Dearden and Fuller: Beyond the Studios

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

Samuel Fuller and Basil Deardencouldn’t have been any more different. Fuller was a Hollywood renegadeaccustomed to making films his own way; Dearden, a British uber-professionallong associated with the venerated Ealing Studios. Yet, as the recent Criterionrelease of a collection of landmark films entitled London Underground demonstrates, there was much thatlinked these seemingly distant artists.

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

That Fuller’s 1963 feature Shock Corridor takesplace in a mental institution may justify its excessive nature; The Naked Kiss, fromthe following year, has nothing to rationalize its convulsive life force otherthan Fuller himself, who—complete auteur that he was—wrote, produced anddirected both films.

These are twisted products sprungfrom a twisted mind, but not one that didn’t possess a healthy distaste forhypocrisy and mendacity. With the subtlety of a charging elephant, Fuller turnshis pulpish lens on racism, sexual deviation, prostitution, governmental abuse,and any number of societal ills obviously gnawing at his unhinged psyche. Theacting can be terrible, the plots lurid and contrived, and thekitsch factor unalloyed, but few films of the time leave us with aspalpable a feeling of paranoia, guilt, and impending unease. The worst was yetto 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 itall in a very British way: controlled, restrained, and not a littleconventional—none of Fuller’s hysteria here, thank you. His are handsome films,stocked with polished performances (Dirk Bogarde, Jack Hawkins, and NigelPatrick are, dependably, impressive) all running on a current of crisp filmcraft. At his best, as in 1962’s jazz-infused Othello-adaption All Night Long in which he boldlychampions interracial relationships, and in the previous year’s Victim, astill-powerful, and, for its time, remarkably outspoken, indictment ofBritain’s criminalization of homosexuality, Dearden gets his points across withforce, albeit elegant force. Dearden’s filmmaking still makes us think; Fuller’smakes us feel.