Peeping Chabrols and other Perversities: Sam Fuller’s Thieves After Dark (1984)

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Claude Chabrol leans out a window to leer at his upstairs neighbor, who is shaving her legs in the nude. A few lecherous seconds later, with sweat beading on his forehead, he loses his grip and tumbles to an ignominious death. This is only one of  many brilliantly perverted sequences in Sam Fuller’s Thieves After Dark, his rarely seen 1984 curio, the first after his exile from Hollywood.

In 1982, with his late masterpiece White Dog nearing release, he sat down with Paramount studio heads Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who promptly told him they were shelving it. Rumors were swirling that the film was racist, based solely on the plot outline – about a dog who had been trained to kill black people. None of the critics had actually seen the film, which is as savage an attack on racist ideology that Hollywood has ever produced (Criterion released the film on DVD last year). In his inimitable autobiography, A Third Face, Fuller says:

It’s difficult to express the hurt of having a finished film locked away in a vault, never to be screened for an audience. It’s like someone putting your newborn baby in a goddamned maximum-security vault.

Disgusted with Paramount’s reaction, he quickly accepted an offer to make a film in Paris. It was the beginning of a thirteen year exile from the US.vlcsnap-00012

French novelist Olivier Beer was a fan of Fuller’s, and he convinced producer Jo Siritzky to fund an adaptation of his novel, Le Chant des Enfants Morts. The author and filmmaker were supposed to collaborate on the script, but Fuller claims that Beer “didn’t know a damn thing about writing screenplays.” He claims he ended up writing most of it himself, despite Beer’s co-writing credit. It’s the story of an unemployed couple, one a hopeful cellist (Bobby Di Cicco, from The Big Red One (1981)), the other a thrill-seeking layabout (Veronique Jannot). Fuller wanted Isabelle Huppert for the part, but Siritzky pushed for the soap opera star, who he saw on the cover of Paris Match. The lovers meet at an unemployment office after being offered shitty service jobs, and their anger at this slight quickly turns into half-cocked plans for revenge. Their jokey attempt to humiliate their social service workers (including Chabrol, whom they nickname Tartuffe) soon turns violent, and they are forced to go on the run.

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With clear limitations in the budget and the casting, it’s a minor entry in the Fuller canon, but the sheer force of his personality and his kino-fist style shine through, as in the Chabrol sequence. Aggressively using extreme close-ups, direct address, expressive montage, and hard-boiled dialogue from his yellow journalism days (“Tartuffe must have slept with a lot of horses to pay for this pad”), it’s a treasure-trove of Fullerania. It’s just the tools at his disposal are rather dull. It also must be said that the version I screened, likely taped off of television, was an English dubbed version. Lisa Dombrowski states that Fuller shot two versions, one in French, and one where the French actors speak English. She also claims he supervised an American-accented dub. The version I acquired is unfortunately the last, a poorly synched dub at that. Seeing it in either of the two original soundtracks would surely be an improvement.

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Even in its original guise, though, it didn’t fare well. Booed at its premiere at the 1984 Berlin Film Festival (after which Fuller claims John Cassavetes professed his love for it), and never released in the US, it quickly disappeared from view. It wasn’t even screened as part of the Museum of the Moving Image’s retrospective in 2007. It deserves better. The opening sequence is a perfect example of his forceful, playful use of montage. Di Cicco sneaks into a symphony orchestra’s backstage area,  hooded and menacing. Fuller inter-cuts his entrance with inserts of the conductor’s baton and the cellist’s bow, then cutting in extreme close-ups of Di Cicco’s eyes. He ratchets up this disembodied tension until he shows Bobby mimicking the conductor’s movements in a kind of air-conducting.  Instead of the assassination or robbery attempt that’s expected, a man’s character is revealed. He’s just a frustrated musician. He gets kicked out, and Fuller frames the expulsion in shadow, a bodiless hand plucking him out.

vlcsnap-00010The unemployment agency sequence is even more impressive. Di Cicco and Jannot are escorted into different offices, and Fuller settles into a long shot of Chabrol and the cellist. Their mouths start to move, but no sound comes out. Fuller cuts to Jannot and her social worker, mouths agape, increasingly agitated, but still no dialogue. Instead, it’s cued to Ennio Morricone’s score, the speed of the cuts picking up as the anger bubbles up in the two leads, their flapping jaws replacing the conductor’s baton. It’s a beautiful match to the opener, again emphasizing the character’s powerlessness, while also harnessing Fuller’s talent for caricature. Chabrol is an eyebrow raising fop, with an obsequious full-skull smile, while Jannot’s examiner is a middle-aged harpy, too busy combing her moustache to attend to her client. There’s no release until Jannot tosses a chair through a window.

Fuller himself takes a cameo as an unscrupulous fence named Zoltan (his toddler-aged daughter Samantha has a key bit late in the film as well). With a fake eyepatch (he takes it off to examine the merchandise) and an obsession with watching footage of Isabelle Huppert spit up blood in “Lady of the Camelias” (1981, perhaps in a dig to Siritzky?). Sitting on his gilded throne with his stone greyhounds flanking him, Fuller hams it up with gravel-voiced glee, a king of the American cinema.

12 Responses Peeping Chabrols and other Perversities: Sam Fuller’s Thieves After Dark (1984)
Posted By Brandon : March 25, 2009 5:49 pm

Glad I’m not the only one who has seen this rarity. I wouldn’t call it a very good movie, but it’s of definite interest to Sam Fuller fans. I saw the American-accented dub as well, and it’s a nightmare… hope someone releases a version with reasonable audio some day.

If you can, check out “Dead Pigeon On Beethoven Street.” It has far crazier story and style than “Thieves After Dark”, and is almost as obscure (“Dead Pigeon” at least got screened at the 2007 retrospective).

Posted By Brandon : March 25, 2009 5:49 pm

Glad I’m not the only one who has seen this rarity. I wouldn’t call it a very good movie, but it’s of definite interest to Sam Fuller fans. I saw the American-accented dub as well, and it’s a nightmare… hope someone releases a version with reasonable audio some day.

If you can, check out “Dead Pigeon On Beethoven Street.” It has far crazier story and style than “Thieves After Dark”, and is almost as obscure (“Dead Pigeon” at least got screened at the 2007 retrospective).

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : March 26, 2009 1:14 pm

I saw “Dead Pigeon” at the 2007 retro, and was impressed. I thought it worked very well as a parody of cold war spy thrillers, and Fuller’s muscular form of montage is as strong as ever. I’ll never forget the sequence where the lead watches “Rio Bravo” dubbed in German, and laughs hysterically when he hears John Wayne. The shootout in the pediatric ward also sticks in my brain. It’s very playful and very funny. Definitely superior to “Thieves”.

It was supposed to be released on DVD by Fantoma years ago, but was caught up in rights squabbles. Christa Fuller even recorded a commentary track for it.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : March 26, 2009 1:14 pm

I saw “Dead Pigeon” at the 2007 retro, and was impressed. I thought it worked very well as a parody of cold war spy thrillers, and Fuller’s muscular form of montage is as strong as ever. I’ll never forget the sequence where the lead watches “Rio Bravo” dubbed in German, and laughs hysterically when he hears John Wayne. The shootout in the pediatric ward also sticks in my brain. It’s very playful and very funny. Definitely superior to “Thieves”.

It was supposed to be released on DVD by Fantoma years ago, but was caught up in rights squabbles. Christa Fuller even recorded a commentary track for it.

Posted By moirafinnie : March 26, 2009 2:23 pm

As someone whose respect for what you wittily describe as Sam Fuller‘s “kino-fist style” has been growing in the last few years, (especially after seeing Park Row, The Steel Helmet, and Fixed Bayonets–all of which scratched my need for a Gene Evans fix from time to time), this movie sounds like a hoot. I’ll definitely have to track it down, especially since the French don’t seem to have had watered down Fuller‘s tendency to MAKE MOVIES IN CAPITAL LETTERS!!

Thanks for writing this appreciation, Rob. You’ve introduced me to a film I might never have known about otherwise.

Posted By moirafinnie : March 26, 2009 2:23 pm

As someone whose respect for what you wittily describe as Sam Fuller‘s “kino-fist style” has been growing in the last few years, (especially after seeing Park Row, The Steel Helmet, and Fixed Bayonets–all of which scratched my need for a Gene Evans fix from time to time), this movie sounds like a hoot. I’ll definitely have to track it down, especially since the French don’t seem to have had watered down Fuller‘s tendency to MAKE MOVIES IN CAPITAL LETTERS!!

Thanks for writing this appreciation, Rob. You’ve introduced me to a film I might never have known about otherwise.

Posted By morlockjeff : March 26, 2009 5:43 pm

As much as I love Fuller’s films, I had a hard time making it all the way to the end of his 1989 film with Keith Carradine, STREET OF NO RETURN. It had a few effective moments but felt compromised by its obvious low budget and not particularly engaging international cast. THIEVES AFTER DARK sounds more promising and the added attraction of Chabrol in cameo is appealing.

Posted By morlockjeff : March 26, 2009 5:43 pm

As much as I love Fuller’s films, I had a hard time making it all the way to the end of his 1989 film with Keith Carradine, STREET OF NO RETURN. It had a few effective moments but felt compromised by its obvious low budget and not particularly engaging international cast. THIEVES AFTER DARK sounds more promising and the added attraction of Chabrol in cameo is appealing.

Posted By Suzi Doll : March 27, 2009 1:43 pm

“Kino-fist” — excellent phrase.

Very interesting post on a film I knew nothing about, probably because I am a fair-weather Fuller fan. Love him when he’s great but not so loyal when he’s not so great.

But, nicely done.

Posted By Suzi Doll : March 27, 2009 1:43 pm

“Kino-fist” — excellent phrase.

Very interesting post on a film I knew nothing about, probably because I am a fair-weather Fuller fan. Love him when he’s great but not so loyal when he’s not so great.

But, nicely done.

Posted By Al Lowe : March 29, 2009 1:10 am

They always say: Be careful what you wish for because it may come true.
In your last communication with me, R. Emmet Sweeney, you seemed to be asking for reasoned and incisive criticism.
Okay, pal, you got it.

Director Sam Fuller had a fascinating life but you wouldn’t know it from your post. A newspaperman and crime reporter. Infantry soldier during World War II. A man who deserved and got both a Bronze Star and a Silver Star.

He made unique, startling and stunning movies. Again, this seems to be a secret you are keeping from your readers. These include: Fixed Bayonets, Pickup on South Street, House of Bamboo, Run of the Arrow, Crimson Kimono, Shock Corridor, Naked Kiss, Big Red One. You might have briefly mentioned each of these amazing films and talked about why they are worth seeing. Fuller’s work is not as well known as John Ford’s.

So far, you also don’t care to bother the readers by revealing much of the plots. This is unlike your Morlock colleagues. One of your Morlock chums wrote about Crinsom Kimono and talked about its story. I read your review of Thieves After Dark and I still don’t know what the damn thing is ABOUT! The problem with talking about only a couple of scenes is that you – and I do mean YOU – generally write about movies few movielovers have heard of, much less viewed.
When you wrote about another film, Me and My Gal, you loved talking about its scene spoofing Strange Interlude. I know the movie and don’t think much of the scene myself and also know that other studios and stars bashed that play around that time; I believe Groucho makes fun of it in Animal Crackers.

You’re not the only one who can dredge up obscure stuff. You mention that Fuller got disenchanted and relocated to France when White Dog floundered. But in an interview in 1968 in his Los Angeles home with Eric Sherman and Martin Rubin he gave details on future projects that he wanted to do, including a couple movies he wanted to make in France. The one he did from that list of projects he mentioned was Big Red One.

Or, to sum this all up, You’re a Knucklehead.

Don’t take this too hard. I regretted that email to Moirafinnie after I sent it.

I also said that I could be wrong.

Years ago, when reviewing a play featuring actor Sidney Blackmer George S. Kaufman called him “the worst actor in the world.” Blackmer sued Kaufman and his paper and won. Inevitably, Kaufman had to write about Blackmer again. He saved his critique of his performance until the last line of his newspaper review. He wrote: “As for Sidney Blackmer, he wasn’t up to his usual standard.”

Yet, when you see Blackmer in films like Duel in the Sun, he seems quite accomplished.

Maybe there’s hope for you yet.

Also, I make you a promise. When I next respond to one of your posts I will not steal Kaufman’s line and say that you are not up to your usual standard.

Good luck!

Posted By Al Lowe : March 29, 2009 1:10 am

They always say: Be careful what you wish for because it may come true.
In your last communication with me, R. Emmet Sweeney, you seemed to be asking for reasoned and incisive criticism.
Okay, pal, you got it.

Director Sam Fuller had a fascinating life but you wouldn’t know it from your post. A newspaperman and crime reporter. Infantry soldier during World War II. A man who deserved and got both a Bronze Star and a Silver Star.

He made unique, startling and stunning movies. Again, this seems to be a secret you are keeping from your readers. These include: Fixed Bayonets, Pickup on South Street, House of Bamboo, Run of the Arrow, Crimson Kimono, Shock Corridor, Naked Kiss, Big Red One. You might have briefly mentioned each of these amazing films and talked about why they are worth seeing. Fuller’s work is not as well known as John Ford’s.

So far, you also don’t care to bother the readers by revealing much of the plots. This is unlike your Morlock colleagues. One of your Morlock chums wrote about Crinsom Kimono and talked about its story. I read your review of Thieves After Dark and I still don’t know what the damn thing is ABOUT! The problem with talking about only a couple of scenes is that you – and I do mean YOU – generally write about movies few movielovers have heard of, much less viewed.
When you wrote about another film, Me and My Gal, you loved talking about its scene spoofing Strange Interlude. I know the movie and don’t think much of the scene myself and also know that other studios and stars bashed that play around that time; I believe Groucho makes fun of it in Animal Crackers.

You’re not the only one who can dredge up obscure stuff. You mention that Fuller got disenchanted and relocated to France when White Dog floundered. But in an interview in 1968 in his Los Angeles home with Eric Sherman and Martin Rubin he gave details on future projects that he wanted to do, including a couple movies he wanted to make in France. The one he did from that list of projects he mentioned was Big Red One.

Or, to sum this all up, You’re a Knucklehead.

Don’t take this too hard. I regretted that email to Moirafinnie after I sent it.

I also said that I could be wrong.

Years ago, when reviewing a play featuring actor Sidney Blackmer George S. Kaufman called him “the worst actor in the world.” Blackmer sued Kaufman and his paper and won. Inevitably, Kaufman had to write about Blackmer again. He saved his critique of his performance until the last line of his newspaper review. He wrote: “As for Sidney Blackmer, he wasn’t up to his usual standard.”

Yet, when you see Blackmer in films like Duel in the Sun, he seems quite accomplished.

Maybe there’s hope for you yet.

Also, I make you a promise. When I next respond to one of your posts I will not steal Kaufman’s line and say that you are not up to your usual standard.

Good luck!

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