Whom God wishes to destroy he first turns mad. (Euripides, 425 BC)
Directed, written & produced by Samuel Fuller
Cast: Peter Breck as Johnny Barrett; Constance Towers as Cathy; Gene Evans as Boden; James Best as Stuart; Hari Rhodes as Trent; Larry Tucker as Pagliacci; Paul Dubov as Dr. Menkin Director of photography: Stanley Cortez, A.S.C.
Janus Films, 1963
101 minutes. Black & white/Colour
Welcome To Hell Hall
Shock Corridor is the aptly named 1963 B-movie psychodrama from the vigorously independent mind of American film auteur Samuel Fuller. This movie tells the fascinating story of Johnny Barrett, a fame-obsessed, big city newspaper reporter who is fixated on winning the Pulitzer Prize. His plan is daring: by masquerading as a sexual deviant, he'll gain entry to the local state mental hospital, mingle with the patients, crack an unsolved murder case, and write his prize-winning story... all while never realizing the terrible price he must pay for his success.
What makes this movie brilliant -- a masterpiece -- is the incredible manner in which Fuller takes this basic story of one man's overwhelming desire for fame and recognition and extrapolates it allegorically, creating a powerful parable that reveals this seat-squirming truth: if one man can be destroyed by an absorption into irrational thoughts, so can an entire society. Once you admit America is one big asylum, then it's hard to tell the sane from the crazy when we're all walking down that same symbolic corridor.
Fuller sees an America driven by a morality which says the ends justify the means, managed by the corporate alienation of big institutions -- represented by the newspaper, the asylum, the psychiatric establishment and its bureaucracy of shrinks and staff.
Against this dark, disjointed background Fuller props up his two protagonists: the aggressive Johnny (the public voyeur) and his conservative girlfriend, the stripper Cathy (the public voyeuree). As Fuller's "revealers", they uncover a potent list of symbolic ingredients. Just wait 'til you see how Fuller mixmasters all into this jaw-dropping rant on the mental state of America.
Whom God Wishes To Destroy... He First Turns Mad.
Fuller bookends this film with the famous Euripides quote, just one of many "intellectual" references he makes throughout the movie (Hamlet, Freudian psychology, Dickens), which must have further widened the gap between the movie and its probably-uneducated audience. The trailer which comes with the DVD hypes this film as "incredibly realistic", clinically diagnoses the main characters, shows quick clips of virtually all the sex and violence, and promises an evening of entertainment that "Breaks The Shock Barrier!" with the "Biggest Jolt!". Audiences sucked in by this taboo-laden trailer must have been extraordinarily shocked by what they were actually shown. Rather than gasping at nothing but the violent antics of sex-mad crazies, they found themselves in an aggressive allegory, no doubt vaguely worried that all the mayhem on the screen might have a deeper, more sinister meaning. It does. Fuller's warning is the obverse of Euripides': because America is mad, that's proof of God's plan to destroy it. Shock Corridor offers a montage of "proofs" to back Fuller's then-radical assertion.
Proof #1: The Place. The movie's central symbol is the asylum's main corridor, ironically called "The Street" by the guard-like staff. You don't have to have the blues to see it's one lonely avenue. It's starkly clinical. Lined with hard, wooden park benches. Interrupted with big water heating units. The harsh lighting beats down over all, emphasizing the sense of black and white, sane and insane. There is no grey area of compromise or understanding. There are no plants, no hint of growth or life or nurturing. There is no art, no imagination, no meanings, no sign of intellectual curiosity. The Street is the centre of the asylum, and Fuller blatantly elevates it to represent Main Street, USA.
Proof #2: The People. Johnny and Cathy not only guide the plot, but they supply the sexual deviance required by B-movie protocol. One could argue that Johnny's implied sexual problems are no doubt the basis for his compulsive dreams of wealth and power. Is he impotent? He seems immune to Cathy's charms before he gains access to the asylum, and once in, he begins to confuse the sexual Cathy (his girlfriend) with the non-sexual Cathy (she pretends to be his sister). Here's a man suffering from "erotic dementia", who basically runs from sexual encounters the entire movie. Cathy is equally confused. She talk a good game when justifying her job as a stripper, needs the money, blah, blah, blah... but she still needs the attention of strange men, and craves the lascivious stares her body attracts. She seems overly fond of a pink boa, and likes to click around in form-revealing outfits. This objectivization of herself into a soft porn commodity also seems to be a flight from an open, warm relationship, and as such reveals much about her attraction to the sexually-neutral Johnny. Quite the barren couple. Cathy uses exhibitionism to earn admiration, and for Johnny, winning some prestigious prize will fulfill his need for recognition -- the refuge of all troubled with low self-esteem. His plan is to live off this glory for the rest of his life -- "there'll be a book in this - a play - maybe even a movie". How ironic can you get? That he loses when he wins is god-like punishment for his (and America's) hubris: we see him finally - as the sadistic Dr. Menkin indelicately observes - "an insane mute with the Pulitzer Prize". Poetic justice, or not?
Proof #3: The Patients. In a stroke of genius, Fuller creates three patients to represent three themes on the madness of America: xenophobia, racism, and nuclear war. Johnny seeks each out to interview them about the murder, hoping to uncover the killer's identity, but what he really discovers is the method of madness: psychosis as the ultimate prozac, the best way to avoid a painful reality. Shades of Pink Floyd. It's part of the grim irony of Shock Corridor that Johnny, fixated on solving the murder, misses his chance to write a "real" Pulitzer Prize winning story about the sad lives of these three patients -- Stuart, Dr Boden, and Trent -- who are ultimately the raison d'etre of the movie. Here are three empty canvasses ready for Fuller to paint with broad, insistent, punishing strokes. Ultimately, the content of each portrait is the same: each victim has morphed into an ironic antithesis of their prior selves. Welcome to the Land of the Oppressed and the Home of the Meek.
Meet Stuart, a simple Southerner, unfortunately raised on a continual diet of venom by his xenophobic parents, brainwashed to hate until he was "ready to defect to anyone". Captured and converted to communism during the Korean war, Stuart helped to brainwash captured Americans until one of them brainwashed him back to America. He returns, is ostracized as a social outcast, and retreats into insanity, mentally refighting the Civil War as Southern General Jeb Stuart, plotting campaigns in which Americans kill other Americans... over ideology.
Another symbol is Dr. Boden, a genius formerly involved in the development of the atomic bomb. Smart guy who likes to play with equations? Fine. Fuller takes him back to being a six-year-old child, happy to crayon and play hide-and-seek. Through Boden's child-like speeches Fuller points his accusing finger at the then-current gamesmanship of mutually assured destruction (MAD) between the US and Russia.
The most startling of all Fuller's patients is Trent, the first black student ever admitted to an all-white Southern university. Imagine the pressure. He can't just do well, he has to do better than his fellow white students. He also has to avoid the hissing wall of hatred that lurks on the periphery of every moment he's in the enemy camp. This burden soon grinds Trent into psychic overload, and his escape is classic. Rather than buying an Uzi and spreading his tormentor's brains over the ivy-covered walls, Trent decide his enemies were right, white is superior. He anoints himself Grand Wizard of the KKK and passes his time making hoods out of stolen pillowcases, inciting attacks upon other black inmates, and ranting racist monologues. Incredibly, he makes a catatonic patient hold up his arm in a Nazi salute and points out that it looks like the Statue of Liberty. Heavy. Fuller's twist of pulling the usual white supremacist propaganda out of the mouth of a black is pure genius. The scene in which Trent is introduced is one of the movie's high points, as the audience hears the litany of racist hatred long before Fuller reveals Trent's face. The gasps from the audience are audible.
Eye Of The Tiger
Stylistically, Shock Corridor is a visual treat. With Fuller in complete control, he takes advantage of the stark cinematography of Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons, Night of the Hunter). He keeps the camera moving, from middle to tight shots, to heighten the psychological reactions of his characters, allowing their closeups to show the angst and ennui that the el cheapo sets can only augment.
The acting in this movie is very well done. Peter Breck plays the puffed up Johnny to perfection, and you'll be wide-eyed at his barely controlled, over-the-top attempts at fake insanity. As are his over-the-top attempts at real insanity. Breck is able to capture Johnny's slide to dementia in a finely-paced performance, climaxing in an incredible corridor scene where he runs from closed door to closed door, as the hard rain pelts down and the lightening crashes. He seems able to get inside Johnny's obsessions, and is very good when he notices events and quotes headlines for his planned crime expose. Constance Towers is statuesque as Cathy the stripper, and aside from drivelling over Johnny, her most memorable scene is the early strip tease, in which she doffs no duds and offers a truly remarkable dance routine. An adequate actress, she no doubt benefits greatly from being married to Sam -- especially as he tends to stay on her close-ups just a tad too long.
Hari Rhodes gives a spectacular performance as the black-hating black, Trent. James Best is very believable as Stuart, the good ole General, and Gene Evans is well-cast as Boden. The corridor plays itself to perfection, thanks to the film's Art Director, Eugene Laurie.
The parable form works especially well in this world of high contrast, black and white images. You'll see lots of noir light angling across faces and walls, lots of shadows, bright lights, deep gloom. There's a surprising number of complex, drawn out fight scenes, and plenty of fast-paced, physical action, featuring aggressive, in-your-face shots and cuts, multi-layered special visual effects, and, of course, the usual sprinkling of suspect cuts. Just what you want.
Shock Corridor is also famous for one unique Fullerism. It's a B&W flick, but during their conversations with Johnny, all three murder witnesses comment upon and then describe little colour "dream" fantasy sequences. Their dreams? Little chunks of amateurish 16mm footage Fuller took for another film! He simply writes appropriate dialogue to explain the strange inclusion of footage of Mt Fuji, Buddhists, Amazon warriors, trains -- all of which add a Wizard of Oz jolt to otherwise pedestrian footage.
But there's more. According to Victoria-based movie critic Panos Cosmatos, the Amazon tribes colour clips used by Fuller in Shock Corridor were originally shot in 1954 for a film called Tigrero, which was to star John Wayne. That film was never made, but
Fuller went back to the jungle and showed the film he had made in 1954 to the same natives 40 years later. He made that trip into a 1995 documentary called Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made.""
What? No DVD Goodies?
Considering this is an overpriced Criterion DVD, there's pretty well nothing in the way of extras. Hey guys, take a lesson from your cheaper competition! All you get is an overview of Fuller by Tim Hunter. I've got Naked Kiss, and it's similarly thin.
A Powerful, Unique Vision
Shock Corridor was made in 1963. Today, that era is the "Camelot" period of U.S. history -- those youthful, self-confident days before the execution of JFK, the politics of Vietnam and British rock music. In reality, 1963 America was vainly attempting to ignore a lot of stressful, "slow drip" problems -- the world was in the depths of the Cold War, and the public was still having nightmares from the close call of the Cuban embargo. In the south, simmering racial tension was about to boil over into the first shocking national TV coverage of race riots, protest marches, Martin Luther King and the national guard. It was the perfect time for independent filmmakers like Sam Fuller to challenge audiences with meaning rather than with escape.
You can almost see Fuller figuring out this movie. He decides to do a social commentary on contemporary culture... fine, let's pick the cold war, racism, and hatred. Better throw in a little sex... gets a few more bums in the seats. Fuller used to be a journalist... good, he'll make the hero a reporter... they can nose around... man, this is crazy stuff... that's it... let's make in an asylum movie. It's like he dreamed up all the basic themes, then came up with the weak and zany crime plot as a device to get everyone together in the nut house so he can whack us over the head with his real message.
Truly, this is a look at society through black-coloured glasses. But ultimately, it's all mind and no matter, because when Johnny starts to lose the bricks from his wall, his search for the killer essentially fades into irrelevance. By the end, Johnny's obsessive quest is only a cipher, a roadsign in his exploration of the endless corridor in which his mind is trapped. The irony is cool: the closer he comes to success, the sicker he becomes... until, triumphant at the end, Johnny slips into his new role as chief copywriter for the quiet city of Catatonia. For America, the message is loud and clear. Sometimes, the ends don't justify the means.
What makes this movie so compelling is the imaginative way in which Fuller reveals his themes. Like the folk music/beatnik subcultures of the day, this allegory is an exercise in finger-pointing sermonism, and Fuller fully utilizes the complete range of his substantial talents to create a masterpiece of indictment on the sorry state of Cold War America.
Bottom line, Shock Corridor is that rare exploitation flick which achieves masterpiece status. While it contains the usual taboos of the B-movies of that era -- a burlesque musical number, a brutal attack by a gang of cannibalistic nymphomaniacs, the suggestion of incest, and the mandatory electroshock sequence -- the genius of Shock Corridor is Fuller's daring, revolutionary portrayal of what he sees as dystopian in society. It was a tense, irrational time -- spoofed to perfection in such later movies as Dr. Strangelove -- and Fuller takes full advantage of the psychic gestalt, using the form of the genre asylum flick to offer up a powerful, unique vision in a commercial medium rarely used for such strong social criticism.
Even in today's so-called "progressive" culture, Fuller's revelations about how society can make you insane still booms clearly when violence erupts on our main streets and in our schools, armed with high-tech guns and Second Chance body armour. The list is still in place: race hatred, gun worship, escapist entertainment, compulsive obsessions. One wonders why this flick hasn't been redone, updated to re-examine the madness of today's America. As one of the asylum staff tells Johnny: "We're here to help you to remember not to forget." Maybe we need another reminder.
© Rick "Ojo" McGrath 10/2000
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