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The Criterion Collection presents
The First Films of Samuel Fuller (1949-51)

"What a fouled-up outfit I got myself into."
- Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans), in The Steel Helmet

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: December 14, 2007

Stars: Preston Foster, Barbara Britton, John Ireland, Reed Hadley, Vincent Price, Ellen Drew, Gene Evans, Robert Hutton, Steve Brodie, James Edwards, William Chun
Director: Samuel Fuller

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 04h:22m:34s
Release Date: August 14, 2007
UPC: 715515025522
Genre: compilation

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B+B-B- D

DVD Review

Samuel Fuller is in many respects the storybook image of what a film director should be—rough and tumble, ready to throw down, not letting anything (certainly not the facts) get in the way of a good yarn. This set from Criterion's Eclipse series give us a chance to see the director getting his sea legs, in the years before he mastered noir in movies like Pickup on South Street or the sustained lunacy of The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor.

I Shot Jesse James (1949)

"You oughta be proud of me."—Robert Ford (John Ireland)

Fuller's directorial debut is a grand and irreverent take on one of the myths of the American West that endures still—this isn't the first take on the death of Jesse James, and the recent Brad Pitt/Casey Affleck version is unlikely to be the last. But it is a fantastically spirited incarnation, and shows Fuller's willingness already to bend raw material to his will to address his preoccupying themes more readily: codes of manhood, the perils of reputation, the inevitable futility and carnage of men trying to outdo one another. The picture opens with the James gang already famous, and already on the run—Jesse (Reed Hadley) is the leader of the posse, but this is really a tale of brothers, with Jesse's brother Frank, and the Ford brothers, Robert and Charles. James is hiding out under an alias when the governor of the state offers a pardon and a $10,000 reward to anybody who turns in Jesse James, dead or alive—and Robert Ford takes the bait, shooting his friend in the back, and forever making his name a synonym for cowardice and betrayal.

It seems that not even he is convinced that he did it for the right reasons: for the money, and for a better life for him and his girl, Cynthy (the fetching Barbara Britton). So after the brutal act of the movie's title, this is essentially a quest for Ford's redemption. He tries at first to cash in on the notoriety, by re-enacting the pivotal day on stage—but he's too yeller even to go through with a pantomime of what he had done to his friend. He tries to buck the rule and have an American life with a second act, by making his fortune in a silver mine in Colorado—but the ignominy cannot be washed off. He's essentially put a target on his chest by killing the West's most wanted, and the woman he did it for, ostensibly, doesn't want a life saddled with that kind of notoriety and shame.

John Ireland is deeply compelling in the central role, a tortured soul who has a bit of Hamlet in him as he frets over his possible deeds, but who's also got a bit of a fast trigger finger, especially when it comes to his girl. Fuller has filled up the story with plenty of action—shootouts, and brawls, barroom or otherwise; and the real moral center of the piece in many respects is an earnest sort called John Kelley, who recurs in Ford's life with an almost alarming level of coincidence. He's played by Preston Foster, and you can't help but be taken in by his straightforwardness and his decency; and alas for Ford, his girl comes to feel the same way.

The Baron of Arizona (1950)

"I can understand the government's reluctance to part with Arizona."— James Reavis (Vincent Price)

For his sophomore effort, Fuller takes the legend of one of the great rapscallions of the American West and turns him into a grand movie con man—Vincent Price as James Addison Reavis is in the tradition established by Melville in The Confidence-Man, one that runs up to at least Catch Me If You Can, and Price seems to be having a hell of a time chewing it up. The film starts with a rather ungainly framing story, pegged to Arizona being admitted into the Union, in 1912, and we quickly flash back to the waning days of the frontier—Reavis is a man of grand ambition, great skills and no morals, so he's almost able to get away with it.

When he learns that the U.S. Government will honor land grants made by the Spanish crown long before the U.S. owned the territory, Reavis invents an outsized scheme so outlandish that it just might work in our cockeyed, mixed-up world—he fabricates a grant from 1748 to one Miguel de Peralta, who is thus designated the Baron of Arizona; and Reavis subsequently dummies up some papers to convince the world that an orphaned little girl is the only and rightful heiress to the Peralta barony. He plays Pygmalion to little Sofia's Galatea, having her groomed to be a proper baroness—he's got to detour to a Spanish monastery for a couple of years to gin up the forged ancient papers, but upon his escape he's happy to marry the girl, who has grown up into the lovely Ellen Drew.

The mad fantasy of having the U.S. Government turn over the whole state drives Reavis through the story—we know he's not going to get away with it, and so does he, probably, but Fuller still gives us quite a ride. The mad Ponzi scheme takes us back into a time of muckrakers and robber barons, and Reavis truly is a scoundrel of the first order, with all of the malevolence of Richard III but with only greed in his heart. The resolution of the story is a bit disappointing—it would have to be, but the equal dollops of false sentimentality and frontier justice don't provide a rousing finish, even if the first couple of acts make it worth the ride.

The Steel Helmet (1951)

"Nobody knows where we are except the enemy."—Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans)

Fuller takes a producer's credit as well on the third and final film in the set, so there's no doubting that we're getting his unvarnished vision—and as with the previous movies, he can stretch a budget as well as anybody ever could. He shot the combat sequences for this war film in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, for instance, and there's a bit of comedy at times if you know the geography of the city, knowing that just outside of the frame is the HOLLYWOOD sign. A combat veteran himself, Fuller takes the notion of war very seriously—he understands both the physical and psychological carnage, and knowing how his career would evolve, there's no mistaking that he's already working out themes that would have their fullest fruition decades later in The Big Red One.

The film is set during the earliest days of the Korean war, and there's a pronounced hangover from the recently concluded war of the greatest generation—Korea consistently comes up short in comparison with the grand moral battle that was World War II, and it's almost like Fuller has anticipated decades' worth of American foreign policy and war movies, with U.S. soldiers embroiled in an Asian civil war, under the guise of fighting communism, that they don't quite understand. The central figure here is Sgt. Iron Mike Zack, and as played by Gene Evans, there's no getting around the fact that the guy is a bastard. You'd probably want him in the foxhole with you, because his bravery is never in question—but he's pigheaded, frequently stupid and always trigger-happy, a devastating and dangerous brew. When everyone in his own unit has been killed, he gloms onto a passing platoon; he also picks up a sidekick, a Korean kid he dubs Short Round, who becomes almost the unit's mascot—they all hole up together in a Buddhist shrine, fending off snipers and trying to figure out their next moves.

Fuller doesn't flinch from showing us the casual racism of the American G.I.s—so much of the movie is soaked through with the fear of the yellow peril that it's palpable, and you get a sense that this was the common view of the Americans stationed there. But Fuller's examination of racial issues doesn't end there, and it's actually quite startling to hear some of the discussions in this film, as they exhibit a kind of candor that in many ways is still frequently lacking. An African American member of the platoon, for instance, reflects on the fact that he's an equal in combat, but back home will still have to ride on the back of the bus; and an American soldier of Japanese descent, also a World War II veteran, is stung by the recollections about his family being forced into an internment camp during the last war. As you can probably anticipate, the conclusion of the film is a grim one; it's uneven and our sympathies are in frequent play, but the unflinching vision of war as an emotional and physical charnel house is devastating.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The whole notion of Criterion's Eclipse series is that the movies are going to look a little raw, without the polish of the label's top line; so the results here vary. I Shot Jesse James has occasional resolution problems, as well as frequent instances of scratches and acid burn. The legendary James Wong Howe shot The Baron of Arizona, and thanks to a MoMA preservation effort, it looks somewhat better.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The mono tracks on all three pictures have some aural interference; The Steel Helmet is probably the cleanest of them.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 39 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: Box Set
Picture Disc
3 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. liner notes
  2. color bars
Extras Review: Each title is in its own slimpak case, with only English subtitles and brief but informative liner notes.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

The first films from one of Hollywood's great iconoclasts, which hold up well on their own merits, and also offer glimpses of the lurid and wicked things to come.


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