BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • May 22nd, 2007 •

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Fox War Classics
Two discs, only available separately.

Back in 1957, my mother took me to see Sam Fuller’s CHINA GATE in the mistaken belief it was a Nat King Cole musical. I had never watched anyone bleed in black and white before. It’s even possible I cried and was taken home early as a result. Somehow this abstract vision of the visceral upset me. Still, the stylistic melange of violent action and pulpy melodrama with a sense of existential abandon dazzled me. I also recall a delirious pan up Angie Dickinson’s legs while wall posters of Stalin and Mao seemed to gaze on lustfully. Decades later I walked into an elevator at NYU film school and there was Sam Fuller, puffing away at a stogie.”You’re the reason I’m here,” I told him. He took another puff and said, “Just keep on doing it, kid!”

Under the rubric of Fox War Classics, two early films by Fuller, from 1951 and 1953 respectively, have finally come out on DVD. Made for that most idiosyncratic of studio moguls Darryl Zanuck, they relate to the cinema of their time with all the necessary and passionate disagreement of a Molotov cocktail at a dinner party. Both also fall within the parameters of the Cold War. The first, FIXED BAYONETS!, set in an ice-encrusted mountain pass during the Korean war, has a spiritual intensity and matter of fact realism that is unparalleled for a Hollywood production. The second, HELL AND HIGH WATER, a studio assignment in Cinemascope and color, in its mixture of testosterone and primal dread achieves a point blank, emotionally charged camera style that comes across as fugitive poetry.

Fuller came to Darryl Zanuck’s attention for THE STEEL HELMET, a hard-hitting war movie produced for less than $100,00 in 1950. THE STEEL HELMET underscores a mock documentary look, necessitated by poverty, with images, such as the outstretched arm of a Buddha supporting blood transfusion tubes, that seem to take on a meditative transcendence. Zanuck told anyone within earshot he had never seen anything like it, that the writer-director was a “natural”, then put Fuller under contract and ready for action in an office near him on the Fox lot.

FIXED BAYONETS! (20th Century-Fox)
1951 / 92 minutes / black & white / aspect ratio 1:33

FIXED BAYONETS! is, as Zanuck said at the time, “a tough action picture”. It’s also a study of human frailty and determination in the face of overwhelming odds. The film has a rough-and-tumble spareness in its minimalist view of war that reminds one of the low budget constraints of THE STEEL HELMET. Except what motivates Fuller’s rigor is not lack of funds, but the necessity of creating a specific environment that is completely internal. With this in mind, Fuller used the resources of a large Hollywood studio not to build sets of realistic contours, but instead filled the sound stage with ice machines, reenacting the sub-zero temperatures for his actors that fighting men actually faced in Korea. (Apparently, some couldn’t handle the extreme cold, so Fuller wrapped them in blankets and put them in hospital cots to keep them on the payroll.)

The story is simple. Corporal Denno (Richard Basehart) is deathly afraid, not of the enemy, but of himself. Denno’s every footstep is indicative of doubt, reinforced by the rough grisaille of ice and rock surrounding him. He is a member of a rearguard action, initiated to cover the division’s withdrawal from the enemy in the midst of a blistering winter storm. As his Lieutenant and then the First Sergeant fall to enemy bullets, Denno stands next in line to command.

The film examines the idea of courage and questions whether such a thing even exists. Hence, the brutal use of close-ups and extended takes of almost unremitting tension. This being a Fuller film, a human being in war is seen as a series of often- conflicting roles one has to adapt to as best as possible. Just when you get to know who these characters are, they up and die on you.

There’s a sequence as frightening as any I’ve seen where a soldier crawls across an icy mine field to help a wounded comrade, each movement having the potential of instant death. (Fuller later said he wanted to film the sequence as a single overhead tracking shot, but the technical limitations of the time–this was before lightweight 35mm cameras–as well as the editing habits of Hollywood, interfered.) The severe framing, often focusing only on the actor’s face and hands, is as expressive in its terseness as the conclusion of Robert Bresson’s PICKPOCKET. There is also a similar feeling of salvation coming from inside a person’s essence that previously seemed nonexistent.

For Fuller, the dialogue and acting is surprisingly naturalistic. He gives us incisive character information by focusing on the shrug of a shoulder or the way a NCO lights his cigar. In particular, I love the scene between Denno and Sgt. Rock where they talk about what it means to command men. Gene Evans, as Sgt Rock, represses his natural bluster and turns his voice into a sleek whisper, suggesting a life spent in the Army, untethered yet part of something solid.

Fuller and Lucien Ballard, the cinematographer, differentiate the lighting for each actor, giving a sense of the roles they are playing. Basehart is covered with soft filtered light, implying a certain innocence, while Gene Evans’s face has sharp, contrasty shadows. The shifting light, harshly pliant, that fills the icy cave the platoon takes refuge in, seems to overwhelm the actors and move the story forward on its own. Sgt. Rock puts out a fire, the camera pans towards the smoky embers, then the shot cuts to a flare floating on the night sky as the white hills seem to move outward and upward, issuing forth gunfire. (It turns out to be Chinese soldiers in hooded camouflage suits.) It is at moments like these that Fuller’s film evokes a kind of blank verse, clear-eyed view of nature and violence immemorial.

It’s somewhat paradoxical to describe such a pummeling cascade of images as beautiful. The faces of enlisted men that keep vanishing in a blaze of explosives are the only anchor to any kind of linear reality or narrative. There are alternating sequences of fury and quietude, using the abstract frozen landscapes and dim shapes of battle so it almost seems to be taking place in a dream.

Perhaps the oddest thing about FIXED BAYONETS! is that this primitive world of seething emotion is populated by people who seem to have wandered in from a Hawks film. They are all professionals out to get a job done, and this sensibility ultimately redeems them. Unlike other Hollywood war movies from the 50’s, the Chinese are neither demonized nor stereotyped. They are treated with respect, as good fighters who have a job to do. In fact, when a green recruit shoots at enemy medics, Sgt. Rock stops him.

Even today, Richard Basehart remains one of the great, unrecognized talents of post-war American films. Possibly this is because he is neither conventionally handsome nor easily identifiable as a character type. Instead, he seems to become lost in his performances, belied by a surface calmness, with a subtlety that is underlined by a sense of abandon in his quest for realism.

This is another of Fox’s budget discs with an almost perfect transfer. There’s a little bit of grain as well as a slight softness in the far distance during the troop withdrawal in the beginning, along with a brief flutter of negative damage during a firefight. Otherwise, the blacks are rich with the whites suitably dazzling, not to mention a clarity and detail in the close-ups that is almost overwhelming. Although little known among the films in Fuller’s oeuvre, FIXED BAYONETS! turns out to be one of the best. A silkily photographed big studio war movie with an uncompromising indie attitude, it also manages to illuminate what many of us call the soul.

HELL AND HIGH WATER (20th Century-Fox)
1954 / 103 minutes / color / aspect ratio 2:35 widescreen enhanced 4.0
Dolby stereo surround French mono.

HELL AND HIGH WATER begins with a magnificent A-bomb blast that seems to pop out of the screen. Tinged with orange and purple highlights, the lopsided mushroom cloud sets up the Cold war comic book antics that follow in a most satisfyingly visual manner. French astro-physicist Professor Monteil (Victor Francen) has mysteriously vanished, setting European tabloids into a flurry of spilt ink and ten inch type. At the same time, Adam Jones (Richard Widmark), an ex-submarine commander, receives an urgent message from an old Navy buddy to meet him in Kobe, Japan. It turns out Monteil is secretly trying to prove the Communist Chinese are illegally testing atomic weapons and has hired Jones to refurbish the rusted wreck of an old sub to catch the dastardly so and so’s red handed.

Bella Darvi, one of Darryl Zanuck’s phalanx of mistresses, plays Monteil’s assistant, Denise. Ostensibly a nuclear scientist, Ms. Darvi’s most cerebral activity is teaching the crew to speak French by puckering their lips. Naturally, Jones and Denise lope into a clinch while commie subs try to blow them out of the water. Richard Widmark is personable if a trifle skin deep (it’s not like he has much of a character to work with) creating a sympathetic focus for all the goings-on.

In its elongated Cinemascope compositions of bulging muscles and steel bulkheads, the film is similar to the supercharged universe of comic book illustrator Jack Kirby’s Nick Fury, Agent Of Shield. The film is worth watching on a widescreen television, especially for the underwater battle scenes, where the sleekly designed subs glide by on opposite sides of the frame, creating a sense of danger through camera placement. Many of the shots remind one of Roy Lichtenstein’s pop art canvases or Jean-Luc Godard’s tribute to color and Cinemascope, MADE IN USA.

Fuller’s focus on the rickety sub and the tensions among the crew, especially with a scientific babe aboard, keeps the interest high. He also manages to instill a gritty darkness and feeling of anxiety into the proceedings. Dizzying images are thrown out almost at random, keeping one’s interest even as the plot disintegrates into dull ideological speechmaking (though there’s nothing as arresting as the shot from HOUSE OF BAMBOO of a dead soldier’s legs framing Mt. Fuji).

The three-strip Technicolor has been lovingly transferred, with no registration problems I could discern, and appropriately for this kind of material, is wonderfully lurid, with pulsating reds and deep inky blues. Alfred Newman’s score is a nice mixture of the moody with the bombastic and is presented in the original four-track stereo, sounding incredibly warm and dynamic. The Biography documentary on Richard Widmark included as an extra is ok, but does not mention HELL OR HIGH WATER, nor does it have much to say about Sam Fuller, though there is a reference to PICK UP ON SOUTH STREET. The original pressbook is a lot of fun, especially for all the purple prose about Bella Darvi.

Fuller has never had anything nice to say about this film, so I’m surprised how well made it is, a popcorn movie with a wild sensibility, exciting to watch and filled with touches, both visual and verbal, characteristic of the director. Therefore, I’m recommending this as a rental to Fuller aficionados, Cinemascope buffs and other interested parties.

Cast: Richard Basehart, Gene Evans, Michael O’Shea, Richard Hylton, Craig Hill, Skip Homeier, David Wolfson.

Credits: Directed by Samuel Fuller Screenplay by Samuel Fuller. Suggested by a novel by John Brophy. Photography by Lucien Ballard. Music by Roy Webb. Art Direction by George Patrick. Produced by Jules Buck.

Extra Features: Still gallery, Theatrical trailer.

Cast: Richard Widmark, Bella Darvi, Victor Francen, Cameron Mitchell, Gene Evans, David Wayne, Steven Bekassy, Richard Loo.

Directed by Samuel Fuller.
Screenplay by Jesse L. Lasky Jr. & Samuel Fuller.
Photography by Joe MacDonald.
Music by Alfred Newman.
Art Direction by Leland Fuller.
Produced by Raymond A. Klune.

Extra Features: Richard Widmark A&E Biography documentary, Still gallery, Interactive pressbook gallery, Theatrical trailer.

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