Shock Corridor
Director: Sam Fuller. Cast: Peter Breck, Constance Towers, Larry Tucker, John Matthews, Bill Zuckert, James Best, Hari Rhodes, Gene Evans, Chuck Roberson, Philip Ahn. Screenplay: Sam Fuller.


Shock Corridor is the perfect title for a Sam Fuller movie, taut and sensational, limned with B-movie luridity. In films like the ingenious and hard-hitting Pickup on South Street, Fuller exhibits a showmanly flair, unmatched by any American director I can think of, for mounting the kind of simple, pulpy premise you might find in any detective fiction and then strip-mining it with ferocious, hammering acuity for every ounce of moral contradiction, every small sediment of American hypocrisy and social paranoia that the material can possibly yield. Overwrought? Absolutely, but at their best, Fuller's conceptions come tearing off the screen, electrifying the audience because much as we may wish to deny it, we can't fail to recognize these deranged ethical standoffs and devilish, complacent acceptance of moral rot as something proximate to our own world. Of course, when amorality is as icily debonair as Richard Widmark's central performance in South Street, and when ethical standoffs are lit and framed in dazzling diagonals last seen in German Expressionism, who wants to act prim and proper?

Unfortunately, the guignol flourishes of Shock Corridor don't really attain the cogency or persuasive power of the best Fuller: this one just feels like the kind of second-rate thriller that a movie like Pickup leaves in its dust. The film's got its political head in the right place, denouncing the racism and the arms race as symptoms of cultural insanity to 1963 audiences who may or may not have assented to these diagnoses. But on the one hand, Fuller is such a gifted poet of the corroded conscience that, dare I say it, it's almost disappointing to see him blast such easy targets as Jim Crow bigotry. Furthermore, whereas a picture like John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate, made within a year of Shock Corridor, situates its outrage against the brainwashing of America inside a baroque but still mature conception of the sinister workings of power, Shock Corridor undercuts its own authority by ham-fisting its protests into a banal plot structure and a totally undisciplined tonal register.

Peter Breck, leading a cast of people I'd never seen or heard of, stars as Johnny Barrett, a newspaper reporter who's hit on the ostensibly brilliant idea to impersonate a demented man in order to have himself committed to a San Francisco asylum, the site of a recent murder which remains unsolved. Barrett's hope is that the patients hold the key to this crime—doesn't everyone know that patients, inmates, and prisoners always know the ins and outs of their institutions better than the staff?—and that by coaxing information out of them, he will be the toast of the Pulitzer committee.

The first sequence of Shock Corridor, which sets up all of this exposition, is a promising bit. We drop into a conversation between Johnny and Dr. Fong (Philip Ahn), believing we are witnessing an actual psychiatric evaluation until Johnny's clumsy mention of fetishism makes Dr. Fong lose his temper—we now realize that the two are actually rehearsing for Johnny's attempted charade, and the psychiatrist is trying to coach Johnny how to sound nuts without overdoing it. D.P. Stanley Cortez, who brilliantly photographed the deep-focus and deep-seated domestic envies of Welles' Magnificent Ambersons and the fairy-tale dread of Laughton's Night of the Hunter, invests this opening scene with expert unease, toying with our grasp of depth in several shots and only gradually revealing the presence of other people in the room: Swanee Swanson (Bill Zuckert), Johnny's boss at the paper, and Cathy (Constance Towers), Johnny's appalled and skeptical girlfriend, who is furiously reneging on an earlier promise to abet Johnny's disguise by claiming to be his sister and accusing him of assault with incestuous intent. He frankly can't see how pretending to be a crazy man's sister is any worse than dancing naked in front of strangers, which is what Cathy does for a living. The difference, she maintains, is his reckless embrace of danger: she doesn't see how he'll withstand weeks, maybe months of confinement and, worse, of so-called "treatment" and emerge any less fractured than the patients on the ward.

That's a lot to introduce in ten minutes, but considering the source, we forgive the hyperbole of the dialogue and the scenario. Even Cortez's stylized photography would seem excessive if Fuller's reputation didn't lead us to expect that Shock Corridor will use its exaggerated premise and aesthetic in order to comment on exaggeration itself: what kind of culture places such a high value on public recognition that a Pulitzer Prize is worth institutionalization? Though Johnny insists his psyche will remain intact, does he secretly hope to be undone, set free of a boss who seems every bit as bored as Johnny is hyper-motivated, and from a girlfriend who seems just as possessive as Johnny is antsy?

I'm sure that more dedicated Fullerites will find more to redeem Shock Corridor, but for my money, the picture slides precipitously downhill from this risky but engrossing intro. After leading us through one of Cathy's putatively risqué stripteases, the picture lands with a splat right where almost every American film about asylums winds up: in short, in the booby-hatch. During the obligatory walk-through of the facilities, we see the familiar scores of actors shouting non-sequiturs at each other, gazing into space, cowering against the walls, nurturing phantom babies. The women in the next ward over, referred to only as "the Nymphos," are the most carnivorous, insatiable bunch since the pack who ripped Orpheus to shreds. Exactly none of this is played for irony. Fuller appears prone to the very same, lamebrained conception of mental illness that was already cliché in Hollywood after The Snake Pit and Suddenly, Last Summer, to name just two examples. Rather than commenting in any truculent way on these grotesque stereotypes or this mimetic tradition, the film just casts its lot with both. Cortez keeps doing interesting things with depth of field, but up against a Victor Buono-sized loon named Pagliacci who, natch, passes the time belting out arias, Cortez's deep focus is no match for the deep hysteria into which the bulk of Shock Corridor quickly descends.

It doesn't help that the structure becomes depressingly rigid, too. Johnny somehow identifies three patients in particular whom he feels (why?) might have the secret to the murder, and all three actors in those roles must successively endure an ornate rehearsal of their own dementia, followed by a post-traumatic "snap" back into reality until, at the very moment they seem destined to spill the beans about the crime, they slide back into their antic ravings with greater vehemence than ever. Mixed in with these foiled interviews are some truly bizarre inserts of color stock footage of raging waterfalls and Amazon body-painting rituals that tangentially illustrate (but not really) the unsettled memories of the patients. And if all of that weren't enough, Peter Breck sabotages his portion of these scenes by overacting the role of Johnny to the point of cardiac arrest. A climactic scene in which Johnny's internal monologue shouts ideas that his paralyzed mouth cannot utter is a tawdry bit of screenwriting, but Breck's doltish performance takes the failure of the scene to almost dadaist extremes.

It becomes quite obvious less than halfway through Shock Corridor that only the third of Johnny's three witnesses will provide Johnny with clues he can use (is it ever any other way?), and that by then he will be too far gone into his own mental fog to possibly make use of them. Predictability is the kiss of death to a Fuller movie, particularly since in this case the predictability itself is not made to seem like the point. It is the screenplay, not the world, which seems cruelly and implacably predetermined. Shock Corridor is not uncovering any social fact or psychological compulsion that can credibly generalize this narrative into a worthy critique of the culture. The movie is really just a jacked-up thriller, mundane in its own howling desperation. The high points along the way, like a slugging fistfight in a hydrotherapy chamber, are intriguing because they vary the movie's metronomic pace and look good on screen, but not because they really enrich the story or our larger notion of what, if anything, Fuller is up to.

Paranoia, espionage, and secret guilt seem to be Fuller's primary paradigms for understanding American culture, particularly in the dawn of the Cold War, when he produced his most seminal films. But whereas Pickup on South Street detects these pathologies in the bloodstream of a genuine social idiom—a twilight world of gangsters, traitors, and informers that retains an internal coherence and cultural credibility despite its stylistic amplification—Shock Corridor treats the same notions with such gaga literalism and in such a narrow environmental canvas that the ideas feel cheap and untextured. We are at least spared the insipid attempts of pictures like One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest to preciously romanticize the mentally addled; Fuller's asylum does not become the staging area for any transcendent spirit of rebellion, or any faux-realizations that in a crazy world, it's the crazies who are sane. Unfortunately, all Shock Corridor can tell us is that everyone in this crazy world is goddamn crazy, and they do crazy things for crazy reasons. Twice, in the opening and closing frames, Fuller attempts to solemnize his vision with the Euripidean homily that "whom God wishes to destroy, he first makes mad." But no one and nothing, certainly not God, seems to have anything to do with Johnny Barrett's madness, which derives only from his own puerile ambitions and from the fact that this screenplay has nowhere else to take him except straight down the rabbit-hole. Visually indelible but thematically underrealized, and too heavily reliant on weightless performers and hackneyed conceits, Shock Corridor only shocks insofar as you expect something a little better. C–

Golden Globe Nominations: Most Promising Newcomer (Male): Larry Tucker
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