Two lurid, mid-1960s social critiques by Sam Fuller, starring Constance Tower

Shock Corridor” (1963, produced, written, and directed by Samue; Fulle) has some passionate fans. I don’t get it. It starts very slowly. As soon as the “Whodunit?” question arose, I knew the answer. I could care less about the protagonist Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck overacting big-time) in pursuit of a Pulitzer Prize, or whether his (talentless) singer/stripper girlfriend (Constance Tower) will manage to hold him. The three insane witnesses act out quite extremely, but have their lucid moments for the convenience of the plot and the prize-seeker. The home-movie color footage from Korea, Amazonia, and some waterfall is bizarre, there’s a lot of screaming and wild gesticulating, and the political aspects (the black and white victims of virulent anticommunism, virulent racism, the guilt of developing nuclear weapons, and the pressure to excel that cracks most of the characters, not least Johnny) are little more subtle than the screaming. (I read “Being Sane in an Insane Place” a really long time ago.)

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There are other Fuller movies (Pickup on South Street, Steel Helmet, for instance) that I think are good, or at least entertaining (Run of the Arrow). Still, I have to say that Hari Rhodes’s pathologically self-hating student who had integrated a school is very intense, and the cinematography was supplied by a master, Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons, Night of the Hunter), with very sharp focus, some tight closeups, many oblique angles, and a lot of camera movement. (The Criterion DVD has a cleaned-up print but is devoid of extra features other than a trailer for the movie.)

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The Criterion DVD of “The Naked Kiss,” a low-budget 1964 thriller, written and directed by Sam Fuller is at times very arresting–especially in the very first scene of a woman in a blonde wig beating a man with her shoe (they are not quite as dramatically mismatched as Vivien Leigh using her shoe to pummel a drunken Lee Marvin in “Ship of Fools,” made a year later!).

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Much of the middle of the movie is not just slack but inept. The dialogue is frequently stilted or worse, there are many things that are just too cute, and some typically Fuller wild excessive flourishes (visual and in character revelation). But I wouldn’t want to have missed Constance Towers’s turn from prostitution to sainthood, or the very Hitchcockian wrong man plot that has a very Hitchcock-looking icy blonde (Tower) playing the wrong man (and wronged woman: for a time it looks like none of her good deeds will go unpunished).

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Trying to go straight prevents unexpected problems–typically just when things seemed to be going smoothly. What she learns about her new, respectable community and its most prominent civic leader is less novel now than in a 1964 movie, but has not lost its bite. (And what she finds is a current obsession…)

I find the ending even scarier than the beginning. Much of the movie is below average (downright clunky), but Constance Towers (especially her inflictions of deserved punishment on male villains) and Michael Dante and some of the compositions (by Stanley Cortez) are notable in good ways.

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To paraphrase Dolly Parton, much of it is wrong, but it’s allright. (BTW, Towers played a stripper in Fuller’s even more over-the-top “Shock Corridor” the year before. That is the name of the movie on the marquee in the upright town where Towers attempts to go straight. She also had starring roles in the John Ford films “The Horse Soldiers” in 1959 and “Sergeant Rutledge” in 1960, but did not have much impact in either one).

As usual, Criterion has revived a darling of auteur critics with a superb print. The only bonus feature is an appropriately lurid theatrical trailer. (Fuller expostulates at length on the Criterion DVD of “Shock Corridor.” He comes across to me as a smug windbag, though he undeniably did a lot with little money and made some unusual films, including these two.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

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