Saturday, December 19, 2009

Someone Asked Me To Be An Expert In Something Part 2: Underworld USA

As you might remember from last month, thanks to my work as a print critic someone has inexplicably asked me to program the front half of a film noir retrospective. In response to this baffling turn of events, last month I played Out Of The Past. Today I'm doing Underworld USA, one of Sam Fuller's most overlooked films. Once again apologies for syntax it was written for speech yadayadayada hope you enjoy.

Of Sam Fuller, Martin Scorsese once said, “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 don’t like the cinema. Or at least you don’t understand it.” I happen to agree.

Sam Fuller is one of the most important and least well known directors in American film. His influence can be felt in innumerable filmmakers work, including unsurprisingly the likes of Scorsese and Jim Jaramusch… and even less surprisingly Quentin Tarintino. He has also ended up an influence over seas, he was one of the first directors that the French wrote about as an Auteur; and has been cited as an influence by Goddard and Bertolucci. There’s another well known Rock axiom that states, “Though only a thousand people bought The Velvet Underground’s first album, all of them started bands of their own.”

By that token, comparatively few people have seen Sam Fuller films, but he left his mark on everyone who has. But Fuller still maintains a style that is distinctly his own, perhaps summed up best when he said, speaking about phoniness in Hollywood War movies when compared to his own “ I don't cry because that guy over there got hit. I cry because I'm gonna get hit next. All that phony heroism is a bunch of baloney when they're shooting at you.” Despite all his influence, there remains something truly unique about the Fuller style. There are countless imitators but not a single duplicator.

Fuller wasn’t just a movie man, he was a pioneer journalist in the early decades of the twentieth century, and then fought across Europe serving in The Big Red One, before eventually turning to movie making. This coincidently makes his Autobiography one of the most entertaining I have ever read.

Once he started making films, he started making every kind he could In his career he made Westerns, Gangster films, Noirs, War films, and a few ones so strange they can’t really be labeled by any genre. After finding the studio system too constricting Fuller became one of the first independent American Filmmakers.

So after so much big talk about Fuller, just what is it that makes him so special? Many things set Fuller apart from the filmmakers of the time, his bold style, his utter lack of sentimentality, and his fearless nature in tackling subject matter that the production code and mores of the day normally considered taboo. He was truly ahead of his time in just about every way possible.

Fuller wrote about his harshness in his own inimitable style in The Third Face. “I’m not dealing her with kings, ravishing princesses, charming princes who ar born with castles, jewels, and juicy legacies. Ever since my characters where born, their lives have been harsh and unfar. They have to fight to survive. They are anarchists turned against a system that betrayed them.”

But to me its his energy, some would argue his vulgarity, that really makes him special.

And that’s why I chose to show Underworld USA today. Its not one of his most well known films, nor is it one of his most respected. Its almost something of a curiosity, a B Side. Naked Kiss better showcases how ahead of the time he was in subject matter, it takes him 80 minutes to accomplish what it takes Von Trier two hours and forty minutes to not accomplish in Dogville. Shock Corridor portrays his radical techniques. Pick Up On South Street is a showcase for his hard bitten style and unsentimental treatment of his material, as well as being for my money one of the best Noir films ever made, and arguably the best film the fifties produced. But I think its because it doesn’t have those distracting elements that Underworld acts as such a supreme showcase for all the talents that made Fuller such a special filmmaker.

The story of the film you’re going to see today really isn’t anything that special or original. It’s the average revenge story something you’ve probably seen a dozen times before. but the way its told, the stark images, the lean story, the way it flies at you off the screen is really something incredible.

The things that do set Underworld USA apart is the way it shows Organized crime as something truly institutional. It really wasn’t until Coppola’s Godfather that most movies began to look at Organized Crime as something intertwined in American life. As Fuller put it, “Not Thugs, but tax paying executives.” The old school gangsters of the thirties boom where always individualists who burned out as they tried to one up society, think Cagney bursting into flames as he yowled, “Made it Ma, Top Of The World.” By Underworld USA the paradigm has shifted as one of the gangsters says in the film…

“There’ll always be people like us. But as long as we don’t have any records on paper, as long as we run National Projects with legitimate business operations and pay our taxes on legitimate income and donate to charities and run church bazaars we’ll win the war. We Always have.”

In Fuller’s world crime and corruption are not the aberrations they’re the norm. It’s a thoroughly noir world view. There is no way to escape the darkness because there is no alternative to it. Its all dark.

The dark unmistakably noir heart of the movie though is its revenge, and the way Tolly’s utter single minded pursuit of it drives off or destroys everything else in his life. Robertson, best known today for his portrayal as the kindly Uncle Ben in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films, radiates a kind of menace and driven obsessions shocking to anyone not familiar with his earlier career. Robertson captures the mania perfectly. Fuller reports that a real life Mob Boss upon viewing the film said to Fuller, “If only my Son had that kind of affection for me.”

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