“This isn’t a goddamn humanitarian film. It’s a hard-hitting, action-packed melodrama. Give your award to Ingmar Bergman.”
– Sam Fuller, accepting a Humanitarian Award for Shock Corridor at the Valladolid International Film Festival
Although January isn’t even over, I doubt there will be many more significant home video releases in all of 2011 than the Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray editions of Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, two seminal works by one of America’s most iconoclastic filmmakers. These nightmarish, post-noir masterpieces, written and directed by Sam Fuller in 1963 and 1964, are finally getting the treatment they deserve with Criterion’s sparkling new anamorphic HD transfers, which supplant the company’s earlier standard DVD releases of the same titles (spine numbers 18 and 19, respectively). Additionally, both discs are loaded with sterling special features that make them an ideal introduction to the work of a man aptly dubbed “a cinematic warrior” by Quentin Tarantino.
Sam Fuller began his filmmaking career as a true independent, directing low-budget quickies in the late 1940s, and wound down his career the same way, albeit as an American exile scrounging for work in Europe in the late 1980s. In between, he enjoyed a lengthy stretch in Hollywood as a contract director at Twentieth Century Fox in the 1950s (where he made such highly personal and superior genre films as Fixed Bayonets, Pickup on South Street, House of Bamboo and Forty Guns) and a briefer, unhappier stint there in the late 1970s and early 1980s (where he saw United Artists cut his epic war film The Big Red One by 40% and Paramount shelf his racially charged drama White Dog). Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss constitute one of the high points of Fuller’s career – when he was working as an independent for Allied Artists in the early 1960s and could express aspects of his crazy vision that he couldn’t have gotten away with at a major studio, but with enough money and resources to work with talented collaborators like actress Constance Towers and cinematographer Stanley Cortez.
Shock Corridor, the earlier of the films, is essentially a tale of two movies: a murder mystery set inside a mental hospital and an exploitation of this location as an extended metaphor for all that is wrong with America circa 1963. In Fuller’s characteristic yellow journalism-style, he tells the story of John Barrett (Peter Breck), a reporter who feigns insanity in order to be committed to an asylum where a patient was recently murdered. Once inside, he hopes to interrogate the three key witnesses to the murder, mental patients who have not been forthcoming with police. Barrett believes that solving this mystery will lead to a big story and, potentially, a Pulitzer Prize. As Barrett first befriends and then interviews the witnesses, we realize what troubling social ills drove each of them insane: anti-communist hysteria, racism and the threat of nuclear annihilation. But the closer Barrett gets to the truth, the more he risks losing his own sanity. He may eventually get the story he’s after but, after being attacked by “nymphos” in the women’s ward, subjected to electroshock therapy and more, Fuller asks “what price glory?” with a palpable and bitter irony.
Shock Corridor is full of wild, hallucinatory images befitting its central location. This includes a startling interpolation of color footage (shot by Fuller himself in Japan and South America) in an otherwise black and white film, which is used to signify the mental turmoil preceding moments of clarity for some of the patients. For many viewers, the most memorable image may be the climactic scene where Barrett imagines a thunderstorm inside the main corridor of the hospital, a scene for which Fuller flooded, and literally ruined, his large set. (By necessity, he shot this sequence last.) The film’s soundtrack also impresses with its intimations of aural hallucination: Fuller abruptly shuts music cues on and off and presents reverb-heavy internalized voice-over. In 1963, Shock Corridor may have seemed like nothing more than a ludicrous b-movie but, nearly half a century later, unencumbered by the standards of “realism” to which all American movies seem to be held by contemporary reviewers, Fuller’s vision of America-as-mental hospital looks like the audacious work of art that it is: pulpy and crude but also strangely beautiful and as visceral as a punch in the stomach.
As disturbing as some of the scenes in Shock Corridor undoubtedly are, Fuller outdoes himself with The Naked Kiss the following year. Jean-Luc Godard once memorably described Fuller’s visual style as “cinema fist” and there is no more apt scene to illustrate this than the film’s first indelible images: the point of view of a drunken pimp being beaten by a bald prostitute with her handbag. She is Kelly (Constance Towers), a “lady of the night” who proceeds to move from a nameless big city to the seemingly idyllic small town of Grantville in an effort to start her life anew. Upon arriving, she immediately throws herself into the arms of the first man she sees, a police captain named Griff (Anthony Eisley, one of many “Griff”s in Fuller’s universe), who has a habit of seducing women of loose morals before sending them packing to the seamier town on the “other side of the river.”
Only Kelly, determined to reform, refuses to leave and gets a job instead at the local Children’s Hospital. Soon she develops a romance with Grant (Michael Dante), a local millionaire and the hospital’s chief benefactor, whose grandfather was the town’s namesake. To give more of the plot away would be criminal, especially since Fuller’s story takes a bizarre left turn in the final act, which allows him to ramp up his criticism of small town hypocrisy to dizzying heights. Suffice it to say that Fuller’s vision of the evil lurking behind the façade of American white picket fence wholesomeness makes David Lynch’s similar critique in Blue Velvet look like child’s play.
Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss are profitably viewed as companion pieces in several ways, such as the fact that they share several key collaborators; central to the success of both movies are the performances of Constance Towers, the doe-eyed Irish-American actress whose impressive emotional range could convey vulnerability one minute (her heartbreaking final scene in Shock Corridor) and steely toughness the next (the memorable scene in The Naked Kiss where she forcibly stuffs money into the mouth of a brothel’s madam.) Towers may never have “made it” as an A-list actress in Hollywood but the memorable work she did for Fuller and John Ford (who both used her twice and clearly adored her) has ensured her place in film history – ahead of other stars whose careers may have seemed more respectable at the time.
Also performing double duty on both films was cinematographer Stanley Cortez, a master of chiaroscuro lighting whose previous credits included The Magnificent Ambersons and The Night of the Hunter. Cortez’s penchant for high contrast lighting is the single major reason why Criterion’s Blu-rays represent such an essential upgrade over their standard DVD counterparts; check out the interplay of light and shadow in the prison sequences of The Naked Kiss to understand how much richer and more beautiful darkness can be rendered in high-definition.
Finally, the supplements on each disc are unusually insightful and provide what amounts to a master class on the life and career of Sam Fuller. This includes vintage interviews with the great man himself, new video interviews with Constance Towers (who still looks lovely well into her seventies and tells some cracking good yarns about working with Ford and Fuller) and, best of all, Adam Simon’s feature-length 1996 documentary The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera (included on the Shock Corridor disc, marking its first home video release on any format.)
This last feature sheds light on the several lives Fuller lived as a crime reporter and soldier before he ever made a movie and contains interviews with Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, all of whom wax poetic on Fuller’s films and their influence. But it’s the incredible interviews with the outrageous raconteur Fuller, conducted not long before his death, that provide the documentary’s high point; the film ends, for instance, with Fuller pitching the idea for a biopic of Honore de Balzac, using colorful language and his trademark growl of a voice to make a hypothetical movie about the life of the mind sound almost impossibly exciting. “He was a scoundrel!”, Fuller says of Balzac. “He was a bullshit artist!” Then, after a slight pause for dramatic effect: “He was a writer!”
Thanks to Christa Fuller for making corrections to this review.