If Samuel Fuller's autobiography A Third Face came with a concordance, two words would likely pop up more than any others, more than “movie” or “film” or even “action”: the adjective “helluva” and the noun “yarn”usually in conjunction. Fuller's life was just such a beast. The youngest crime reporter on New York's Park Row, while still in high school, Fuller went on to survive D-Day and roll through Europe with his beloved infantry unit, the Big Red One.
He returned to make movies that hammered at the nation's psychic wounds with boldface and clenched fists. In Fuller's hands, pulp becomes a native idiom, a vehicle for attacking social and political evils in plots that play like Page One grabbers. Bald Hooker Exposes Blueblood Pervert! Land of Opportunity Turns Psycho Ward! His taut 1953 crime drama Pickup on South Street lacks the hysterical intensity of later classics like 1964's Shock Corridor, an America-as-asylum fever fit that seems ahead even of our time. But Pickup's political iconoclasm, coupled with Fuller's refusal to condemn his career criminalsor to glorify the lawmen tailing themwas still enough to put the director in J. Edgar Hoover's crosshairs.
The movie starts in high gear, as pickpocket Richard Widmark (a surly antihero even by today's standards) nimbly fingers a woman's purse on a subway. Turns out the purse was carrying top-secret microfilm meant for the Commies. Soon both the Feds and the femme fatale (Jean Peters) are finding their way to Widmark's waterfront shanty, hoping to appeal to his better nature. He doesn't have one. A cop and an FBI agent tell him how dangerous the microfilm is and how much his country needs him. For a tiny moment, Widmark acts like he's going to buy it, dammitand then he gets his trademark cave-fish smirk. “Are you waving the flag at me?” he taunts, happy as ever to be a self-centered prick.
The crime plot, with Peters' boyfriend Richard Kiley leading a ring of scowling Commie thugs, is less persuasive than the grubby gangland milieu Fuller erects around it. Especially strong is his laying-out of the underworld code that binds his night travelersnot honor among thieves, exactly, so much as no hard feelings. When a professional stoolie (Thelma Ritter) rats him out, Widmark doesn't bear a grudge: Pickpockets gotta steal, stoolies gotta rat. He saves his fury for the creep who plugs her in her squalid flat. Ritter earns a send-off worthy of her scene-stealing performance, spending her last moments on earth defiantly resting her tired feet. Like Fuller's best, the scene is a model of blunt, smashingly effective craft, free of sap and sentimentality.
Criterion's DVD edition makes Joe McDonald's black-and-white cinematography pop, especially in the gritty waterfront exteriors. And the extras capture Fuller's garrulous, room-filling personality. Chomping a foot-long stogie, eyes sharp and twinkling, the late director is shown discussing the movie in a brief but evocative Richard Schickel “interview,” which Schickel wisely cedes to Fuller's pungent anecdotes and staccato spiel.
Since Criterion continues to do so well by Fuller's work, let's set America's top DVD company a truly heroic task: finding the four-and-a-half-hour cut of his badly trimmed 1980 magnum opus The Big Red One. Fuller's autobiography insists the full version sits gathering dust in the vaults at Warner Bros. If indeed it existsand if Criterion could put it out, possibly in cahoots with its sometime film-distribution partner Rialto Filmsit would make a far greater gift to film preservation than Apocalypse Now Redux. It would make a helluva yarn.
♦ Speaking of which, no fan of movie history at its wildest and woolliest should miss a documentary with the eye-grabbing title Mau Mau Sex Sex. Its subjects, trash-movie veterans Dan Sonney and David F. Friedman, learned at the knee of the so-called Forty Thieves, the legendary hucksters and hustlers who built American exploitation filmmaking. At the same time they were fleecing rubes with softcore “clap operas” and ersatz safari shockers, these sharpies pioneered “independent film” a half-century before it became a buzzterm.
Ted Bonnitt's affectionate film dawdles too long over footage of Sonney's and Friedman's humdrum home livesalthough it's nice to have so much material on Sonney and Friedman's wife Carol, both of whom died after the film was made in 2001. Put Sonney and Friedman together, however, and the crusty carnies swap stories and good-natured ribbing like seasoned vaudevillians. Funnier still are choice clips from a century of crackpot cinema: nudist-camp follies, child-bride exposés, even the infamous tongue-ripping scene from Herschell Gordon Lewis' Blood Feast (which Friedman produced).
Judging from its sturdy single-disc edition, the Chicago mail-order giant Facets truly understands the meaning of “supplements.” There's a whole extra track of raconteurs Sonney and Friedman commenting at length, while director Bonnitt and his co-producer, grindhouse historian Eddie Muller, fill in any gaps in Exploitation 101 on a separate commentary. Vintage trailers make a delightful bonus. While a definitive documentary remains to be made on Friedman, the Forty Thieves, and the golden age of celluloid sleaze, Mau Mau Sex Sex will do do fine fine.