Monday Movie: Street of No Return, by Alexander Miller
Every Monday, we’ll highlight a piece of writing from our vaults. This review of Street of No Return originally ran as a Criterion prediction.
We open on a street scene at night, dozens of men thumping on one another; it’s not a fight but a small riot. Meanwhile, a handful of haggard winos passively bear witness. The first bit of dialogue we get is one of the bums bragging that he pinched drinks at a local tavern by dropping a dead rat in someone’s glass, then guzzling down the unattended beverages while the patrons recoil in disgust; not shortly after the police come in and break up the throwdown – by the time the credits roll, and we see the words “A Film by Samuel Fuller” it’s hard to silence that voice in your head that says “yeah, no shit.”
Street of No Return is the director’s penultimate noir outing from his European ex-pat era and it’s sizzling with the jaunty energy that (as evidenced here) never left him or his work. 40 years from his feature debut, I Shot Jesse James, and the self-styled maverick is still chugging with the herculean force that bore him.
Speaking to the Fuller aesthetic, Street of No Return is an adaptation of David Goodis’ book of the same name. A pulpy tale of revenge and redemption as a rock star turned bum takes on the mobsters responsible for condemning him to the gutter after slashing his throat, robbing him of his voice. It’s the stuff of a great tragedy, and Fuller doesn’t lose that ambitious scope, nor does he skimp on the romanticism with his brash and volatile vision. It’s the “loner versus everyone” scenario and it’s akin to the likes of The Naked Kiss, Pickup on South Street, and, in this case, it shares the most DNA with Underworld USA. But the years between these outings and this 1989 neo noir have fanned the already burning flame of incisive social commentary inside Fuller; after all, was White Dog an empty gesture?
Keith Carradine is leading the charge but his journey is colored with progressive racial insight. The opening brawl turns out to be a race riot (?!), and the inclusion of Bill Duke (whose directing career echoes Fuller’s anarchic gait with pugnacious originality) is a superlative addition, playing police Lieutenant Borel with casual authority. The varied dirty dealings, characters, and the themes of revenge, corruption, and (in a manner of speaking) redemption crackle with the seasoned experience of a tabloid reporter-cum-soldier-turned powerhouse director because Fuller knows how to spin a story, and he does so with punchy, romantic veracity.
Fuller treats his varied vagabonds, hustlers, pimps, and laconic antiheroes with sincere reverie (re: the anecdote about the wino using dead rats as a diversion). Clearly, this is coming from the mind of enlightened experience who didn’t just study the human seed but loved it, degenerative qualities and all.
Samuel Fuller is the best kind of auteur in that his movies reveal both an artistic throughline and a characteristic one. His films are anything but cleanly assembled works of art, but jagged mosaics of passion and pain. Who wants a sculpture with sanded edges and a slick coat of paint when you can grasp the whole-hearted pulp poetry of an American maverick.