It only figures that the best channel on television is one dedicated to showing ancient films, these glorious black-and-white shadows. Turner Classic Movies is an oasis in the satellite-TV wasteland; when there's nothing else on, and there never is, TCM generously allows the casual fan and fetishistic student to travel backward to a time when directors were pushing forward--past censors (whose ministrations encouraged wit, where today a fart joke will do just fine, thanks), past technological limitations, past all the barriers that separated the players and the passionate. TCM proffers a nonstop course in film history, film theory, film appreciation; on and on it goes, bounding from the Marx Brothers to Cary Grant to Roberto Rossellini to King Vidor to Greta Garbo. It's 1932, then 1956, then 1944--and anywhere's better than today, when Adam Sandler is offered up by 2002 Hollywood as a viable replacement for Gary Cooper.
Of late, Turner Classic Movies has become quite the film class, screening in rapid succession an estimable collection of documentaries--and, always, with a dozen or more movies tied in to whatever subject's being covered. In early June, when the network aired Martin Scorsese's four-hour My Voyage to Italy, the filmmaker's love letter to the Italian cinema he grew up digesting in New York, it also ran most of the movies mentioned--among them, Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief and Federico Fellini's 81/2. Behind the Action: Stuntmen in the Movies, airing now, allowed TCM to screen How the West Was Won, Bullitt and Spartacus. And, beginning this month come two dozen more gems connected to Timefilm critic Richard Schickel's five-part documentary series The Men Who Made the Movies, which commences July 2 (and runs each Thursday in July) with an hour-long look at the movies of callous-but-never-cynical writer-director Samuel Fuller, whose The Big Red Onewasn't just referring to that soldier who got his 'nad blown off during World War II.
Actually, these docs are some 29 years old: Schickel wrote, produced and directed films about King Vidor (The Champ), Howard Hawks (The Big Sleep, His Girl Friday), George Cukor (The Philadelphia Story, Adam's Rib) and Raoul Walsh (White Heat, High Sierra) in 1973, but he was never happy with them. Though he had access to these men and their movies, tight deadlines "didn't permit the kind of patient reflection they deserved," he writes in a letter sent out with the Fuller review tape. The Fuller film, made with the director in 1989 (eight years before the crank croaked), was never even released. It languished till now, and its rewards are bountiful: Dressed all in white, waving his ever-present cigar like a baton, Fuller rants on about his movies, about the insolence of humanity, about "the s-t-o-r-y" and "the heat of the story." As a director, he enraged (especially, say, J. Edgar Hoover, who demanded he change a line in 1953's Pickup on South Street); as a subject, he engaged the camera--a one-man act, doused in piss and vinegar.
Fuller, a former crime reporter and soldier (he survived Normandy, among other battles that should have killed him), made movies about people whose outsides were tough and insides were missing. They were war movies and westerns, crime thrillers and journalism chillers--and most were dismissed the first go-round by critics and audiences who didn't get it, who mistook his scorn for heartlessness. Schickel and Fuller set straight the broken record, and in the process make you want to see all of his films; it's the best kind of infomercial, really. Fortunately, TCM devotes much of July 2 to Fuller, screening the documentary and then, in order, Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss, Run of the Arrow, Park Rowand Verboten! Tune in, lose the remote, then lose yourself; one can never get full of Fuller.