Wednesday, January 19, 2011

DVD of the Week: Shock Corridor/The Naked Kiss: Criterion Collection

Samuel Fuller was one of the quintessential genre directors working in Hollywood during the 1950s as he brought his trademark two-fisted gusto to genres like the film noir (Pickup on South Street), the war film (The Steel Helmet), and the western (Forty Guns). In the early 1960s, he managed to independently finance two pulp masterpieces, Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964). On the surface, they are unabashed genre films but lurking underneath Fuller injected powerful commentaries on then-contemporary social issues. In the case of Shock Corridor, he used the premise of a reporter going undercover as a patient in a mental hospital to investigate a murder to comment on the issue of racism in America.

Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) is a reporter for the Daily Globe newspaper and who dreams of winning the Pulitzer Prize by committing himself to a mental hospital in order to solve a murder. His girlfriend stripper Cathy (Constance Towers) is worried that being surrounded by all kinds of crazy people will have a bad effect on him. As she tells him at one point, she’s “fed up playing Greek chorus to your rehearsed nightmare.” Cathy is the voice of reason to Johnny’s cocky hubris, telling him, “Don’t be Moses leading your lunatics to the Pulitzer Prize.” But of course, he doesn’t listen and is confident that he can pull this off while also getting his fame and fortune.

Once inside, Johnny meets a colorful collection of patients, like the man who thinks he’s an Italian opera singer, a man proud of being impotent, another one who believes he’s a general in the American Civil War, and, most intriguingly, an African-American who believes he’s a racist white man. Naturally, prolonged exposure to all of this madness begins to put the zap on Johnny as he gradually loses touch with reality. Fuller, the master of heightened melodrama, cranks it up another notch with this film as evident in the scenes where Cathy tries to get Johnny out of the hospital after six weeks, or when he finally snaps his cap, culminating in a show-stopping sequence that only Fuller could get away with.

At times, Shock Corridor resembles a horror film, like when Johnny wanders into a room full of female patients that swarm and attack him while he screams in terror. Fuller’s film is a fascinating look at what Barton Fink (1991) called, “the life of the mind,” and the thin line between sanity and madness.

As Robert Polito wisely observes in the DVD liner notes for the Criterion Collection edition of The Naked Kiss (1964), Samuel Fuller’s film fuses the melodrama of Douglas Sirk with the pulpy prose of Russ Meyer. The result is what Polito calls a “noirish fairy tale” as a former prostitute relocates to suburbia in an attempt to reinvent herself. However, all kinds of dirty secrets lurk underneath the town’s all-American surface.

The film opens in typical Fuller fashion as Kelly (Towers) beats her drunken pimp with her purse. The director cuts back and forth from both combatants’ point-of-view and then comes the punchline: the pimp reaches out and grabs Kelly’s hair and it’s a wig (?!) revealing her bald head! Welcome to The Naked Kiss. She beats him into submission only so she can take the money he owes her. If this ballsy prologue doesn’t grab you then nothing will.

Two years later, Kelly relocates to Grantville, a nice-enough looking town where local police detective Griff (Anthony Eisley) runs a punk out of town but at least has the decency to give the guy a couple of bucks before sending him packing on a bus. Kelly has reinvented herself as a saleslady for Angel Foam champagne, a beverage that “goes down like liquid gold and it comes up like slow dynamite.”

She and Griff meet at the bus terminal and hit it off immediately. After a one-night stand, he sends her packing – he has no illusions about who she is – but Kelly ignores him and goes to stay at a boarding house in town. She reinvents herself yet again by getting a job as a nurse’s aide in the children’s ward at the local hospital, much to Griff’s chagrin. Kelly soon finds her new way of life threatened by a terrible secret harbored by one of the townsfolk.

In Shock Corridor (1963), Constance Towers had a supporting role but with The Naked Kiss, Fuller cast her as the lead and she’s fantastic as a woman with a checkered past trying to start over. She demonstrates quite a good range as an actress, from the tough dame in the prologue, to the empathetic caregiver working with children at the hospital. Towers gets you to sympathize with Kelly and care about what happens to her. With The Naked Kiss, Fuller shows a slightly softer side but his film is still populated by tough-talking characters. It’s a pulp B-movie with a heart and anchored by a rock solid performance by Towers.

Special Features:

Included on the Shock Corridor DVD is the excellent documentary, The Typewriter, the Rife and the Movie Camera, about the life and career of Fuller with the likes of Tim Robbins, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, and Martin Scorsese talking about the man’s influence on them and others. Fuller is as gleefully hard-boiled as his films as he discusses his philosophy about life and cinema, which, not surprisingly, are the same.

There is an interview with actress Constance Towers done in 2007. She talks about how she met Fuller, her impressions of him and what it was like working on his films, most notably, Shock Corridor.

Finally, included is a theatrical trailer.

On The Naked Kiss DVD, there is an interview with Samuel Fuller from the French television program Cinema Cinemas in 1987. He looks over old photographs of himself and recounts colorful anecdotes about his life and working on various films.

The South Bank Show: Sam Fuller” is a 30-minute interview from a British talk show from 1983. He is interviewed in his home in a room jam-packed with books and screenplays, many of which were never filmed.

There is an interview with actress Constance Towers done in 2007. She recounts her parents’ reaction to playing a prostitute in The Naked Kiss. She also talks about the film’s dynamic opening and how it was achieved. This is an excellent interview and she is an engaging subject.

Also included is an interview with Fuller for Cineastes de Notre Temps, a French T.V. show in 1967. There is some fantastic vintage footage of the man talking about his life and films.

Finally, included is a theatrical trailer.



  1. Two Great Movies.

    Two Nice Reviews.

    Two more cases of the WHY THE FUCK DID I BUY THE EARLIER EDITIONS, Criterion Blues.

    Honestly I wish they had a trade in program.

  2. I don't think I've ever seen these Sam Fuller films. I need to put this in the ol' Netflix queue. Thanks, J.D.

  3. Been a while since I saw these. Shock Corridor in particular haunted me for damn months. Sounds like the Criterion's are must-buys.

  4. Bryce Wilson:

    Criterion blues indeed. I had these two titles from way back when but it was definitely worth the upgrade with some awesome transfers and sweet extras.


    If you like Fuller, it is the man at his gonzo best, esp. SHOCK CORRIDOR which is quite a film!

    Steve Langton:

    Yes, SHOCK CORRIDOR certainly leaves a lasting impression. Great film.

  5. The only reason I didn't have "Shock Corridor" already is because of finances, so for once it looks like I avoided the Criterion blues. Entirely by accident.

    I really enjoyed how, in "Shock Corridor," Johnny hears stories from patients during their more lucid moments about how they descended into madness, every story easily boiling down to these people snapping after being surrounded by craziness they could not overcome. Yet Johnny was just too dim and overconfident to realize he could ever become a victim of the same fate.

    You've really made me want to see "Naked Kiss" now, JD. It sounds terrific.

  6. Stacia:

    Yes, the stories that the patients tell during the film are fascinating, esp. how Johnny reacts (or doesn't) to them. His hubris and then comeuppance into madness is powerful stuff indeed.

    I think you'd really dig THE NAKED KISS. It is vintage Fuller to be sure. And Constance Towers is excellent in it.