minds of the mass audience from whom he has never been distracted. But one thing is clear: from the Civil War to the Vietnam War, Fuller has dealt with ever)’ major phase of American experience and returned with the conclusion that the world is a madhouse where ferocity alone survives.
In 1977, he was honored by Wim Wenders by being cast as the ultimate cigar-chewing gangster in The American Friend, and by being given a magnificent death roll down a flight of steps. At the same time, he had the go-ahead to make a long-cherished project, The Big Red One, which proved to be an immaculate study of frailties and courage in the infantry, a film made as if the Second World War had ended ten minutes ago.
White Dog was banned for a while, and consequently defended and oveqrraised—in fact, it shows some decline in Fuller. His subsequent films had a very limited release. But Fuller kept active, his cigar erect, acting in a few films: Scotch Myths (82, Murray Grigor); Red Dawn (84, John Milius); Slapstick of Another Kind (84, Steven Paul); and Fa Vie de Bohème (92, Aki Kaurismaki). He also supplied the story for Let’s Get Harry (86, Alan Smithee).
Fuller is one of the most harsh artistic presences in the cinema. Like that preoccupied, cigar-smoking greyhead in dark glasses at the party in Pierrot le Fou, he concedes only that film is a battle-ground of alienated lmrnan energies all pursuing their private obsessions to the point of exhaustion.
His films are like scenarios made from communi-ties of rats, the camera itself a king rat, scarred and hurt, but still swooping in and out of every scuffle, commanding the spectacle and jumping in for gross close-ups like a thumb on a bug. Fuller s meaning is expressed by this supremely active style: that every man must be his own protagonist, and that this free-for-all morality is exactly mirrored in the larger political arena. In turn, he had been involved in crime journalism and war and his great originality was in seeing the constant criminal element in life—whether in the American city, on the range, or in even’ theatre of war. The community is interchangeable with the criminal underworld.
In Piekup on South Street. House of Bamboo, and Underworld USA, the police and the crooks are observed as identical instruments without even the saving gloss of cynicism. His central characters are invariably psychoties, chronically hostile to organization, thriving on double-cross, and resolving doubts through brutality. Their fate is usually absurd; the means contradictory. Merrill s Marauders survive uselessly. O’Meara in Run of the Arrow returns to his own people without any hope. In House of Bamboo it is Robert Ryan’s single humane action that destroys him—and though we appreciate that fact, Fuller himself does not endorse it. The relentless grilling of his camera almost compels the gesture and then drives on victorious.