Shock Corridor / The Naked Kiss (Criterion)
It’s easy to see why the French New Wave directors loved Sam Fuller so. A street intellectual with the grammar of a tabloid newsman, Fuller made his points about America in slogans and headlines punctuating pulp melodramas and action films. His desire was to jolt his audience, and these films are Fuller at his most jagged.
Shock Corridor (1963) sends investigative reporter Peter Breck undercover in an insane asylum where he finds a microcosm of America among the catatonic inmates, escaping their sins and traumas through delusion. It’s psychodrama at its most lurid and confrontational; Fuller knows exactly what he’s doing when he has African-American actor Hari Rhodes don a pointed Klan mask and preach white supremacy (“America for Americans!”) to a 1963 movie audience. And he’s just as knowing when he sets a veritable girl-gang of “nymphomaniacs” upon Breck, a bizarro bit of sexlopitation turned into a genuine assault. It’s almost formula the way his spotlight inmates calm into clarity and reveal their trauma in spiels of exposition, yet some scenes are so vividly mad that it takes the film out of its dime store psycho-analysis and into cinematic genius. The hurricane in the corridor is a nightmare sequence turned first-person ordeal hammered home with a startling close-up of Breck’s screaming face, shot from such a vertiginous angle from below that it throws the entire (already unstable) film right off its axis. Meanwhile, stripper Constance Towers plays Breck’s girlfriend posing as his sister (part of his cover) and delivers one of the most unnatural stripteases in the movies, like an art film deconstruction of a strip. Most of the film is like that, teetering between pulp excess and art film expressionism.
The Naked Kiss (1964) opens with Constance Towers battering the camera point blank before her wig slips off to reveal a startling image and just gets stranger from there. The angry hooker busses into a small town, becomes nurse in the children’s ward of a hospital while local cop Anthony Eisley tries to force her out of town (immediately after sleeping with her) and ends up wooed by local millionaire Michael Dante, a cool sophisticate with a perverse secret. Fuller holds back his Kino-fist for all but a few brief scenes—the jagged opening, the fantasy that transports Towers to the canals of Venice, the discreet revelation of Bunny in Dante’s mansion and the dislocated cutting that throws the scene so off-balance it’s like we’ve had the world pulled out from under us. An audacious mix of cynicism, sleaze, sentimental gooeyness and social commentary, it’s bizarre and at times an assault on the senses (the children’s choir is enough to make you run from the room screaming) but there’s nothing else like it. Fuller gives us an ugly, tawdry America hiding its guilt under a surface of normalcy. These two aggressively crude and skewed late Fuller films are America’s pulp poet at his most passionately outrageous.
Both films were early Criterion DVD releases. They’ve been newly remastered for the new DVD edition and Blu-ray debut and look superb. Shock Corridor features Adam Simon’s affectionate 1996 documentary The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera, with Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Tim Robbins and Jim Jarmusch paying tribute to Fuller and his films, and The Naked Kiss features excerpts from a 1983 episode of The South Bank Show dedicated to Fuller and two archival interviews with Fuller from French TV. Both include in-depth original interviews with actress Constance Towers conducted by Charles Dennis in 2007 and booklets with essays and excerpts from Fuller’s autobiography.