Street of No Return
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Samuel Fuller's 23rd and final film, Street of No Return (now available on DVD from Fantoma), is an interesting film noir, weird and disorienting. The film captures the noir mood with its emphasis on an obscured past and a reactive character falling in a downward, fatalistic spiral. But the film is not one of Fuller's greats. It isn't Pickup on South Street, Crimson Kimono, Underworld USA, Naked Kiss, House of Bamboo, or the Steel Helmet.

The film's central problem rests in its lack of tabloid grit. Fuller was proud of the film's race-riot scenes. He had covered the Harlem riots in the 1930s while working on the New York Graphic and had always wanted to relive those moments, what he calls the "human-being zoo," on celluloid. But despite his earnestness and an opening shock shot of a hammer smacking someone in the face, the riots look like they belong in a Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly production and not a Samuel Fuller one. The street fighting swings along like one long choreographed, overly stylized dance number.

Moreover, the context for the fights feels forced. In the Steel Helmet, discussions first between a captured communist major and a black soldier about his people having to ride at the back of a bus, and later the major's edgy words with a Nisei soldier over his people being interned during World War II ring authentic because we sense the currency of the problems and the ongoing pain of these characters. The memory of internment still hovers. And blacks, in 1950 (the year of Steel Helmet's theatrical release), still had to ride at the back of a bus! The race riots in Street of No Return lack relevancy because they aren't grounded in current history or character. The black and white street fighters remain shadows, and their dialogue, especially during the movie's jailhouse sequences, lacks emotional honesty. Oh sure, the characters shout tired racial slurs at each other, but do we care anything about them? Fuller usually imbues his politics with a reporter's desire to change the world. Here his editorials ring like AIP characters talking politics and thus chime thinly.

But the film is still worth watching. The plot is rather simple but haunting. A once aggressive singing star, Michael (Keith Carradine), a kind of glam-rock cowboy, falls for a gangster's moll, Celia, the stunningly beautiful Valentina Vargas. When Celia's gangster boyfriend, Eddie (Marc de Jonge), finds about their dalliance, he clobbers Michael and severs his vocal chords, ruining the singer's career. Distraught, the singer falls from his lofty high life and becomes a down-in-the-gutter wino.

Fuller brilliantly plays with noir's emphasis on destructive love, obsession, and the commingling of the past and the present. One of the film's most chilling scenes involves the down-and-out Michael seeking refuge with a junk man. As he talks, Michael's now white bristled hair blows in the breeze, and the junk man, recognizing the former pop star, slips a video into his VCR. It's Michael-hair dark and slick, face scrubbed with success-back in his days of stardom. The contrast is shocking. Video Michael sports 1973-era Iggy Pop glam mixed with Billy Idol trappings. His former girlfriend, Vargas, rides G-string naked atop of a horse in Lady Godiva fashion! Despite the rock video's obvious campy intent, an underlying poignancy resonates, as everything Michael was and had is now clearly lost.

This dream-like quality, of returning to the past, hovers over the film. A sense of in-betweeness colors the entire production. Shot in Lisbon, Portugal with an international cast and crew, the geographical landscape of Street of No Return feels like F. W. Murnau's Sunrise, a weird Euro/American blend as Fuller's city lacks clear specificity. It's not New York or Chicago, but the film's semantics -- a gang war and Fuller's depiction of a criminal underworld -- strike one as distinctly American. The streets feel like 1930's Warner Bros. back-lot and the black characters belong to 1970s Roger Corman. In all, Fuller's hazy production values create a dream-like atmosphere that succeeds in capturing the mindset of Michael who lives neither in the past nor the present but somewhere between in recollected memory. It's no accident that the film's final climax, a mega-shootout at Eddie's gangland lair, is photographed through diffused tear gas, streams of wafting, heavy smoke that obscure the characters and their troubled reality.

The film also engagingly celebrates the Fuller style: the use of quick close-up cut-ins to emphasize emotion and Fuller's reliance on varying degrees of contrapuntal edits. In the past, Fuller, like a tabloid reporter, quickly and freely moved within his three zones of writing: exposition, love, and violence. In Street of No Return, he continues this practice. The scene of the two Michaels is one such powerful counterpoint (expository, in the sense that we see who he was in the past, and also violent in that we now see how far he has been torn down). Perhaps the most vintage Fuller counterpoint occurs when Michael breaks off his business partnership with Rhoda (Andréa Ferréol). Arrogantly, he wants to abandon the four concerts she has booked for him so that he can run off with Celia. They argue, she challenges his selfishness, and then they make up, in a tender moment of love, apparently understanding each other. But when he says, in medium long-shot, his hands on her head, that he loves her like a mother, Fuller quickly switches to jarring hand-held medium close-ups as Rhoda with vicious verve repeatedly slaps Michael. Love and understanding do not last long in a Fuller film.

Fuller often buries love in his films. None of his male characters ever say the word. In Pickup on South Street, we know that Richard Widmark's Skip McCoy loves Candy only after he sees what she did for him. When he visits her at the hospital and discovers that she refused to rat him out to the commies and took a beating instead, he smiles, a smile of love. Street of No Return has a similar aesthetic. Love is never spoken, but Celia sacrificed herself, agreeing to live with Eddie, if Michael's life could be spared. And Michael, in the end, returns, to save her, even as he stumbles in a haze of lost and nearly forgotten dreams.

Street of No Return is now available on DVD from Fantoma Films in a new digital widescreen transfer (1.78:1) that has been enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Special features: audio commentary by Keith Carradine; a 33-minute original behind-the-scenes documentary featuring an interview with Samuel Fuller; a text interview with Samuel Fuller; a theatrical trailer; and liner notes by Lee Server, author of Sam Fuller: Film is a Battleground. Suggested retail price: $29.99. For more information, check out the Fantoma Web site.


Photo credits: © 2002 Fantoma Films. All rights reserved.