Dearden and Fuller: Beyond the Studios

The early 1960s gave a socially conscious film director plenty to chew on. Even before the tumult of the escalating war in Vietnam and the societal upheaval of the emerging youth movement, directors on both sides of the Atlantic had their pick of hot-button issues to tackle—if they were brave enough and could muster sufficient studio support.

 

Samuel Fuller and Basil Dearden couldn't have been any more different. Fuller was a Hollywood renegade accustomed to making films his own way; Dearden, a British uber-professional long associated with the venerated Ealing Studios. Yet, as the recent Criterion release of a collection of landmark films entitled London Underground demonstrates, there was much that linked these seemingly distant artists.

 

By the turn of the decade, both men were in the midst of significant career changes. Fuller was now united with the low budget studio, Allied Artists, his days of working with stars like Barbara Stanwyck and Richard Widmark fading in the past, but artistic autonomy still in hand. Dearden, seeking more control, had split from Ealing. Both men took advantage of their new, if differing, situations to confront societies on the brink of change, yet terrified to do so. Their methods turned out to be a bit different, as determined by their apparent personalities: Dearden was a rational Brit; Fuller, an American loon.

That Fuller's 1963 feature Shock Corridor takes place in a mental institution may justify its excessive nature; The Naked Kiss, from the following year, has nothing to rationalize its convulsive life force other than Fuller himself, who—complete auteur that he was—wrote, produced and directed both films.

These are twisted products sprung from a twisted mind, but not one that didn't possess a healthy distaste for hypocrisy and mendacity. With the subtlety of a charging elephant, Fuller turns his pulpish lens on racism, sexual deviation, prostitution, governmental abuse, and any number of societal ills obviously gnawing at his unhinged psyche. The acting can be terrible, the plots lurid and contrived, and the kitsch factor unalloyed, but few films of the time leave us with as palpable a feeling of paranoia, guilt, and impending unease. The worst was yet to come, and Fuller knew it. At least when it came to this imperfect visionary, poet William Carlos Williams had it right: "The pure products of America/ go crazy."

Basil Dearden had plenty on his mind as well, but he went about dealing with it all in a very British way: controlled, restrained, and not a little conventional—none of Fuller's hysteria here, thank you. His are handsome films, stocked with polished performances (Dirk Bogarde, Jack Hawkins, and Nigel Patrick are, dependably, impressive) all running on a current of crisp film craft. At his best, as in 1962's jazz-infused Othello-adaption All Night Long in which he boldly champions interracial relationships, and in the previous year's Victim, a still-powerful, and, for its time, remarkably outspoken, indictment of Britain's criminalization of homosexuality, Dearden gets his points across with force, albeit elegant force. Dearden's filmmaking still makes us think; Fuller's makes us feel.

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