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Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Samuel Fuller

Samuel Fuller was one of those rare artistic voices in the history of American cinema who completely transformed the conceptualisation of what cinema can mean. Although many did not understand the significance of his work at the time, it inspired artists from various backgrounds – ranging from French New Wave revolutionaries like Jean-Luc Godard as well as modern pioneers such as Quentin Tarantino.

The impact of Fuller’s films is immeasurable, a fact that has prompted Martin Scorsese to declare that his Fuller and cinema are synonymous. Scorsese once commented: “It’s been said that if you don’t like the Rolling Stones, then you just don’t like rock and roll. By the same token, I think that if you don’t like the films of Sam Fuller, then you just don’t like cinema. Or at least you don’t understand it.”

Modern audiences might struggle to figure out why Fuller’s oeuvre is so important but it is important to contextualise his work within the frameworks of his time. By looking at it in such a light, it becomes apparent that Fuller’s masterpieces achieved something that very few films can do – they contained individual elements which came together to form a gestalt.

In order to get a better understanding of the filmmaking genius of Samuel Fuller, we take a look at six definitive films from his illustrious filmography.

Samuel Fuller’s six definitive films:

I Shot Jesse James (1949)

This 1949 western was Fuller’s fantastic directorial debut explores the assassination of Jesse James by Robert Ford, imagining how Ford’s life changed after the incident. Reed Hadley did a fantastic job as the infamous James while John Ireland stepped up to fill Ford’s shoes.

At the time, Fuller was a writer who dreamt of making films but never got a chance until he showed his script to a producer with the condition that he would have the liberty to direct. Thankfully, this gem was made available to newer audiences by the Criterion Collection.

Pickup on South Street (1953)

One of Fuller’s more popular works, Pickup on South Street is a hardboiled film noir masterpiece that taps into the fundamental nature of Cold War paranoia. It investigates the sociocultural implications of crime in a world that is more concerned about Communist ties.

As is the case with most of Fuller’s works, many critics failed to understand his artistic vision at the time of the film’s release but subsequent re-evaluations have ranked it among his very best. It has also inspired other directors like Robert Bresson who borrowed from Pickup on South Street while making Pickpocket.

Underworld U.S.A. (1961)

Graduating from the classic conventions of noir to the subversive techniques of neo-noir, Underworld U.S.A. is a gritty revenge drama revolving around a 14-year-old boy who vows to kill the criminals who beat his father to death. The only caveat is that they rise to high-ranking positions in the syndicate before he comes of age.

Just like the machinations of violence in the external world, Fuller’s visual narrative is fuelled by a destabilising force which contributes to the cinematic experience. According to one report, an actual gangster saw the film and told Fuller: “If only my son would have that kind of affection for me!”

Shock Corridor (1963)

In what is probably the apotheosis of Samuel Fuller’s directorial career, he constructs an immaculately crafted story about a journalist who ends up inside a mental institution while chasing down leads for a murder. By doing so, he enters a dangerous game where the lines between sanity and delusions are blurred.

Psychological thrillers have always been popular, even around the time of Shock Corridor’s release due to the works of masters such as Alfred Hitchcock. However, modern additions to the genre owe more to Fuller’s genius than any other film from that era.

The Big Red One (1980)

This was the film that Samuel Fuller had wanted to make all his life, a manifestation of the horrors he experienced during the Second World War as a soldier in the 1st Infantry Division. Although financial restraints and other factors contributed to a heavily compromised edition being released in 1980, a fully restored version was released in 2004.

Fuller tackles war like an absurdist, repeatedly reminding us that the gunfire and the crisscross of bullets are more indicative of the military-industrial complex’s churning gears than anything else. In subsequent years, it has been hailed as a war epic which is neither sentimental nor distant.

White Dog (1982)

An adaptation of Romain Gary’s novel, White Dog might just be the crowning jewel of Fuller’s filmography which is increasingly relevant for modern audiences. It is an allegorical masterpiece featuring a Black dog trainer who has to figure out how to tame a vicious white dog.

The only problem is that the dog has been trained to attack Black individuals on sight, showing how racism is passed down and cultivated in irreparable ways. White Dog is Fuller’s ominous analysis of American racism and the irreconcilable divide that it has created.