Two lurid classics from filmmaker Samuel Fuller

by Bruce Dancis

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

19 January 2011


In “Shock Corridor,” the three inmates in a mental institution who hold the key to solving a murder mystery represent an America that was itself cracking up — over racism, anti-communist hysteria and the threat of nuclear warfare. In “The Naked Kiss,” a small, idyllic American town is exposed to reveal a seamy side of sexuality in the form of prostitution, child abuse and pedophilia.

These two films, from 1963 and 1964, respectively, emerged from the fertile and lurid mind of Samuel Fuller, the daring filmmaker who wrote, directed and produced low-budget “B” movies from the mid-1930s through 1990, both inside the Hollywood studios and on their outskirts as an independent. His films have been praised for their intensity and visual flair, and denigrated for their primitive, “tabloid” stories and dialogue. (Fuller had been a crime reporter for tabloid newspapers in New York before serving in the infantry during World War II and becoming a novelist, screenwriter, director and producer.) In 1996, a year before Fuller died at the age of 85, “Shock Corridor” was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry honoring “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films.”

“Shock Corridor” and “The Naked Kiss” are out this week in excellent new editions from the Criterion Collection with high-definition digital transfers and informative special features on Fuller’s life and work ($29.95/$39.95 Blu-ray, not rated). They were both made by Fuller outside of the Hollywood studio system. Minimally budgeted, both films were box-office hits, though Fuller later claimed in his autobiography, “A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking,” that he never saw any profits because he was ripped off by the films’ financial backer, a real estate tycoon named Sam Firks.

Despite the limited resources with which he had to work, both films have a striking visual presence, thanks to Fuller and his cinematographer, Stanley Cortez. And they both had excellent casts, notably Constance Towers, who plays a nightclub stripper and the girlfriend of the lead character in “Shock Corridor” and stars as a former prostitute in “The Naked Kiss.”

“Shock Corridor,” a murder mystery and an allegory, is about a newspaper reporter, Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck), who tries to get to the bottom of an unsolved murder in a mental hospital by having himself committed to the same hospital. He’s heard that three inmates may have witnessed the crime but were too delusional to give accurate testimony. The first of these, portrayed by James Best, is a Southern white Korean War veteran who had been captured and brainwashed by communists (shades of “The Manchurian Candidate,” which came out a year earlier), used for propaganda purposes as a turncoat and returned to the United States in shame; after suffering a mental breakdown, he now thinks he’s Confederate Civil War hero Jeb Stuart. The second, played by Hari Rhodes, is an African-American who had integrated a Southern university (based, undoubtedly, on James Meredith’s challenge to segregation at the University of Mississippi in 1962) but suffered a breakdown over all the abuse and stress he faced; he now believes he’s a white supremacist, a hate-filled member of the KKK. The third inmate is a Nobel Prize-winning nuclear scientist (Gene Evans) who had helped create both the atomic and hydrogen bombs but came to feel horror over what he had wrought and has reverted to acting like a 6-year-old.

As Barrett gets to know these disturbed men — and also has a sensationalistic encounter with “nymphomaniacs” when he mistakenly steps into a closed, all-female ward of the hospital — he is able to solve the murder mystery, but at unimagined cost to his own mental health.

“The Naked Kiss” tells the story of a former prostitute named Kelly (Towers) who tries to start a new life in what on its surface is a perfectly normal-looking small town. She gets a job as a nurse’s aide in a hospital for disabled children, and proves to be exceptionally good at her work. But when she falls in love with and is about to marry the town’s wealthiest and most prominent citizen (Michael Dante), who is the financial benefactor behind the children’s hospital and the best friend of the town’s chief of police (Anthony Eisley), she discovers a horrible truth about her man.

As film critic Robert Polito writes in an essay included with the DVD, “The Naked Kiss” resembles the female melodramas of director Robert Sirk — though in Fuller’s hands the story is more sensationalistic and tawdry. Still, the movie is filled with knockout images, none more so than the opening scene where Kelly beats up her pimp to get the money he owes her.

Accompanying both DVDs are recent interviews with Towers, who fondly recalls her work with Fuller, even though his casting of her as a stripper and prostitute was far removed from her other movie and stage roles. (Towers is perhaps best known for her appearances in Broadway musicals; she costarred with Yul Brynner in nearly 800 performances of “The King and I.”) Each DVD also includes an excerpt from Fuller’s autobiography.

The “Shock Corridor” DVD also comes with a fine documentary about Fuller, from 1996, featuring excerpts from Fuller’s films and scenes of Fuller, fellow movie directors Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, and actor Tim Robbins discussing his work.

“The Naked Kiss” DVD includes interviews with Fuller that aired on French television in 1967 and 1987, and a British TV program about Fuller from 1983.

Although Fuller is probably best known for his war movies — in particular, “The Steel Helmet” and “The Big Red One” — he made films on all sorts of subjects, including espionage thrillers (“Pickup on South Street”), Westerns (“Forty Guns”), organized crime in Japan and the United States (“House of Bamboo,” “Underworld U.S.A.”) and the news media (“Park Row.”) He often took on topical issues, especially racism — “White Dog,” for example, was about a dog trained to attack black people — though his movies were usually more visceral than intellectual, more shocking than sobering.

What Fuller wrote about “Shock Corridor” in his autobiography applies to many of his films: “It had the subtlety of a sledgehammer ... Like an X ray that fathoms a patient’s tumors, ‘Shock Corridor’ would probe our nation’s sickness. Without an honest diagnosis of the problems, how could we ever hope to heal them?”



4 stars

Cast: Peter Breck, Constance Towers, Gene Evans, James Best, Hari Rhodes and Larry Tucker

Writer/director/producer: Samuel Fuller

Distributor: Criterion Collection

Not rated



3 stars

Cast: Constance Towers, Anthony Eisley, Michael Dante and Virginia Grey

Writer/director/producer: Samuel Fuller

Distributor: Criterion Collection

Not rated

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