TIM WONG admires the films of Samuel Fuller and François Truffaut, presented in retrospect as part of the 2007 Film Society season.

A BRUTE FORCE of American Cinema, Samuel Fuller made B-pictures with a capital ‘A’: cluster bombs that exploded on screen, sending shrapnel into the audience and shock waves far abroad. Insubordinate, they reverberated with the French New Wave, a movement in awe of Fuller’s thunderbolts. These were films that drew their current directly from the loins: raw, caustic, they were made not with brains, but balls. Jean Luc Godard’s admiration extended further to a rather amusing cameo appearance for Fuller in Pierrot le fou, while the director’s imprint on the greater Nouvelle Vague can perhaps be read in their disobedience, and bristling, freshly squeezed energy that the films of Godard and his contemporaries oozed. François Truffaut, one of the New Wave’s founding cineastes, wrote passionately about Hollywood’s unsung genre exponents – Fuller among them – in the famed Cahiers du cinema, before forging his own cinematic career, most notably with The 400 Blows (1959).

While neither Fuller nor Truffaut’s films share an immediately likeness, they each harness a rare intensity of cinema. With Fuller, it’s the voltage of the shock, the feverish concentration behind such lurid scenes as a race riot in an insane asylum instigated by a black white supremacist, or a bald Constance Towers pummelling the alpha-male crap out of some bastard with the high heel of her shoe. With Truffaut, it’s the distillation of the personal and the keenly cinematic. His films are full of moments that dance, that feel alive, that are candid and romantic. In The 400 Blows, he does the unthinkable, crafting a rich memoir of his own youth that refuses to exist in the past. Vicariously, as we watch ‘hell raiser’ Antoine Doinel escape from detention, running without pause towards the sea, we become swept up in the momentum of Truffaut’s fervour for film. Halting, freezing, zooming down Antoine’s stare – an adolescent perched seemingly on the edge of the world – Truffaut annunciates that with life ahead of him (and his alter-ego, Jean-Pierre Léaud), the possibilities are endless.

That promise extended to various great milestones: Shoot the Piano Player (1960), the most New Wavy of all his works, and one that opens up a direct channel to the noir of Sam Fuller; Day for Night (1973), a supremely realised film about filmmaking, conceived long before self-reflexivity in the movies became chic; Jules and Jim (1961), a love story of infinite flight and zest, and the inspiration for many an affectionate homage. In terms of sheer indelibility and free spirit though, I prefer Truffaut’s latter adventures with Antoine Doinel. Following The 400 Blows and the omnibus short Antoine and Colette, comes close to the best romantic comedy ever made: Stolen Kisses (1968), where Léaud, now in his twenties, flirts between sweetheart Claude Jade and sultry man-eater Delphine Seyrig, all the while juggling employment opportunities as a private eye-cum-TV repairman. He weds Jade in Bed and Board (1970) – their marriage increasingly on the rocks – while in Love on the Run (1979), he’s back to being single and pensive, a remembrance of romance past that Wong Kar-wai would emulate 25 years later in 2046.

Deftly, these artful romantic-comedies of Truffaut’s are also escapist films, liberating in their lightness of being, their dexterity and vivacity, their amorous vigour, and their riches of beautiful French girls. I could easily watch Love on the Run’s Sabine (beloved children’s TV show host Dorothée) emerge from the bed covers wearing her pink Snoopy nightie on constant loop, for instance, such is Truffaut and Léaud’s boyish appreciation of the opposite sex. Fuller’s pictures, on the other hand, you can’t escape: they latch onto you from their blazoned opening credits, and won’t let go. Just try and sweat off the sweltering heat of Pickup on South Street (1953), the untameable anti-everything in Richard Widmark’s McCoy, the shockingly sexy Jean Peters, or the diminutive pluck of Thelma Ritter, never better as the film’s doomed stool pigeon in a dog-eat-dog world. Or how about a muscular Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns (1957)? Laced to the hilt, Fuller announces his cowgirl with no uncertainty as she gallops headfirst into the vista of black-and-white cinemascope trailed by a stampede of horsemen: the beginning of a bold, arrogant, under-appreciated gender western that’s the forgotten double bill to Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar.

An animal, an insurgent, a fierce iconoclast, Fuller left nothing to the imagination in his pursuit of the American Ugly – a reading apparent in the very titles of his films: Verboten! (1958), Underworld U.S.A (1961), White Dog (1982), The Naked Kiss (1964). Their ripples can still be felt today: only recently, did an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm directly lift its premise of a ‘racist’ canine trained to attack only blacks from the incendiary White Dog, while the rightly restored and revitalised The Big Red One (1980) – lead by an unshakable Lee Marvin, the perfect match for Fuller’s insolence – is as timely a war impression as any with foreign conflict continuing to rage with hesitation. Potently, all this harsh light comes to a head in Shock Corridor (1963), Fuller’s primest cut, where violent nymphs, a Negro Klansman, and an unending cycle of inhumanity converge in this insanity we call the United States: here in a straightjacket, and like the rest of Fuller’s vented frustrations, hung out to dry.