Criterion is releasing two Sam Fuller films, "Shock Corridor" and "The Naked Kiss," on Blu-Ray and SD-DVD this week, both of which were among the first Criterion titles put out (Spine #s 18 and 19.) The following is a joint review of both films which has been cross-posted with the review of "The Naked Kiss." Video, Audio, Extras and Film Value sections are specific to each release.
Ever since his canonization by the "Cahiers du cinéma" critics in the late 50s and early 60s, Samuel Fuller has been a legendary figure in cinephile circles. The cigar-chomping, fast-talking newspaper man was embraced as much for his larger-than-life personality as his supposedly "primitive" style of filmmaking: lean, no-nonsense, action-oriented. Hmm, sounds like Bresson except nobody ever called him a "primitive." Or confused him with Sam Fuller.
Fuller wore his newspaper credentials (he began as a 12 year-old copy boy and worked his way up to crime reporter) as a badge of honor, describing his camera as a typewriter and bragging about his in-your-face approach to storytelling: "I learned early that it is not the headline that counts but how hard you shout it." And shout he does, from the famous opening of "The Naked Kiss," in which a bald prostitute beats the hell out of her pimp, to the florid rantings of an African-American man in an insane asylum ("Shock Corridor") who fancies himself a Grand Wizard in the KKK. This was pre-Dave Chappelle for you younger readers.
Fuller reached directly for any effect he could think of (and boy could he think of plenty) to grab the audience by the short and curlies. I think a waterfall would look good here, so Goddamnit I'm gonna show a picture of a waterfall! Watching a Sam Fuller movie is like having J. Jonah Jameson sidle up behind you in a theater and repeatedly shout: "Drop your cocks and grab your socks!" Which is a pleasant enough thought but can be exhausting and occasionally a bit tiresome. Fixing that typewriter-camera in CAPS LOCK has its limitations.
But as much as Fuller disdained the notion of subtlety, his films, hardboiled as they might have been, were hardly one note, and what lingers most for me are the lyrical (a word Fuller probably despised) moments. In "Shock Corridor," stripper-saint Cathy (Constance Towers) performs her routine on a dimly lit stage with no apparent audience. It's a desultory yet beautiful spectacle, granted an otherworldy "Silencio"-style quality by its flatness and the unplaceable echo of the name "Johnny, Johnny, Johnny" that she images as she sings. Or perhaps it's being imagined off-screen by Johnny (Peter Breck), her boyfriend and Pulitzer-hungry reporter who has faked his way into a mental institution (for alleged incestuous desires for his sister!) in order to solve the murder of a patient. Yes, you can guess where the story is going just from the set up, but how it gets there is a little harder to predict.
Despite all the emphasis placed on Fuller's reportage, the mental ward in question isn't portrayed in particularly realistic terms. The titular corridor looks suitably desolate, but the patients are raving caricatures, simplified enough that they might be considered offensive depictions if not for the obvious fact that they serve as metaphorical stand-ins for a rotting "insane" American society.
Johnny has to grill three patients who witnessed the murder: a man who thinks he is Civil War general Jeb Stuart, the aforementioned Klansman, and a former nuclear scientist who has regressed to "the mentality of a six year old." Each has been traumatized by the most corrosive aspects of American society in the 50s/60s: Communist paranoia, racism, and the mass insanity of a race that has just invented the means for its own extinction. In case you don't pick it up, each of the men is granted a brief window of clarity to restate the problem in terms clear and "on the nose" enough for any newspaper reader to understand.
But Fuller still finds moments of lyricism (sorry again, Mr. Fuller, if the term would make you want to puke.) One of the most beautiful images in the film is the serene smile of the scientist as he plays hide-and-seek under the bench. And the way "General Stuart" turns around, his face lit in profile, when he hears "Dixie" played on the piano. Perhaps most striking of all are the dreams-hallucinations recounted by two of the patients – recycled documentary and scouting footage from other Fuller projects – which are the only scenes in color amidst the black-and-white photography by the great Stanley Cortez. It's not just the contrast that looks so strange, but the fact that the men make a special point of noting with wonder that they always see these images in color, as if they know they are really in a black-and-white movie.
And of course there are the nymphos. Grab your socks!
It's a fair debate as to whether or not "The Naked Kiss" (1964), Fuller's next film, is any less deranged than the one set in a mental ward. Constance Towers graduates from stripper to prostitute as Kelly who is introduced by a wildly swaying camera as she wails away at her deadbeat pimp. It's a trick (um, no pun intended, I swear) she'll repeat a few times in the film. Like Fuller, Kelly believes in the direct approach, and a good slap can get quick results.
She takes off to a new town where she hooks up with a crooked cop named Griff (Anthony Eisley), but has an abrupt change of heart. In a full-blown melodramatic twist, she becomes a nurse in a children's hospital and decides to become an honest woman and settle down with a respectable man.
Naturally this turns out to be Kelly's undoing. Trying to fit with society isn't necessarily the greatest idea when that society is bullshit, and it's up to the hooker with moxie to spare to maintain her integrity in the midst of the hypocrisy and corruption. She becomes the curvier answer to Lillian Gish's character in "Night of the Hunter," serving as the only protector of children in "a harsh world for little things."
The film's opening scene may be the best-known shot in Fuller's distinguished career, but no viewer will soon forget when Kelly leads her children in song: "Tell me why, Mommy dear, are there tears in your eyes?" Towers is exceptional in this movie, and while it would be wrong to say she "rises above" the B-movie material (it's great stuff, who needs to rise above it?) her performance is one of the finest in any Fuller movie.
"Shock Corridor" and "The Naked Kiss" represented the end of Fuller's run as a remarkably prolific filmmaker. Perfectly capable of shooting a quality feature in less than a month, Fuller thrived in the 50s, directing approximately one film per year (just about all of them good to great) but with the collapse of the studio system, the B-movie auteur would struggle to find funding for the rest of his career, and 1980's "The Big Red One" would be his only other commercially successful film, though "White Dog" (1982) has many critical admirers.
"Shock Corridor" is presented in a 1.75:1 high-def transfer. Criterion's early releases were not exactly notable for their pristine transfers, and "Shock Corridor" was no exception. There's no point in even comparing this release from 12 years later. This image resolution and contrast of this 1080p transfer aren't as razor sharp as Criterion's best work and I don't know if that's attributable to the source print (listed as a "35 mm fine-grain master positive) or not. However, the film has a beautiful grain structure to it that really makes it a pleasure to watch.
"Shock Corridor" is presented with an LPCM 1.0 audio track. As usual, the uncompressed audio is clean as a whistle with no audible crackle or damage of any kind. Optional English subtitles are provided.
There are only a few extras included but they're good ones.
An interview with Constance Towers (29 min.) was conducted in 2007 by film historian and filmmaker Charles Dennis, half of the nearly hour-long interview that is broken up over both this disc and Criterion's "The Naked Kiss" release. Towers actually spends more time talking about her work with John "Pappy" Ford than with Fuller in this interview, but she's got plenty of interest to say.
The prize here is the 55-minute BFI/IFC co-production "The Typewriter, The Rifle and the Movie Camera," a 1996 documentary directed by Adam Simon. Tim Robbins hosts/narrates with ample interviews with Sam Fuller and appearances by fans/filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch and Martin Scorsese. A lot of the extras on these two Fuller releases overlap because of the director's tendency to retell the same stories, but this feature is by far the best of the lot.
A Theatrical Trailer (3 min.) is also included.
The 28-page insert booklet contains an essay by critic Robert Polito and an excerpt from Fuller's autobiography, "A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking."
"Shock Corridor" is one of Fuller's best-known films, and served as one of the primary inspirations for Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island," but I don't consider it one of Fuller's very best. Melodrama is not a bad word, but I find the theatrical vignettes and the strident performances (including that of Peter Breck) less appealing than their counterparts in "The Naked Kiss."
Still, "Shock Corridor" is often inspired and as is invariably the case with Fuller, you can't help but respect its sheer audacity. The new Criterion release isn't overflowing with extras, but it's still a strong release that should please most Fuller aficionados.