Shock Corridor: “Sam Fuller at his goofiest and most biting”
Samuel Fuller is a curious character, he constantly straddled the divide between being a director who peddled films with something to say and films that skew more towards the B-Movie space. He had one foot in each world, often in the same title. White Dog is about institutional racism whilst also borrowing ideas from the slasher (intentional or otherwise), he also worked wonders with the noir with Crimson Kimono, Pickup on South Street, Underworld U.S.A and Naked Kiss. His approach to storytelling was at its most pointed in the 1963 film, Shock Corridor, out now from Criterion Collection.
In it, Peter Breck plays Johnny Barrett, a journalist out to make a name for himself by cracking an unsolved murder case in a mental health facility, going undercover by posing as someone who has an incestuous infatuation with his sister – Cathy (Constance Towers). Only Cathy isn’t his sister, she is in fact his lover. It’s a dangerous ploy from the very off, but with the help of his editor and help finding his character by a somewhat duplicitous mental health professional, he is stacking the deck in his favour as much as possible. Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a film if everything went smoothly. Johnny pin points the three eye witnesses who saw the murder happen but the closer he gets to the information the looser a grasp he has on his sanity.
Modern criticisms of Shock Corridor see it accused of being a film that suggests mental breakdowns are somehow contagious. That isn’t the case, however, it was thought to be true at the time and this is what Fuller confronts in his script through his characters. In actuality, the message contained within is one that suggests that these hospitals designed to cure people of their mental ills are unfit for purpose. That a perfectly sane person can enter and after being subject to the same treatment as the patients, they will be indistinguishable from one another. As one of eyewitnesses, the opera singing Pagliacci (Larry Tucker) says, “… when we’re asleep, nobody can tell a sane man from an insane man“. Medication keeps these places in business, not cure. In that regard, Shock Corridor is still relevant today.
As I implied at the front of this piece, there are two sides to a Fuller picture – the first sees a director trying to say something. The other half is the entertainer and with Shock Corridor he turns out a psychological horror that would go on to inspire many a Hollywood produced Asylum picture from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest all the way down. Personally, I wouldn’t position Milos Forman’s New Hollywood masterpiece, I’d actually sit it next to William Peter Blatty’s Ninth Configuration with both super goofy.
Johnny talks to four people, the first is the aforementioned gentlemen who constantly breaks into operatic song and underscores the most dramatic scene of the film with its funniest line. The three eye witnesses are different, each are just as goofy as they as a vehicle through which to open political discourse. The first is Stuart (James Lee), who believes himself to be on the front-line of the american civil war with General Lee. As described in a beautifully performed monologue, his neuroses have manifested in such a way as he was brought up by parents who preached nothing but hate so when he was away during wartime he fell for any political agenda, and in making the wrong choice he paid the price with his sanity. Relevant, maybe? Trent (Hari Rhodes) is a black man that is fiercely anti-black to the extent that he believes himself to be the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Again, this is motivated by him being the sole black student in a white college in the north, the part of America thought to be more progressive and forward thinking and yet there he was subject to horrible treatment. He doesn’t state this much, but a line he repeats over tells a story beyond his story – he says “get that n****r before he marries daughter, over and over“. The last is Boden (Fuller regular, Gene Evans), a nuclear physicist who used to make weapons for the military, knowing he was making instruments of mass death he cracked and regressed to the mental state of a 6 year old. Like I said, simultaneously silly whilst having something to say.
As is expected of a Sam Fuller film it is exceptionally well made, with cinematography being incredibly striking using the Gothic halls of the asylum to full extent. The use of colour sequences when one of the eyewitnesses has a brief moment of lucidity too give Shock Corridor a remarkable visual identity. Of all the achievements of this production, the one who deserves the most plaudits is sound designer Josef von Stroheim who uses the narration track to really differentiate between the internal and the external in Johnny’s psyche. Admittedly, as good as that is it is slightly undermined by the over-reliance on the classic TV sound trope of those classic harp glissando “flashback” sounds.
Sam Fuller has been undergoing a season of rediscovery on the home video market thanks to labels like Indicator and Criterion Collection, the latter of which is putting out this release (alongside Naked Kiss), which is fabulous – as vouched for in an excellent extra featuring the likes of Tim Robbins, Scorsese and Tarantino, Fuller has been overlooked. And to have a personal favourite released in such a gorgeous edition is quite the win. The cherry on the cake are the illustrations found on the blu-ray case and adorning the options are by famed independent comic artist, Daniel Clowes. His work makes an already standout release just that little bit better. I realise this is a weird note to end this glowing write up on, but Clowes work might just have made this my favourite ever background animation on any DVD or blu-ray. It’s an odd victory, yes, but a no-less important one.