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Shock Corridor (Blu-ray Review)

31 Jan, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Peter Breck, Constance Towers, Gene Evans, James Best.

Executive-produced in part by Tim Robbins and released (sort of) in 1996, The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera is one of the best and most exacting of all documentaries on an American director, in that you can go into it knowing very little about its subject (Samuel Fuller) and exit 55 minutes later knowing quite a lot. And if there’s one film it should accompany as a supplement on a DVD or Blu-ray release, Fuller’s Shock Corridor is probably the one.

Photographed by that titan-of-shadow Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons; The Night of the Hunter), Fuller’s madhouse of a movie was supposedly shot in 10 days — making it prototypical because the maverick filmmaker rarely had much of a budget at his disposal. With a central character who’s an old-school exposé journalist, Corridor hammers its points home like a tabloid newspaper headline, befitting Fuller’s formative years laboring at New York City’s least tony rags (which is what the “Typewriter” alludes to in the documentary’s title). Corridor’s subject matter (loony bin melodramatics) and its execution are at times so over the top that they make audiences feel uncomfortable, a common Fuller by-product the documentary discusses. And, yes, I have heard it referred to on occasion as Schlock Corridor.

But it is cinema, and if you doubt this, compare Fuller’s picture to the deadly dull Hall Bartlett’s The Caretakers, a straightforward study of mental treatment that came out the very same year and even had the going-in advantage of having Joan Crawford in the cast. Corridor has it beat all the way, starting with a premise that’s almost as loony as anything here. A newshound (Peter Breck) fakes an incestuous yen for his supposed sister (but in reality his stripper girlfriend) played by Constance Towers. This ruse is a plot to gain him entrance into a mental health facility where a murder has taken place — one he wants to solve on his way to the Pulitzer Prize. So, naturally, he cracks up in a place where his roomies include a dude who thinks he’s a Civil War Confederate and a black man who hates others of his race and doesn’t want his daughter to marry one. You want more? The suspected heavy is played by Chuck Roberson, the familiar-looking veteran of a million John Wayne movies and for years the actor’s stunt double.

Criterion has released Corridor before, but this remastered version includes new essays (one by Fuller himself) and two outstanding bonuses. One of these is a 2007 interview with Towers when she must have been 74. Dramatically striking for her age, she is sharp, personable, insightful and certainly has stories to spin; for someone who didn’t make that many big-screen features, Towers managed to do two apiece with Fuller and John Ford. She’s even good on the forced visual perspective that Fuller and Cortez came up with to make Corridor’s corridor look much longer than it really was — appearing, almost, to stretch into infinity. On the Typewriter documentary, it’s noted that Fuller saved his final scene for last in the short shooting schedule so that no one could change his ending. At this point he flooded the same set (a key plot point) that Towers discusses. Well, that’ll do it.

You can tell a lot about a filmmaker by the disciples he attracts, and the clip-heavy Robbins documentary (keenly written and directed by Adam Simon) sends in an A-team. In addition to Fuller and Robbins themselves, there’s Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch and a supremely in-form Martin Scorsese, whose discussion of Fuller’s Forty Guns is alone worth the price of admission. The portrait also focuses a lot on Fuller’s intensive World War II combat experience (hence, the “Gun” part), much of it centered on a rummage-around by Robbins and Jarmusch of Fuller’s old memorabilia storeroom (he died in 1997).

In tandem with Corridor, Criterion has also released Fuller’s 1964 Towers starrer The Naked Kiss — which also comes with super-cool jacket and menu graphics by Ghost World’s Daniel Clowes. But starting with Kiss’s justifiably renowned opening scene, this is another story (and is it ever).

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