Shock Corridor

(Samuel Fuller, USA, 1963): “What a tragedy,” sighs the newspaper editor who’d previously endorsed his prize reporter’s nutty decision to admit himself into a mental hospital — under the guise of an incestuous fetishist — in order to solve a murder. “An insane mute will win the Pulitzer Prize.”

Shot in a reputed ten days on a single set so small little people were hired to create a sense of background depth in the soundstage ‘asylum’, Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor never lacked for blunt force or lurid sensationalism. With its insistent framing of pre-JFK assassination America as a madhouse where insanity is the only reasonable response to a Republic driven brinkward by racism, Commie paranoia and nuclear extinction, Fuller’s final kiss-off to America studio production — apart from an early, proto-Jaws Burt Reynolds vehicle called Shark,  it would be the former tabloid journalist’s final Stateside production until 1981’s The Big Red One — Fuller’s most notorious and nakedly editorializing movie is one of the very few certified cult classics that must have seemed every bit as over the top then as it does today. Released the same year as the similarly diagnostic Dr. Strangelove — which also viewed American geopolitical aggression as a form of contagious suicidal delusion — Shock Corridor never once begs for interpretation or provides its audience with the comforting insulation of irony. It’s to be taken as it is or not at all. This nuthouse is the country at large, strapped to a stainless steel table and zapped into twitchy, flashback-prone catatonia. So, what’s it really about? How could you miss: “Mark Twain didn’t psychoanalyze Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer,” says our hero’s wisely but pointlessly concerned stripper girlfriend (Constance Towers), who has only very reluctantly agreed to pose as the ‘sister’ for whom the Pulitzer-lusting undercover nut job Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) has entirely inappropriate desires. “Dickens didn’t put Oliver Twist on the couch because he was hungry. Good copy comes out of people, Johnny, not out of a lot explanatory medical terms!”

Successfully installed in the madhouse, which may be bargain basement but which cinematographer Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons) nevertheless shoots with as much striking, black-and-white chiaroscuro effects to link the movie all the way back to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — Johnny embarks on his deep-cover investigation of “Who killed Sloan in the kitchen?” by cozying up to the three inmates (Hari Rhodes, James Best and Gene Evans) who witnessed the murder of an abusive orderly. But proximity alone is sufficient cause for unravelling in Fuller’s cuckoo’s nest, and Barrett’s conviction that getting close enough to his coop-flown persons of interest will yield the truth only certifies his own fate as the loopiest stooge in the joint. But it’s not because the craziness here is catching. It’s because the truth, which manages to emerge in each inmate just long enough to keep Barrett plunging deeper into the collective psychosis, will only make you even crazier than — as a reporter with suicidal Pulitzer ambitions and a stripper girlfriend who appears in dreams like a shimmy-shaking Barbie doll on your pillow — you must already be. Even before the great unravelling of values and certainty to come in the wake of the JFK assassination, Fuller was sounding the trumpet for the impending national bugout. Indeed, one way of interpreting Fuller’s otherwise sometimes baffling predilection for pure pulp excess — how else to read the ‘nympho’ attack on Barrett, the conspicuously distasteful incest cover, the dancing girl on the pillow or the final great flooding of the shock corridors themselves — is as the product of a kind of lunatic urgency all its own: the movie shouts, shrieks and declaims almost as feverishly as its metaphor-possessed inmates do, and arguably to the same effect. Shock Corridor winds up just as hopelessly crazy as Barrett.

Had Fuller’s reputation not been so prestigiously celebrated by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and certified by the emerging auteurist critical paradigm, one wonders how his career might have played out post-Corridor. Would he have ground out drive-in fodder for Roger Corman or become an episodic TV director? Was there any containing of his own pathologically subversive vision? Unlikely, but this is precisely why imagining Fuller in full-on pulp mode — whether making cardboard-set full-colour horror movies or episodes of The Untouchables and I Dream of Jeannie — is so tantalizing. Stanley Cortez’s budget expressionism notwithstanding, one way of viewing the stark black-and-white aesthetics of Shock Corridor is as an especially berserk pilot episode of a never picked up TV series: a weekly show about a reporter going gradually but irreversibly nuts in a mental institution. But prime time wasn’t quite ready for that yet. It was perfectly okay to be crazy on TV as long as it was comical or clearly designated as outside the parameters of conventionalized normality, but not quite so cool to suggest American exceptionalism in itself was a kind of terminal, hellbent-for-apocalypse form of mass psychosis. Never mind that in its period context Shock Corridor belongs to the surge in Hollywood-certified mental-illness movies that spiked after Hitchcock’s Psycho — Suddenly Last SummerDavid and Lisa, Lilith, Strait JacketWhatever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Innocents, Freud, etc. — for this only provides one possible further explanation for Fuller’s brand of blunt hysteria: to be diagnosed as really crazy in those days, you had to go the full distance. This one goes all the way. It might be entirely susceptible to charges of camp ridiculousness, but those charges were as likely to be laid back in ’63 as they have been since. Fuller’s true daring here is in the conviction that you have to truly get crazy to know crazy. Or to even see crazy. In that sense, the director might be as foolishly and heedlessly motivated as Johnny Barrett ever was. True, Dickens might not have ever put Oliver Twist on the couch, but Dickens wasn’t living in the U.S.A. in 1963. Had he been, he might very well have gone legitimately bananas. (Criterion)