CLASSIC FILM NOIR was in its last throes as the 1960s began. Many of the genre’s most important directors and stars were either dead or relegated to television, and the B-movie production machine — at least the machine as most people had known it — was dying with the major studios. As the studio system collapsed, however, a new kind of noir began to emerge. The first filmmaker to fully capture the spirit of the new noir was the wild man of American cinema, writer/director Samuel Fuller. An unbending iconoclast, he had labored in the studios for years (issuing, among other interesting films, the 1953 noir masterpiece Pickup on South Street), but in the 1960s the big boys booted him out. Fuller seized this opportunity to do his most interesting work. Toiling at the economic margins of an industry in chaos, he dealt the classic noir era its death blows with the creation of two indispensable films: Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964). These low-budget epics showed film noir, in an increasingly manic style, emerging not out of the postwar trauma of the ’40s and ’50s but out of the rising turbulence of the 1960s. While Fuller’s films fearlessly reflected the American scourges of racism, Cold War politics, and sexual hypocrisy, these were not good liberal message movies. These were movies that portrayed an America that seemed to have lost its collective mind, an America beginning to come apart at the social seams, an America that looks more like America today than the America of the 1940s and 1950s. This is where classic noir died and neo-noir was born.
The American Madhouse
Shock Corridor follows an ambitious reporter named Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) as he goes undercover in an insane asylum in order to investigate a murder. As he searches for the murderer among the patients and staff of the institution, his hold on reality gradually weakens. In the end, he finds the killer but sinks into madness. This plot structure is relatively simple by noir standards, and the murder investigation itself is really just a clothesline for scenes. But, God, what scenes. Fuller’s depiction of American neurosis still has the power to startle and provoke. Shock Corridor may well be the most artistically significant American movie of 1963 — and perhaps of the first half of the 1960s.
Barrett’s odyssey through the mental hospital is designed as a journey through various forms of social psychosis. The inmates roam one endless hallway called “The Street,” and Barrett makes his way up this “god-haunted street of no return” like Conrad’s Marlow traveling ever further toward the heart of darkness. The gallery of characters he meets is Fuller’s masterstroke, embracing the director’s love of misfits and societal castoffs. The liveliest of the bunch is the rotund Pagliacci (played by the invaluable Larry Tucker), who sings “La Bohème” and shoves several sticks of gum into Barrett’s mouth to help him sleep.
But Pagliacci is simply the affable doorman of this crazy ward. Wandering among the catatonics is a former Communist from the Bible Belt who, rejected by his family and friends for his beliefs, has gone insane and now believes that he’s the Confederate General J. E. B. Stuart. There’s the former nuclear scientist who draws stick figures in crayon and plays hide-and-seek. The most affecting character is the schizophrenic former Civil Rights worker, a black man who has assumed the persona of a violent white racist.
Each of these characters represents some distinct form of American madness, but each one also has resonance as an individual. In the hallway of this corrupt mental institution, none of them have access to any kind of real help, and each is left to be consumed by his own particular American fixation. James Best is terrific as the haunted ex-Commie who was raised on a poor farm and “fed bigotry for breakfast and ignorance for supper.” As the ex-scientist fixated on the coming nuclear holocaust, Gene Evans slips between erudition and childishness like a man who’s lost his mind and his bearings. And as Trent, the former student protester, Hari Rhodes delivers an extraordinary performance that just about stops the movie. Spewing racist bile and trying to inaugurate a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, Rhodes creates a character driven insane by the hypocrisy at the heart of American society in the early 1960s. What all of these characters have in common is a sense of thwarted progress — politically, scientifically, morally. Following the disgrace of McCarthyism, the existential terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the violent reaction to the Civil Rights movement, Shock Corridor takes little comfort in any notion of American progress.
Writing about Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 masterpiece Detour, the scholar James Naremore observed that the film was “so far down on the economic and cultural scale of things that it virtually escapes commodification, and it can be viewed as a kind of subversive or vanguard art.” This is true of Shock Corridor as well, because, like Ulmer, Fuller embraces his low budget and makes it essential to the aesthetic of the film. Take, for instance, his use of shadows and sets. While the play of darkness and light is an essential element of most noirs, here Fuller does something you rarely see. As his characters shuffle among the cheap sets — most of the movie takes place in a single hallway — they cast long, prominent shadows inside. There’s no sky in this movie, not even the night sky. No sense of the outside world whatsoever pierces through. Everything is confined to this madhouse. As characters whisper and wail, they are trailed by shadows that hover like specters close at hand. That’s Fuller’s vision of America in 1963, a place undone by fears of the future and haunted by ghosts of a dead past.
A Woman on the Edge
A former crime reporter, Fuller understood the impact of a splashy headline, and as a director he converted this understanding into a style that grabbed the audience from the first frame. That’s nowhere more true than in his follow-up to Shock Corridor, 1964’s The Naked Kiss, a film with one of the all-time great opening scenes. The movie starts without warning: a woman is slapping a man around as violent jazz music boils away underneath the action. He begs her to stop. They wrestle, and when he grabs her hair a wig whips off her bald head. Now she’s really pissed. After she’s beaten him senseless, she rolls him for 75 bucks. Then the bald woman picks up her wig, goes to a mirror, and puts herself together. Only then, beneath a jarringly lush and romantic score, do the credits roll.
The woman is a prostitute named Kelly. After she rolls the guy — whom we later learn is her pimp — she skips town and winds up in a quiet little place called Grantville. Apparently the town has one cop, a plainclothes captain named Griff. By all appearances, Griff’s job consists mainly of hanging out at the bus station waiting for hookers to pull into town. He and Kelly have a 20-dollar tryst (she talks him up from 10 dollars), and then he tells her to get out of town.
Kelly doesn’t leave, though. Deciding to stick around and make a new life for herself, she takes a job at the hospital where she works in the ward for sick kids. She also meets the richest man in town, J.L. Grant, a scion of old money who’s lucky enough to live in a town that bears his family name. They fall in love — much to the resentment of Grant’s best friend, Griff the cop.
The film packs some big surprises in its last 30 minutes or so, and you are strongly urged not to find out any more about the plot if you can avoid it. Fuller takes The Naked Kiss into areas that are still surprising to viewers today. The last time I watched this film, I saw it with three friends who had never seen it before, and during the scenes of revelation near the end, people audibly gasped.
The Naked Kiss was shot for about 10 cents and looks like it, but, as with Shock Corridor, Fuller works within these limitations like the pulp novelists he so closely resembles. Fast and efficient, he also had the good fortune not to be a perfectionist. His independent features are frenetic, but they’re not sloppy. He loves jarring visuals, and The Naked Kiss, with its ubiquitous shadows and slanted cameras, is noir down to its bones. Working without money or sets or stars, he created a film that is nevertheless, in its wild-ass way, the visual superior of bigger-budgeted and more politely directed movies.
While he didn’t have stars, he did have actors. The film is grounded by the fierce performance of Constance Towers as Kelly. This may be the toughest broad who ever stalked through a film noir. With a soft spot for kids and old people, she is otherwise a steel pillar. She thumps a lot of heads in this movie, more perhaps than any female heroine who preceded her in American movies. There’s simply no precedent for the scene where she stomps into a brothel and slaps around a madam who has been trying to recruit one of her friends. Kelly pounces on the woman and makes her eat 25 bucks in wadded-up bribe money.
Fuller was after more than just cheap thrills, though. An iconoclast with a revulsion for pretense, he casts his pitiless eye on polite society’s view of itself. Every real crime in this film — that is every crime, Fuller seems to say, worth caring about — is enabled and obscured under the guise of decency and decorum. The only person with any honor worth respecting is Kelly. A precursor to later cinematic heralds of the counterculture like Bonnie and Clyde, this violent prostitute is pure outcast antihero, the spiritual superior to all the hypocrites and liars masquerading as decent citizens.
While Fuller represented a break from the conventions of the classic studio style, he was not a realist. Far from it. He liked grittiness for its own sake, and he loved art’s ability to translate emotion and struggle from the shifting currents of life to a more manageable form. “Reality,” he once said, “is a bunch of damn bullshit.” His theory, at least as I interpret it, was that since reality could never be less than everything and everyone all at once, the representation of reality in art was impossible. “Realism” was just another concocted film aesthetic. An artist was not in business to put real life on screen; he was in business to recreate life in a way that made it interesting or insightful for the viewer. This guiding principle led Fuller to create a gonzo noir style that is not for everyone. His emotions are enormous. Subtlety is not a concept he finds the least bit interesting. Fuller doesn’t go over the top from time to time. He blasts over the top in the first scene and never looks back. Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss are thoroughly bizarre movies precisely because they reference the classic American style while shattering it into a million pieces. His films are concerned, first and forever, with impact — with speed and shock and sensation. While many critics at the time found him crass and low-class, he told an interviewer in 1965 that his style had formed before he even became a reporter. As a newsie hawking papers on the streets of New York City, he said, “I learned early that it is not the headline that counts but how hard you shout it.”
In 1963 and 1964, he needed to shout it loud. The American cinema of the early 1960s had largely calcified in style and ambition, as Hollywood faced an existential crisis brought on by age and television and compounded by social forces that were just beginning to pull the country apart. Watching Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, you can see the old give way to the new.Both of these films brought much-needed wit and style to bear on the subject of America — in particular the America that was running full-speed into the tumult of a decade marked by assassination, war, racial violence, and what many people feared would be a full-scale social meltdown. Sam Fuller, working in the economic hinterlands with his courageous casts, reconfigured the scope and language of film noir to mark the final collapse of the American Dream into the American Nightmare. In doing so, he changed film — and film noir — forever.
Jake Hinkson is a film noir scholar and the author of Hell On Church Street.