Thursday, February 17, 2005

#19: Shock Corridor

Shock Corridor, 1963, written and directed by Samuel Fuller.

Like The Naked Kiss, this movie has a lot to offer if you're looking for lurid camp. Peter Breck stars as Johnny Barrett, an ambitious reporter who goes undercover at a mental hospital to solve a murder. This is a great premise, well worth stealing; but Fuller takes it in strange directions. Johnny doesn't just pose as a garden variety manic depressive in order to get committed; he gets his stripper girlfriend (played by Constance Towers—what a great name!—who also starred in The Naked Kiss) to claim to be his sister and file a police complaint against him, getting himself put into the mental hospital as a hair fetishist with an incestuous obsession with his sister. When characters are thinking, you can hear their thoughts in voice over, while the camera pushes in. So, yeah, it's that kind of a movie.

I didn't think it was possible to create a more ridiculous and unlikely mental hospital than The Silence of the Lambs, but I guess I was wrong. It's shot well; it isn't a great set, but it reminds me a little of Avedon's photos of the East Louisiana State Mental Hospital (which I think he took in the sixties). When Johnny first arrives, an orderly walks him down the long hallway on the ward; sullen inmates are leaning against the walls, staring into space, shuffling around. None of them are talking. The orderly tells Johnny that he's lucky, because he's gotten there just in time for the "Make Friends Hour."

The murder mystery Johnny's trying to solve isn't very interesting and the guilty party is quite predictable. The witnesses he has to interview are excellent, though; taken together, they form a nice, if unsubtle, critique of post-war america. There's:

  • Stewart, who was captured and brainwashed by Communists while serving in Korea. After breaking with Communism and getting returned to the states, he was dishonorably discharged and rejected by the rest of the world. So he convinced himself that he was Jeb Stewart, Civil War General, and marches around the asylum in a CSA hat.
  • Trent, the first black student at a Southern university, who cracked under the pressure and switched sides. He gives moving speeches about how America is for Americans, and carries a sign reading "Integration And Democracy Don't Mix."
  • And Dr. Boden, a Nobel-Prize-winning nuclear physicist, one of the architects of the atomic bomb, who has regressed to the mental state of a six-year-old and does a lot of drawing with crayons.

Of the three, Trent is the most interesting, just because it's really disconcerting to see a black man say, in all earnestness, things like, "Now, they're all right as entertainers..." and "So they like hot jazz music, do they? Well, let's burn those freedom buses!" The other guys are too much, though; I think they must have played better in 1963, but even then, it bears remembering that the year before, this came out. So although Shock Corridor attempts to say a lot more about America than most B-pictures, it's not the most blistering critique of post-war America at the time. It's a camp classic, and a cult classic, but I'm not so sure I'd call it a classic. I certainly enjoyed it, though


  • When the other inmates are describing their dreams, which doesn't happen until maybe forty minutes or so into the movie, Fuller switches to color (and what I thought was stock footage, but apparently he shot it). It's really disarming.

  • Both this movie and Ray, which I saw last night, have a similar "nightmares about water" thing going on. It's more impressive in Shock Corridor, because Johnny imagines a downpour of rain inside the hospital; it's a really good sequence.

  • The trailer tries to sell this as a peek inside the inner workings of a mental hospital. It's referred to in the trailer as "incredibly realistic." This after showing us the main characters and having the narrator say, after each one, things like "Diagnosis: Erotic Dementia!" and "Diagnosis: Manic Sensualist" (but not, sadly, "Diagnosis: Monique!"). And, of course, at one point durring the trailer, the narrator says, "Then there was the day Johnny was trapped in the ward of love-maddened women..." So whatever critics may say about this, it's pretty clear that marketing saw it as pure pulp.

  • Peter Breck has a horror-movie-girl scream. I mean, he really screams like a woman in this movie; it's disturbing.

  • You know you're in good hands when your main character wanders into the female ward by mistake, sees a group of women, and thinks (in voice over) "Nymphos!" in an alarmed tone. And then gets surrounded, wrestled to the ground, and given a bit of the rough, presumably; the next time we see Johnny his face is all bruised.

  • And it doesn't hurt when you have someone ask, "How's he getting on?" and gets the result, "Very well. He's in Dance Therapy now."

  • Or when someone says, "Ever since I was a kid, my folks fed me bigotry for breakfast and ignorance for dinner."

  • But best of all, Fuller has a psychiatrist look sadly out a window and intone, "What a tragedy. An insane mute will win the Pulitzer Prize!" I could write a million screenplays and never top that line.


thecoppermouse said...

Thanks for the review. Definitely one of my favorite films.

"Who killed Sloan in the kitchen?"

Matthew Dessem said...


Glad you enjoyed it!

John B. said...

Who killed Sloan in the kitchen? Does anyone really care? I don’t, and I don’t think Samuel Fuller did either. The mystery is clearly a MacGuffin. Its only purpose is to get the story going, to get Johnny Barrett into the asylum and into contact with the three witnesses, to set up their three monologues. Those monologues are the reason this film was made. The mystery isn’t interesting (possibly deliberately so) because it is inconsequential.

Those monologues, dealing with the Triple Crown of issues facing mid-twentieth century America (communism, racism, and nuclear proliferation), are the very best part of Shock Corridor, and two of the three are very good indeed. Least successful for me is Gene Evans’ turn as Boden, the nuclear physicist. This is less a criticism of Evans than it is high praise for both James Best and Hari Rhodes as Stuart and Trent, who provide the powerful and disturbing highlights of this film. Evans simply pales in comparison.

The psychiatric prattle badly dates Shock Corridor but is bearable as the film is no more about mental illness than it is a compelling murder mystery. It is well shot, but poorly edited. The writing is overblown, and there’s some piss-poor acting on display here. And yet, like The Naked Kiss, it is all strangely captivating. That’s due to Fuller’s much-touted original voice. I haven’t come across anyone quite like him. But if I’ve learned anything from viewing The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor, it is that being an original voice and being master of your craft are not necessarily synonymous. The best of the best have it all, not one or the other, and this is why Samuel Fuller ultimately falls short for me.