The Reeler


January 24, 2007


Fuller and Sirk have double vision in overlooked, auteur-proof collaboration

Directors become known as auteurs when they display a singular vision, and are, predictably, not usually known for their ability to work well with others. Auteurists always want to attribute a film to a single figure, but what to make of a film like 1949's Shockproof (opening today for a limited run at the Pioneer Theater), with two top-flight talents -- co-writer Sam Fuller and director Douglas Sirk -- leading off the credits?

Collaborations between true film artists are rare and, indeed, Shockproof may not technically be one since Fuller and Sirk didn't work together so much as in succession. In fact, according to Sirk, the pair never met. Fuller wrote the screenplay, originally titled "The Lovers," and Sirk came aboard the production after the script was already completed and re-written (to some degree of dissatisfaction for both Fuller and Sirk) by producer Helen Deutsch.

The pairing came before both directors achieved their greatest fame or success: Sirk, who had fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, was still half a decade from commencing the run of films for Universal Pictures on which his reputation still rests; Fuller, a journalist turned screenwriter, would direct his first picture, I Shot Jesse James, the same year. The team's efforts produced a quirky, engrossing, and tough to categorize picture that blends the interests of both men.

Cornel Wilde plays Griff Marat (I can't decide which names sounds more Fuller-esque), a parole officer with the motto "Always straight, always right." Patricia Knight's Jenny Marsh is the ex-con who keeps him plenty straight, but not so right; she's a bad girl, still in love with the crook she went to prison to protect (the deliciously slimy John Baragrey). Griff falls for Jenny, she sullies his reputation, but he's so ga-ga he doesn't particularly care. To be sure, the story is filled with loads of studio system Hollywood plot clich├ęs, including my personal favorite, the classic "girl just pretending to be in love with guy doesn't realize she's actually falling in love with him." In many ways, this is a babes-and-bullets B-picture, a standard of the late 1940s.

In many other ways, however, Shockproof is a unique window into the passions of both Fuller the pulp dramatist, and Sirk, the master of domestic melodrama. Jenny Marsh anticipates another classic Fuller anti-heroine, Jean Peters' Candy from 1953's Pickup on South Street. Like Jenny, Candy is torn between her love of two men on opposite sides of the law and is so convincing in her seduction of the hero that she seduces herself into the bargain. And while Sirk's on-screen marriages were always a little cockeyed, they were never this cockeyed: after Jenny tries to kill Baragrey's Harry to protect her relationship with Griff, the two take it on the lam for what quickly becomes a makeshift honeymoon from hell. After stealing a car that conveniently has a "Just Married" sign and strings of cans hanging from the rear bumper, the newlyweds eventually find refuge hiding amongst the employees of an oil field, and the huge, churning derricks are visible through the tiny window in the back of Griff and Jenny's decrepit shack.

Fuller and Sirk seemed to find common ground on the subject of love. The Pioneer's press notes include an excerpt from an interview with Sirk, conducted with Jon Halliday in the early 1970s, in which he describes what he liked about Fuller's original screenplay: "It was very melodramatic, of course, but in between the battle sequences were situations of love. Love that cannot be fulfilled. Love in extreme circumstances, love that is socially conditioned... and impossible."

In the finished film, all three major characters find themselves under the spell of a love that is "impossible." Jenny promises to stay away from Harry as a condition of her parole, but can't resist his high rolling charms (as she puts it "He a refined sort of way,"). Griff is, by all accounts, an efficient and well-respected parole officer (other characters note the fact that he's being groomed for political office) but he throws it all away for the chance to live in a shanty underneath a giant pollution pump with a woman he knows is no good. And Harry, refined though he may be, acts aloof about Jenny but his willingness to wait out her five years in prison and the enormous painting of her that hangs over his mantle say otherwise.

In The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris wrote that Douglas Sirk's "art transcends the ridiculous, as form comments on content." Shockproof is certainly ridiculous, though its transcendence is debatable. The theory of authorship that Sarris promoted is a useful tool but has its blind spots as well. A lack of a clear singular voice or a dispute over the true author can keep a film out of the discussion altogether, regardless of its quality; this may have been the fate of Shockproof, which is rarely seen and has been unavailable on home video formats for decades. Authorship and quality are two totally different debates, and both are best settled by an audience; fortunately a chance to do so -- via Shockproof at the Pioneer -- has finally come around.

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Comments (1)

looks like a baragrey to me

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