Saturday, January 15, 2011

Shock Corridor/The Naked Kiss

A crazed bald woman beats up her drunk pimp before taking $800 from him, and this is all before the film’s title card appears. We’ve entered serious film noir territory here, courtesy of maverick writer/director Sam Fuller. In this pair of his classic ‘60s films making their Criterion Blu-ray debut, we get a fresh look at the work of this trailblazing auteur in crystal-clear hi def.

In Shock Corridor, Fuller follows a brave newspaper reporter on his bold gambit to infiltrate a mental hospital as a patient in order to investigate a suspicious murder. One guess how that turns out for him. Although he’s perfectly sane when he enters the facility, his prolonged exposure to the deranged patients proves more than his psyche can manage. There’s precious little plot to develop here, as it’s obvious right from the opening that our hero has bitten off more than he can chew, leaving the only mystery whether or not he will successfully uncover the identity of the killer. Instead of plot, Fuller delights in wallowing in the madness of the facility, with extended scenes devoted to the escalating factors driving the reporter to insanity, including a gaggle of nymphomaniacs, a race-hating bigot inciting a riot, shock therapy, and finally the reporter’s own breakdown as he imagines the entire interior of the ward being immersed in a torrential downpour. That final scene is the most memorable, and it came at a cost. As disclosed in the bonus features, Fuller flooded the soundstage and completely ruined his set to get the otherworldly footage.

Filmed the following year, The Naked Kiss has a much more intriguing storyline and protagonist, and as such I found it to be far superior to its predecessor. Constance Towers stars as an ex-hooker named Kelly with a heart of gold, who lands in a sleepy conservative small town (is there any other kind?) in her quest to redeem herself. However, her first act in town is a final remnant of her past life, as she quickly beds the local sheriff in exchange for a donation to the Kelly fund. That sheriff subsequently keeps close tabs on her and doubts her virtue as she sets about working as a helper to disabled children and finds romance with the wealthiest man in town. Is it all an act, or is Kelly truly on the straight-and-narrow? The lingering impact and subsequent repercussions of one naked kiss bring about her perceived downfall, but also her best shot at validation if the lawman can discover the truth.

Both films are stuffed with colorful characters concocted by Fuller, not too difficult to achieve in Shock Corridor’s setting but all the more impressive in the mostly straight-laced environs of The Naked Kiss. Kelly is the most interesting character of them all, as we’re almost as conflicted about her virtue as she is, careening from that astounding opening scene with her pimp right through to her trial in the court of public opinion. Towers is stunning in the role, although more so in the latter stages as there’s something almost too theatrical rather than natural about her performance in the early scenes in town. That could be somewhat attributed to the times, as Fuller’s work here is clearly part of the early building blocks of independent film, so his lead actors were likely still finding their footing outside of the highly regimented studio system fare of the time.

This was my first exposure to any of Fuller’s work, but it’s quite easy to draw a direct line from him to the auteurs of our time such as Tarantino, Jarmusch, and Wenders. As if to drive home that idea of Fuller as godfather to all latter-day independent titans, all three of those directors in addition to Scorsese and Tim Robbins appear in a lengthy biographical program about him included in the Shock Corridor bonus features. There’s quite a bit of interview footage of Fuller included, giving viewers great insight into his gruff, outspoken, and animated personality. Tarantino also contributes a recurring comical impersonation of him while sifting through Fuller’s archives with Robbins.

Elsewhere in the bonus features, Constance Towers appears in lengthy interviews exclusive to each disc and offers incredibly fascinating insight into the production of both films. Although filmed in 2007, she’s razor-sharp, poised, and astoundingly informative in her disclosures about Fuller, the making of the films, and their lasting impact. The Naked Kiss also includes interviews with Fuller from French shows recorded in 1967 and 1987, as well as excerpts from a 1983 episode of the UK South Bank Show dedicated to him, giving viewers an abundance of exposure to this iconoclastic writer/director.

Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss are available on Criterion Blu-ray on January 18th, 2011 and are being reissued on DVD on the same date. In fact, they’re such long-time and key components of the Criterion library that it’s no surprise to find their original release order numbers on the case spines, representing release 18 and 19 in their now 500+ deep collection. The bonus features are almost entirely new to these reissues, as is the addition of much-improved new artwork by comic book artist Daniel Clowes. For more information, visit

Originally published on FilmRadar.

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