Sam Fuller's narratives investigate the ways that belonging to a social group simultaneously functions to sustain and nurture individual identity and, conversely, to pose all sorts of emotional and ideological threats to that identity. Fuller's characters are caught between a solitude that is both liberating and debilitating, and a communality that is both supportive and oppressive. Unlike Howard Hawks, whose films suggest the triumph of the group over egoism, Fuller is more cynical and shows that neither isolation nor group membership is without its hardships and tensions.
Many of the films touch upon a broad kind of belonging, as in membership in a nation?specifically the United States (although China Gate comments on several other nationalities)?as a driving idea and ideal, national identity becoming a reflection of personal identity. For example, in Fuller films about the building of the West, such as Forty Guns, The Baron of Arizona, or Run of the Arrow, the central characters initially understand their own quests as necessarily divergent from the quest of America for its own place in the world. Even though the course of the films suggests the moral and emotional losses that such divergence leads to, the films also imply that there is something inadequate in the American quest itself, in the ways such a quest undercuts its own purity by finding strength in a malevolent violence (the readiness of ?ordinary? people in The Baron of Arizona to lynch at a moment's notice), in mistrust and prejudice (unbridled racism in Run of the Arrow), or in political corruption.
Similarly, in films such as House of Bamboo, Underworld USA, and Pickup on South Street, about criminal organizations infiltrated by revenging outsiders, the narrative trajectory will begin by suggesting the moral separation of good guys and bad guys, but will then continue to demonstrate their parallelism, their interweaving, even their blurring. For example, in Underworld USA, the criminals and crimefighters resemble each other in their methods, in their cold calculation and determination, and in their bureaucratic organization. Tolly, the film's central character, may agree to map his own desire for revenge onto the crimefighters' desire to eliminate a criminal element, but the film resolutely refuses to unambiguously propagandize the public good over personal motives.
At a narrower level of group concern, Fuller's films examine the family as a force that can be nurturing but is often stifling and riddled with contradictions. Not accidentally, many of Fuller's films concentrate on childless or parentless figures: the family here is not given but something that one loses or that one has to grope toward. Often, the families that do exist are, for Fuller, like the nation-state, initially presenting an aura of innocent respectability but ultimately revealing a corruption and rotted perversity. Indeed, The Naked Kiss connects questions of political value to family value in its story of a woman discovering that her fianc?, the town's benefactor and a model citizen, is actually a child molester. Similarly, Verboten! maps the story of postwar America's self-image as benefactor to the world onto an anti-love love story. A German woman initially marrys a G.I. for financial support and then finds she really loves him, only to discover that he no longer loves her.
Love, to be sure, is a redemptive promise in Fuller's films but it is run through by doubt, anger, mistrust, deception. Any reciprocity or sharing that Fuller's characters achieve comes at a great price, ranging from mental and physical pain to death. For example, in Underworld USA, Tolly is able to drop his obsessional quest and give himself emotionally to the ex-gangster's moll, Cuddles, only when he is at a point of no return that will lead him to his death. Against the possibility of love (which, if it ever comes, comes so miraculously as to call its own efficacy into doubt), Fuller's films emphasize a world where everyone is potentially an outsider and therefore a mystery and even a menace. No scene in Fuller's cinema encapsulates this better than the opening of Pickup on South Street where a filled subway car becomes the site of intrigued and intriguing glances as a group of strangers warily survey each other as potential victims and victimizers. Echoing the double-entendre of the title (the pickup is political?the passing on of a secret microfilm?as well as sexual), the opening scene shows a blending of sexual desire and aggression as a sexual come-on reveals itself to be a cover for theft, and passive passengers reveal themselves to be government agents.
In a world of distrust, where love can easily betray, the Fuller character survives either by fighting for the last vestiges of an honest, uncorrupted love (in the most optimistic of the films) or, in the more cynical cases, by displacing emotional attachment from people to ideas; to myths of masculine power in Forty Guns; to obsessions (for example, Johnny Barratt's desire in Shock Corridor to win the Pulitzer Prize even if that desire leads him to madness); to mercenary self-interest; to political or social ideals; and ultimately, to a professionalism that finally means doing nothing other than doing your job right without thinking about it. This is especially the case in Fuller's war films, which show characters driven to survive for survival's sake, existence being defined in Merrill's Marauders as "put[ting] one foot in front of the other."
Fuller's style, too, is one based on tensions: a conflict of techniques that one can read as an enactment for the spectator of Fuller themes. Fuller is both a director of rapid, abrupt, shocking montage, as in the alternating close-ups of robber and victim in I Shot Jesse James, and a director who uses extremely long takes incorporating a complex mix of camera movement and character action. Fuller's style is the opposite of graceful; his style seems to suggest that in a world where grace provides little redemption, its utilization would be a kind of lie. Thus, a stereotypically beautiful shot like the balanced image of Mount Fujiyama in House of Bamboo might seem a textbook example of the well-composed nature shot but for the fact that the mountain is framed through the outstretched legs of a murdered soldier.?DANA B. POLAN