Like most people, I love to read. Yet my passion for the written word has become, shall we say, much more “focused” in recent years. In short, I love books about movies (of the non-fiction variety), and I read as many as I can throughout the course of a year; everything from the history of the French New Wave to Roger Corman biographies. For me, spending time with these books is like having another cinematic avenue to explore, and I love them for it.
This brings us to this post you’re now reading. Every once in a while, as I’m perusing one of the books in my collection, I come across a passage, quote or story that I feel is worth sharing; something that I think others might enjoy as well. Seeing as I’m the only film fanatic I know in my neighborhood (when it comes to cinephiles, my little corner of Pennsylvania is a barren wasteland), the most logical option available is to share these excerpts with the Row Three community.
My plan is to make this a weekly posting (I’ve stumbled across enough interesting tidbits over the course of the last several years to warrant a daily one, but who has time for that?). I welcome all feedback, and would also appreciate any book recommendations you’d care to throw my way.
For this first installment, I offer an excerpt from “Samuel Fuller: A Third Face”, an autobiography written by Fuller (with some help from his wife, Christa Lang Fuller, as well as Jerome Henry Rudes) and published by Applause.
Samuel Fuller has always been a favorite director of mine, but as this autobiography reveals, his life outside of movies was equally as fascinating. He worked in the newspaper industry from the time he was a young teenager, starting as a copy boy until eventually working his way up to crime reporter, a job he learned to love. Then, at the outbreak of World War II, Fuller enlisted in the U.S. Army, and saw more than his share of combat as a private serving in the Big Red One (his 1980 film of that name dramatizes many of his actual adventures). Following the war, he went west to Hollywood, where he worked as a screenwriter until getting his first break at directing (a small film about Robert Ford, titled I Shot Jesse James). The rest, as they say, is history.
This particular passage from “A Third Face” takes place shortly after Fuller had directed his two cult classics, Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss. It’s the mid-1960’s, and Fuller’s just moved to France to work on a screenplay for two independent producers (which would never see the light of day). While there, Fuller was introduced to several young filmmakers of the French New Wave, all of whom absolutely loved his films. In fact, one particular filmmaker was such a fan that he asked Fuller to make a cameo in his upcoming movie.
“As I continued my stroll along the Champs Elysées, a young man came up to me and introduced himself as a writer for Cahiers du Cinema, I think, Luc Moullet. I was happy to meet him because he worked for a helluva movie magazine. He invited me for a drink in the bar at Fouquet’s. Moullet pulled out a recent issue of Cahiers with an article by Jean-Luc Godard calling Shock Corridor a ‘masterpiece of barbarian cinema’. I didn’t know what the hell that meant, but I was happy if it helped sell tickets. By then Godard had successfully made the transition from critic to New Wave director, with Breathless (A bout de Souffle, 1961) and Contempt (Le Mepris, 1963). Godard was still contributing reviews. Moullet wanted to set up a dinner so Jean-Luc and I could meet.
About a week later, I showed up at Brasserie Lipp, just across from the Café Flor on St. Germaine des Près. Godard and (Andre) Bazin were already sitting at a table by the window. With his thick black glasses, long curly hair, black beret, and Gaullois hanging off his bottom lip, Jean-Luc looked like Central Casting’s choice for the role of ‘young French intellectual eccentric”. Being eccentric was the only thing Godard and I had in common. Otherwise, we were really opposites, me coming out of a working-class background, Godard from an upper-class Swiss family whose money allowed him the luxury of bucking the French establishment. I was prone to excess, while Jean-Luc was a minimalist. I liked the guy, but certainly not because he told me how much my films had influenced him. I laughed at that influence crap. Let’s face it; Godard had stolen a bunch of my ideas from Pickup on South Street and Underworld U.S.A. for his early pictures. I didn’t mind, but why not call it what it was?
Jean-Luc was going to shoot a new film, called Pierrot le fou, with Jean-Paul Belmondo, and wanted me to appear in a scene. I suppose it was his way of saying thanks. I said I’d do it. Without the faintest idea what I was supposed to say, I showed up at a studio on the outskirts of Paris the day of the shoot. Godard stood me up against a wall in some fancy cocktail party set full of half-naked women and intellectuals, and put a glass of vodka in one hand and a good cigar in the other. He let me wear my sunglasses because of the bright lights. The Belmondo character strolled in and was introduced to me, ‘the American film director’. Belmondo turned and asked me, ‘What is cinema?’ We never rehearsed the damn scene. I wasn’t sure what Jean-Luc wanted, so I took a puff of my cigar and played myself, blurting out a line in my tough-guy vernacular, which a bilingual lady repeated in French as I spoke.
‘Film is like a battleground’, I said. ‘Love. Hate. Action. Violence. In one word, emotion.’
One take, and that was that. Godard loved it. Believe me, I’d be rich if I had a nickel for every film magazine and festival program around the world who printed that goddamned line!”