“He wanted that to be like a screaming headline in a newspaper,” Constance Towers, the female lead of Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss says of the latter’s opening scene, which finds her character attacking the camera with her purse shortly before losing a wig that hides her baldness. Fuller took a job as a copyboy at age 12 and started reporting on New York crime at 17. He eventually left the newspapers to become a screenwriter, soldier, pulp novelist, and director. But the newspapers never left him. Fuller loved a shocking headline and a well-told story, particularly one that scratched down to some deeper truth, however ugly.
In 1964’s The Naked Kiss, Towers plays a prostitute who cuts ties with her pimp in that opening scene, and is then left to live on her wits as she travels from one small town to the next, selling bottles of champagne—and sexual favors—wherever she can coax the cops to turn a blind eye. But after arriving in Grantville, slipping into bed with a friendly police captain (Anthony Eisley), and learning that her services would be welcome across the river in a more permissive town, Towers has an unexpected change of heart. Expressing a desire to live on “the other side of the fence,” she takes a job at a children’s hospital, where she catches the eye of a charitable local playboy.
Things aren’t as they first appear, however, and the film becomes a tussle between good and evil, as Fuller’s films tend to. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez—also responsible for The Magnificent Ambersons and Night Of The Hunter—deals in starkly opposed black-and-white images to match Fuller’s themes. But Fuller is just as interested in grays. Towers leaves vice to dedicate her life to the most demanding sort of do-gooding, but her redemption doesn’t come easy, and she’s forced to fall back on old, hard ways to protect her friends. The Naked Kiss contrasts angelic children with unapologetic depravity, while capturing the tissue-like division protecting the former from the latter. Innocence and corruption live together beneath the harmonious, hypocritical surface of an idyllic-seeming American town, and while that situation may seem familiar now, thanks to the films and TV shows Naked Kiss helped inspire—Blue Velvet comes immediately to mind—familiarity has dulled none of the film’s force.
The Naked Kiss was the second of two films Fuller made with Towers and Cortez as an independent writer, producer, and director in the early 1960s. It’s a tremendous effort, only slightly overshadowed by its 1963 predecessor, Shock Corridor. In Corridor, Towers plays the stripper girlfriend of reporter Peter Breck, who decides to go undercover at a mental hospital, ostensibly to solve a murder, but with the professed ambition of winning a Pulitzer. He quickly discovers it’s impossible to touch madness without risking the possibility of going mad.
That sometimes seems true of the film as well. As Breck pursues his case, he talks first with a Southern-born Korean War vet brainwashed by the North Korean side (James Best, most famous as Roscoe on The Dukes Of Hazzard, but intense and convincing here), then a black man warped by internalized racism (Hari Rhodes), thanks to his attempts to attend an all-white college, and finally a nuclear scientist (Gene Evans, star of Fuller’s The Steel Helmet) who’s reverted to a childlike state. The film responds in kind to each encounter, spinning off hallucinatory sequences that capture a different sort of insanity at large in America at the time.
A patriot who felt it his duty to never let the country he loved off the hook, Fuller lets the murder mystery drift to the side and focuses instead on the big questions that troubled him throughout his career: How could a nation founded on such lofty principles fail them so often? Could idealism triumph over evil? He asked them in one low-budget, deceptively artful, hard-hitting film after another. A one-two punch, Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss still have the power to leave viewers reeling.
Key features: The Naked Kiss disc contains one interview with Towers and three with Fuller, spanning 1967 to 1987. Shock Corridor contains another talk with Towers, and most importantly, the 1996 Adam Simon documentary The Typewriter, The Rifle And The Movie Camera, which offers a fine overview of Fuller’s life and career; appreciations from Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese, and others; and plenty of stories from Fuller himself. The best scene: Fuller fanatics Tim Robbins and Quentin Tarantino wander, with kidlike wonder through a collection of Fuller’s personal archives.