DVD Review: Knockouts — “Z” and “The Samuel Fuller Collection”

Quick—what won Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards? If you recalled Departures, from Japan, take a bow. Like most foreign film winners, the movie was pretty much forgotten two minutes after host Hugh Jackman signed off. Where quality is concerned, Foreign Film ties with Best Song in the race to the bottom of the Oscar pile.

But sometimes the Academy gets it right. Not only did Costa-Gavras’ enthralling “Z” co-win Best Foreign Film in 1969 (along with an obscure Russian production of The Brothers Karamazov), it was also nominated for Best Picture, the first time that had happened. If it had somehow beaten Midnight Cowboy for Best Picture, I think even that film’s creative team would have understood. (What a year for winners—the only X-rated Best Picture, “Z,” John Wayne, and Goldie Hawn, too.) “Z” is one of those template movies, a fact-based political thriller that set the standard; you can see its influence from All the President’s Men (1976) to Syriana (2005).

The film opens with a defiant title card, saying that its resemblance to real life is entirely deliberate. Greek-born Costa-Gavras based the film on a you-are-there bestseller by Vassilis Vassilikos that was a lightly veiled account of the 1963 assassination of Gregorios Lambrakis, who led the country’s no-nukes movement. During a tense peace rally, as the rabble denounce him as a communist, the Lambrakis figure (here called “the deputy,” and played by Yves Montand, an actor with impeccable liberal credentials) is run down by a three-wheeled vehicle in what seems to be an accident. The government’s examining magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who is meant to declare the death a drunk driving incident, instead methodically peels back the layers of the onion. It stinks: uncovered are evidence of assassination and the complicity of foolish but dangerous generals, who are plotting a military coup. The film follows the actions of several other characters, played unobtrusively by other well-known European actors: a journalist (Jacques Perrin) who launches his own investigation, the two killers (Renato Salvatori and Marcel Bozzuffi, the latter best known as the hit man pursued by Gene Hackman in The French Connection’s legendary car chase), and the doctor’s estranged wife (Irene Papas, the cast’s only Greek), who is suddenly entrusted with his legacy.

“Z” received additional Oscar nominations for Costa-Gavras’ direction and his taut but often quite witty screenplay, which he co-authored with Jorge Semprun. Another deserved Oscar winner was editor Francoise Bonnot, whose masterful manipulation of Raoul Coutard’s images is the key to the entire film. I hadn’t seen “Z” in a while (this superior Criterion disc definitively replaces its no-frills laserdisc, and another distributor’s allegedly dismal DVD from a decade ago) and though I remembered it in fragments seeing the entire picture snap back into place before my eyes was a revelation. The funny thing about “Z” is that while it ends unhappily, with characters we’ve come to admire imprisoned or worse and the censorious junta in place (the famed closing credits list The Beatles, Harold Pinter, long hair on men, and new math as among the “deviant” elements banned by the regime, along with the letter “Z,” for a reason you’ll see) you finish the film elated. Maybe it’s the soaring music, by composer-activist Mikis Theodorakis, who contested the regime that ruled Greece from 1967-1974 (his scores have included 1964’s Zorba the Greek and 1973’s Serpico), the quality of the filmmaking, or the notion that while wars go on brave individuals can win battles and make a difference.

Europe’s other great political thriller of the 60s was The Battle of Algiers (1966). How the French-language “Z” came to be filmed in Algeria, and how the country was cleverly camouflaged to resemble the unnamed but clearly Greece-like Mediterranean location of the film, is one of the subjects Costa-Gavras (whose politically engaged filmography includes 1982’s Missing and 1989’s Music Box) addresses in a featurette. Other supplements include an interview with the great Coutard, the eye of the French New Wave, archival interviews with most of the cast (Pierre Dux talks about the fun of playing the most bumbling and hot-headed of the generals), an informative booklet essay by New York Press critic Armond White, and a fine commentary by historian Peter Cowie. Among the revelations: Lambrakis’ widow married a Greek army officer and filed suit against the filmmakers after the Oscar nominations were announced.

Here’s the score’s main theme, and images of Lambrakis:

Criterion has done well by the barnstorming movie maverick Sam Fuller, with DVDs of his earliest films plus the immensely entertaining Pickup on South Street (1953) and all the way up to his last Hollywood movie, 1982’s White Dog. Sony fills in a few gaps with the seven-disc “Collectors Choice: The Samuel Fuller Collection,” spotlighting his work for Columbia Pictures.

The set is unusual in that Fuller only wrote, produced, and directed the last two films in the chronology, 1959’s The Crimson Kimono and 1961’s Underworld U.S.A. The rest show how the former crime reporter, pulp fiction writer, and Purple Heart recipient became the tough-talking, cigar-chomping indie auteur beloved by the likes of directors Martin Scorsese, Tim Robbins, Curtis Hanson, and Wim Wenders, all of whom offer testimonials in featurettes that are part of the package.

Fuller’s early screen- and story-writing credits, 1937’s star-studded It Happened in Hollywood (with Fay Wray) and 1938’s serial-like French Foreign Legion movie Adventure in Sahara, don’t add up to much, except as a tutorial in how a major studio processed hour-long B pictures. 1943’s Power of the Press, based on one of his hard-driving stories, is more like it. Fuller, an ink-stained wretch, loved the newspaper racket (he broke the story of the shocking drug overdose death of Broadway star Jeanne Eagels in 1929) and the 64-minute picture has a little of his stamp. A schemer played by a typically villainous Otto Kruger uses gangland muscle to gain control of a big city newspaper, with only a small-town editor (Guy Kibbee) standing in his way. Of interest in what amounts to a propaganda piece is the fast-talking Lee Tracy, a great unsung actor who always livened up a movie, as one of the many Fuller protagonists named Griff.

The set gets more Fulleresque with two movies, 1949’s Shockproof and 1952’s Scandal Sheet, that could easily fit into one of Columbia’s new film noir boxes. Shockproof combines his co-written script with direction by Douglas Sirk, whose mid- to late-50s melodramas like All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life inspired 2002’s Far from Heaven and continue to be felt through Mad Men. This isn’t one of those films, as Sirk tries to tame a far-fetched but entertaining-bad-girl-trying to-go-straight scenario, starring heartthrob (and future director) Cornel Wilde (as a smitten parole officer, Griff) and his then-wife, Patricia Knight.

Scandal Sheet was released the same year Fuller directed his favorite film, the tabloid history lesson Park Row. Based on one of his novels, Scandal Sheet is the lesser of the two movies, but director Phil Karlson (best known for 1972’s vigilante picture Walking Tall) was somewhat in sync with his sensibility. Columbia had trouble finding good parts for big, broad Broderick Crawford after the Oscar-winning All the King’s Men and Born Yesterday but he amply fills the plus-sized shoes of a tabloid-minded editor who cultivates a rising reporter, played by John Derek (another director-to-be, and future husband of Bo). That’s good and bad news when Crawford commits a murder, which drives up circulation but places an obvious wedge in the father-son surrogate relationship as the reporter gets closer to the truth. Fast-paced and full of twists, the film co-stars Donna Reed (a year before her From Here to Eternity Oscar win) as the appealing conscience of the piece.

The two Fuller-directed movies are the filmmaker in his prime, tackling controversial themes with gusto. His in-your-face style of directing (think 3D without the glasses) was never more high voltage than at the start of Kimono, where a fleeing stripper, “Sugar Torch,” is gunned down in the mean streets of L.A. Investigating the murder in Little Tokyo and along Skid Row are two cops, Charlie (Glenn Corbett) and Joe (James Shigeta), a Japanese. They share an apartment—Charlie calls Joe, with affection, “meathead,” more than 10 years before the phrase’s All in the Family heyday—but are pulled apart when both fall for the same woman, Christine (Victoria Shaw), who’s mixed up in the case. Interracial relationships were a taboo topic back then, but Fuller handles the subject with sensitivity. In his he’s helped immeasurably by Shigeta, who’s best known for playing the doomed Nakatomi in Die Hard but was the Asian-American Sidney Poitier in a number of films starting with this debut feature. I’d like to have heard from him on a commentary track, but outside of the attractive (if sometimes grainy) transfers the extras are restricted to those director-driven supplements.

You’re never more than a few minutes away from an act of violence in Underworld U.S.A, where the son of a small-potatoes thief murdered by the mob grows up to be Cliff Robertson, who avenges himself on the killers. They’re a rough bunch, planning to flood high schools with drugs and killing kids—but the cops and FBI agents aren’t much better, hampered by their lack of inside information and inability to do much to protect the rare informants. The dirty job of purging America’s rot is left to Robertson, of Charly and Spider-Man, who relishes playing an outsider. “The Samuel Fuller Collection” should be watched in order for the last shot of this last film to really register. It’s of a fist clenched in anger and defiance—the essence of Sam Fuller.

Here he is in the film’s trailer, giving us the facts:

For more movie reviews and essays, visit Between Productions.

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  • jamesballenger

    I've wanted to see Z for so long but never took the plunge. Guess I will now! As far as Sam Fuller goes I am woefully under informed about his work, so I reckon I'll have to catch up on that too!

  • http://robertcashill.blogspot.com BobCashill

    Re: Fuller, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET is a great place to start. SHOCK CORRIDOR and THE NAKED KISS have strong cult followings.

  • griffworldwar2

    “Sam was a hell of a guy, I am gonna miss him”. Griff

  • griffworldwar2

    “Sam was a hell of a guy, I am gonna miss him”. Griff

  • Continuousmonsterdrip

    Fuller is great. It’s a true shame that his film Park Row has not been released on dvd.