For those who invest their hours in the careful examination of cinematic artfulness, Sam Fuller’s best movies have a way of grabbing your presumptions by the throat, throwing them out the window, kicking them down the street, and setting fire to them just before they get run over by a truck. Fuller was a master of raw, unbridled sensationalism. His method of social critique was to lunge at a sensitive subject before dragging it half-conscious into the hot-lit arena. His work prompts us not to forgo the appreciation of cinematic elegance but to redefine it. A black mental patient convinces himself he’s a white supremacist and leads a posse of fellow inmates howling down a corridor to exact a mock-lynching, or a bald-headed prostitute beats her drunken pimp to the floor with a spike-heeled shoe, and we’re hurtled into a territory where tenderness is the progeny of audacity, where emotional precision emerges from melodrama, and where poetry rises out of action like smoke signals. “If anything irritates anyone,” Fuller once declared, “that makes me happy.”
Criterion’s new editions of Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (64) form a sort diptych portrait of Fuller’s transition from a career forged partly within the studios to one of arduous independence. Low-budget, sparely furnished, continuity-negligent and starkly illuminated—with photography from the great Stanley Cortez, who shot The Magnificent Ambersons (42) and The Night of the Hunter (55)—these movies prowled the greasy peripheries of American life for tales of murder and prostitution, corrupt public services and pedophilia, incest and repressed rage. The discs feature numerous terrific supplements, including an episode of The South Bank Show that finds its featured guest Fuller in top-form, but their most inspired elements are the illustrations that adorn their packaging and screen menus, courtesy of Daniel Clowes, author of the graphic novels Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron (93), Ghost World (97), and David Boring (00). Enveloping these movies in Clowes’ art enables us to better appreciate the graphically dynamic, sophisticated comic book quality of Fuller’s work.
Shock Corridor opens and closes with an epigram from Euripides that implicitly instructs us to regard what unfolds here as myth rather than mere realism or social commentary. It’s about an ambitious reporter named Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) who pretends to have sexually assaulted his sister so as to gain admission to a mental hospital where a patient was murdered by a still-unidentified assailant. The woman reluctantly posing as the victimized sibling is actually Johnny’s girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers), an unhappy burlesque dancer whose nightly act is captured in an extended long shot that renders Cathy puny and isolated, her choreography far more awkward and tawdry than would a conventional montage of close-ups and medium shots. In one of the movie’s masterstrokes, Fuller then revisits the burlesque act during Johnny’s institutionalized nightmares, in which a miniature ghost version of Cathy dances scantily-clad around Johnny’s sleeping head, taunting him with allusions to the desires that, now living in confinement, he can no longer satisfy.
The murder mystery is to some degree a macguffin, Fuller’s excuse to get his arguably already unstable hero into the ward with its seemingly endless central corridor—the forced perspective enhanced by Fuller’s use of dwarves pacing in the middle-ground—and mold the inmates into overt surrogates for the ostensibly normal Americans outside the hospital gates. There’s the aforementioned black KKK leader, a morbidly obese man who believes he’s an opera star, a communist turned southern Civil War nut, a nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project but has regressed into infantile doodling, and a dude who thinks he’s pregnant. EST, nymphos and hallucinations come into play. Fuller piles on hysteria with a paint roller—no one could actually believe this to be an accurate representation of the mentally ill—yet there’s a precision to the neuroses that aspires to some vivid, outrageous parable. One of the movie’s most stirring effects is its peculiar use of sound, especially Johnny’s voice-over, which seems to be coming from a half-busted speaker phone on the other end of a drain pipe. Or maybe it’s just coming from the other end of that long, abysmal corridor from which it seems no one fully returns.
The Naked Kiss opens with that arresting sequence noted above, the one with the bald-headed hooker. Her name is Kelly (Towers again, in an utterly fearless performance). We quickly discover that she’s got a maternal side to her, a soft spot for crippled kids especially, that she’s an autodidact with a thing for Beethoven and Byron, that’s she’s capable of changing her life completely if they’d let her, and that she’s also got one wicked violent streak. Two years after breaking ties with her chiseling pimp, Kelly's grown her golden locks back and finds herself in a small town, where she immediately has a date with a local cop named Griff (Anthony Eisley) who tells her to keep her tricks on the other side of the river, where a madam named Candy keeps a stable of delectable “bonbons.” Kelly opts for retirement from prostitution instead and finds work at a hospital for sick kids. She discovers a hidden talent for inspiring joi de vivre in the youngins through dress-up games and elaborately arranged musical performances, which culminate in Fuller’s most brilliantly shameless sequence, in which Kelly and the flamboyantly untrained tykes share vocal duties on a melancholy little ditty translated from the French, entitled ‘Mommy dear…’
Kelly also wins the heart of Grant (Michael Dante), the ascot-wearing scion of the town’s founder, a wealthy bachelor who uncannily intuits Kelly’s dreams of self-betterment. The relationship irks Griff, Grant’s best friend, who begins a campaign to drive Kelly out of town. But complications I can’t bear to spoil here arise and Kelly’s past is exposed in tandem with the perverse underbelly of the town itself. Fuller feasts on the hypocrisy of it all, though his relish never interferes with his bracing narrative economy. The Naked Kiss is a scathing take on the “woman’s picture”, like Douglas Sirk with all the nerves exposed, complicated in its vulgarity and the intensity of its affection for its flawed heroine. Deliciously over the top, it’s perfect in it way, and might be seen as the last fully realized work Fuller would make, capping a period where the writer/director/producer seemed permanently on fire. He’d made 17 movies in 15 years. In the next 33 he’d make only five more.