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Ain’t That a Kick in the Head: Samuel Fuller’s Pulp Potboiler Brainquake

Know what Samuel Fuller was doing right before he sat down to write Brainquake, and you can better understand why Brainquake turned out as bizarre as it did — aside, that is, from simply being a product of the mind of Samuel Fuller, which was fertile soil for the strange and sublime. 

Fuller was a director of no small accomplishment. He was cut from the cloth of an older generation, a cigar-chomping self-styled he-man who earned his tough guy bona fides as part of the storied 1st Infantry Division during WWII — the Big Red One. During his tour Fuller earned the Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He turned his war experience into a semi-autobiographical movie in 1980. The film was a box office failure but garnered critical acclaim and still retains a dedicated following of critics and fans. That description fits much of Fuller’s filmography. Always an iconoclast, he usually worked outside the studio system — not always by choice — and showcased a documentarian style in even his most outre films, which include Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964). He worked in all of the macho genres but made his defining mark in noir, directing the spy noir classic Pick-Up on South Street, and the Japanese-set neo-noirs House of Bamboo and The Crimson Kimono.

When he needed a little extra scratch, or maybe it was just because he was feeling inspired, he wrote Brainquake, a fever dream pulp novel that begins with a baby apparently murdering someone and includes, among other things, a former French Resistance fighter tormented in his dreams by the disembodied jaundiced head of Charles De Gaulle, screaming at him for being a coward.

Immediately prior to that, however, Fuller was making ends meet by directing an episode of a British anthology series based on the work of Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley). Fuller’s episode was about a poultry magnate who is eventually pecked to death by chickens. Odd enough, but Fuller —not a chicken expert — didn’t realize that exposing the factory farm birds “contracted” for the shoot to so much sunlight would cause wholesale chicken death. The owner didn’t care; they were slaughterhouse chickens anyway. So there was Sam Fuller, shooting a weird story surrounded by birds who, upon seeing the sun, went insane with panic until they dropped dead in droves from exhaustion. If that’s the last image in your head when you sit down with a bunch of cigars and scotch to write a novel, there’s a pretty good chance it’ll turn out weird. 

Brainquake is certainly weird, but surreal levels of weirdness have been part of hardboiled pulp fiction since, well, probably before Raymond Chandler, but he’s a good example regardless. We forget sometimes how weird his novels often got. Fuller is no Chandler-esque poet, favoring instead the staccato prose of a born newspaperman, but Fuller is at least as adept as Chandler at leading his characters through a disorienting labyrinth that seems at times to come entirely untethered from reality. There’s a dreamlike quality to Brainquake layered on top of an otherwise recognizable tale of a chump who keeps making small bad decisions, misses opportunities to undo the damage, and finally ends up painting himself into a corner from which there’s no escape. Noir is built upon those little bad moments that lead you to the one big bad decision from which there’s no turning back. We often observe people in a bad station and marvel that they weren’t smart enough to avoid it, but people rarely make the leap from “doing OK” to “dead in the gutter” without there being a bunch of tiny incremental decisions that seemed to make sense at the time. But before you know it, well, you’re hiding out on a houseboat in Paris with a man who is getting raked over the coals by the ghost of Charles de Gaulle.

Fuller’s cinematic style was often at odds with the content of his films, imposing a stark, journalistic approach to scenes that could be utterly bizarre, rendering the absurd and implausible totally realistic and believable. That’s certainly the effect his writing style — similar to his directing style and honed after years as a beat reporter — in Brainquake, a book that opens with a murder orchestrated by rigging a self-firing gun between a baby’s legs and backed up with a bomb that will be triggered if anyone picks up the baby. Into this ridiculous but somehow still tense situation stumbles medium-witted Mob bagman Paul Page, whose pick-it-up and drop-it-off life is complicated only by occasional horrific headaches — his brainquakes — and a curious inability to interpret the facial expressions of others.

His simple life won’t survive the chance encounter in Central Park with the gun, the baby bomb, and a woman named Michelle Troy, the mother of the baby and, as of that bizarre scene, a recent widow who seeks Paul’s help. Tempted by her beauty and not the swiftest guy in the race, Paul agrees, and before he knows what has happened, he’s on the outs with the Mob and fleeing both a determined NYPD detective and an eccentric hitman. Paul and Michelle flee from New York to Paris, where they meet up with the aforementioned former resistance fighter, who lives on a houseboat (nothing says noir quite like a character who lives on a houseboat) and is haunted by surreal hallucinations of his own past. Needless to say, not everything is as it appears to be, and basically nothing’s going to go well for poor ol’ Paul.

There was a resurgence of film noir in the 1980s, this time with the glossy veneer of the decade layered on top  of it to achieve a style sometimes called neon noir, building on the neo noir of the late 1960s and early ’70s. That trend, stripped of some of the neon, carried into the 1990s, in the form of hyper-self aware Quentin Tarantino films and, less self-aware but no less affectatious, films that seemed to walk the line between Tarantino imitation and dusty Jim Thompson-esque crime writing (in fact, a good many nineties noirs were based on Thompson novels). Although set in the same time as Fuller was writing it, there’s very little that feels 1990s about Brainquake. But for the occasional mention of a piece of technology here or there, it could be a hardboiled crime story from the 1940s or ’50s. It’s like two times seem to co-exist, and we can all pretend that even if it’s New York in the 1990s, there are still shanty town shacks on Bowery Street.

Fuller’s time in Paris is not without impact beyond the setting for much of the novel. As American noir as Brainquake is, it’s also just as much French noir, which of course is opening a big tangle of influences as old European crime films influence American crime films, begetting noir, which in turn influenced French crime films, begetting French noir, spearheaded by the director Jean-Pierre Melville. All of which makes sense given that so many of the directors who pioneered film noir in America were from or worked closely with European immigrants, who flocked to the United States to escape the Nazis. American noir could be vicious and fatalistic. French noir infused it with a sense of melancholy and something tragicomic. It highlighted the inherent absurdity of the crews of schemers and dreamers concocting hopelessly ambitious, convoluted heists and asked, when it all went to hell, why you would have ever expected anything different. Brainquake is heavy with that sense of absurdity, with the notion that everything is ridiculous and then we die horribly — but what can you do except have a smoke and toast it all?

Brainquake was finished in 1993, but by then, Fuller was a forgotten commodity in America — and his value had been uneven, at best, even at what you’d call the height of his film career. It’s why, after all, he was writing Brainquake instead of directing a film. No one in the US was interested in a bonkers noir potboiler from a forgotten director, and so the novel was published in France and, for some reason, Japan, before disappearing. Fuller died in 1997. It wasn’t until Sam’s widow, Christa Fuller, contacted Hard Case Crime (which had just published Cocktail Waitress, an unpublished manuscript from crime fiction legend James M. Cain) and let them know she happened to have a pulp novel Sam wrote, and would they be interested, that Brainquake found its way onto the page in English. What a treat it is.

Fuller is at maximum Fuller, unfettered by the need to satisfy more cautious studio producers. And no matter what you may think of the man or his movies, there’s no denying that he never half-assed anything. He pushed everything to the limit, and if it burned to the ground in the process, better that than something mundane. One can only imagine Fuller’s mental state when he wrote it, holed up as he was in Paris and haunted by visions of shrieking, insane chickens, which enabled him to exist fully within the phantasmagoric construct of Brainquake‘s world, where tough dames and Mob thugs with names like Zookie, who seem straight out of the “why I oughta” era of crime fiction, co-exist with cordless phones. This isn’t the Stray Cats, dressed up in the accouterments of the past. It’s not neo or neon noir, and Fuller’s not attempting to be retro. Classic American tough guy is simply the only language he ever learned.

About Keith Allison

Keith Allison is a writer and pop culture historian living in New York. His interest in film and adventure started at an early age, when he was left to his own devices in the wee small hours and discovered the Universal monsters, Godzilla, and "Matinee at the Bijou." He has written for Alcohol Professor, The Cultural Gutter, Teleport City and the book Sex and Zen and a Bullet in the Head. He is also the author of Cocktails & Capers: Cult Film, Cocktails, Crime, and Cool.

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