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American Madness: Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss on Blu-ray

  The word "maverick" is tossed around so much in the film industry that maybe the workmanlike and reliable is too easily sniffed at, yet when faced with the projects of Sam Fuller, it is hard to resist being drawn to them when their sheer intensity and semblance of making a statement about society, about the world in general, makes them mightily attractive to a certain type of movie buff. Not really those who prefer the mainstream, or even really those who are wedded to the classics as judged by the cineastes, but for those who appreciate what it means to go out on a limb and truly strain at boundaries of the medium.

Of course, in the nineteen-sixties there was no shortage of filmmakers doing precisely that, what with the censorship rules being relaxed across the course of the decade and new voices being found to express themselves within parameters that could try for art, or equally settle for trash, and with Fuller's Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964) you were served up that perfect combination of pulp fiction in a way only he had a grasp of. Sure, there was plenty of pulp around, not simply in the movies either, yet Fuller strove for more, he had something to say and he was not going to be held back if he could help it.

Shock Corridor was inspired by the pioneering investigative journalist Nellie Bly, who in the eighteenth century had admitted herself into a mental asylum, not because she was ill, but because she had heard about the dreadful treatment of patients and wanted to expose this, which she did. In Fuller's story, journalist Peter Breck wants that same recognition - a Pulitzer would be his most fitting achievement, he believes - by getting committed, though here the twist was that he wants to reveal the identity of a murderer who has killed someone in the establishment, which lent the proceedings a certain thriller aspect.

The thing was with Fuller, no matter how absurd or preposterous his plots became, you just knew he meant every word, and everything was fair game to get his message across. So what on the surface was a histrionic exploitation effort had far deeper meaning, for you came away from the film thinking that American society was one built on insanity, and not merely built on it, but propagating it as well. Breck, who genuinely suffered to make this remarkable performance, has to interview three characters, patients who each have their own quirks which are too cartoonish to take seriously as verifiable mental maladies - but that isn't the point.

They all represent something of the madness that respectable Americans have founded their nation upon: James Best is the man who believes he is a Civil War officer, still fighting for the South; Hari Rhodes is a black college student who was sent mad when anti-segregation laws subjected him to horrendous racism in protest, and now believes himself to be a Ku Klux Klan member; and Gene Evans is a brilliant scientist whose skill with nuclear weaponry has made him so unbearably guilty at what he has unleashed on the world that he now has the mind of a six-year-old child. And then there's Breck, the poster boy for success.

Breck is driving himself to insanity in this need to succeed. His girlfriend is a stripper, played by Constance Towers, seemingly so Fuller could crowbar in sexual content (albeit mild by modern standards), yet somehow the conscience of the piece as she realises that none of this damage America does to itself is in any way worth it. She posed as Breck's sister to claim he was trying to rape her, a sure way of getting him in the asylum, but she was not happy about it, and as the story concludes, we understand her great reservations were spot on. The hallucination sequences were as intense as anything in the sixties, but you could observe that of the whole movie.

Both Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss were banned by British censors and only granted certificates in 1990, which shows you how edgy they were considered to be for quite a while. But there was another school of thought that they were both camp classics, thanks to Fuller's lack of irony in his direction and his writing, born of his apprenticeship in tabloid journalism. The Naked Kiss especially has a reputation in some quarters for prompting unintentional laughter, which is doubly unfortunate since it was intended as an exposé on the duplicitous hypocrisies of supposed respectable society, and a sincere support of disadvantaged children.

The plot had Towers return to Fuller's world as a prostitute who in the startling opening sequence beats up her pimp, who grabs at her hair which comes off in his hand - it's a wig, and she is completely bald. We find out why later on, but jumping forward a couple of years once her hair has grown back, she is still a prostitute under the cover of a travelling champagne saleslady, though as we see when she beds the local police chief Anthony Eisley, she is still set in her ways. That said, on arrival in what appears to be a nice town, she decides to turn respectable herself, against the wishes of the cop, who tries to force her to leave.

Here's where the sentimentality enters into it, as the children are regarded as the ultimate victims of adults' poor choices and even further than that, outright abusive behaviour. Towers gets a job at a children's hospital where she finds her calling helping out, and the actress, with her sophisticated air, suited this role a little better than the stripper in Shock Corridor as we could believe her more as her aspirations to be accepted by polite society were closer to her persona, rather than the downbeat, down at heel occupation she was stuck with when we initially met her. Still, they were two powerful performances, utterly resonant.

That made Towers ideal for Fuller's material, as he went further than ever before to goad the America whose authority he was certain was built on shaky moral ground. When Towers finds love with local wealthy heir Michael Dante, she thinks she can finally be accepted as the intelligent woman who always yearned for the better life, capable of love that will be reciprocated by someone who respects her. However, that is a tainted love since Dante is not all he seems, indeed he is the worst of all the authorities' ability to look after their own while riding roughshod over everyone else, especially the vulnerable - the cop is corrupt too, but is brought around to her point of view.

She has also tried to stand up to the local madam, Virginia Grey, who tried to recruit both Towers and one of the young nursing staff, yet more evidence of the insidious nature of corruption, and the protagonist comes to the conclusion the only thing left to nurture her is her self-respect, since hardly anyone else will respect her, aside from the children and selected adults who are also sidelined by society. She's in a better place than Breck, psychologically - his kiss, the kiss of the title, gives away his perversity - but will always be on the outside looking in, though who wants to be inside with that lot? Fuller was wise beyond the claims of camp that dogged these two pictures, that was clear to those who understood his maverick (that word again) point of view, not really that laughable when it boiled down.

[These titles are released by The Criterion Collection on Blu-ray. The Shock Corridor features are:

New, restored high-definition digital transfer (with uncompressed monaural soundtrack)
New video interview with star Constance Towers by film historian and filmmaker Charles Dennis
Excerpts from The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera, Adam Simon's 1996 documentary on director Samuel Fuller
Original theatrical trailer
PLUS: Illustrations by cartoonist Daniel Clowes (Eightball, Ghost World) and a booklet featuring an essay by critic and poet Robert Polito and excerpts from Fuller's autobiography, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking.

The Naked Kiss has these features:

New, restored high-definition digital transfer (with uncompressed monaural soundtrack)
New video interview with star Constance Towers by film historian and filmmaker Charles Dennis
Excerpts from a 1983 episode of ITV's The South Bank Show dedicated to director Samuel Fuller
Interview with Fuller from a 1967 episode of the French television series Cinéastes de notre temps
Interview with Fuller from a 1987 episode of the French television series Cinéma cinemas
Original theatrical trailer
PLUS: Illustrations by cartoonist Daniel Clowes (Eightball, Ghost World) and a booklet featuring an essay by critic and poet Robert Polito and excerpts from Fuller's autobiography, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking.]
Author: Graeme Clark.


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