If you’d asked me last night which big-name director is best known for simulating a face-punch by having an actor pretend to punch the camera lens, I would have said Alfred Hitchcock. He does this twice (and with a good amount of pizazz and precision) in North by Northwest when a bad-ass South Dakota cop slugs Cary Grant at the end of Act Two, and then about 15 minutes later when James Mason decks Martin Landau.
Then I read Dave Kehr‘s N.Y. Times video column this morning and remembered that Samuel Fuller trail-blazed this effect in I Shot Jesse James (1949), his debut film, when “a barroom brawler takes a poke right at the camera’s lens, the defining moment in a style that Jean-Luc Godard would later characterize as ‘cinema-fist.'” I’d read this, you see, but I’ve never seen this Fuller film.
I Shot Jesse James is now part of a new Criterion DVD package called “The First Films of Samuel Fuller.”