Here is an honest, visionary, pulp film, stripped of all romanticism, with characterizations and themes more real and relevant today than ever. To watch Shock Corridor now is to experience the complex, wacky, full-blown masterpiece of one of Hollywood’s great originals, Samuel Fuller. This one is a shoo-in for Best American Film of 1963.
To catch a killer and win a Pulitzer Prize, reporter-hero Johnny Barett (Peter Breck) has himself committed to a state mental institution. He must find out Who killed Sloan in the kitchen? by questioning the three inmates who witnessed the crime—men driven crazy by the hypocrisies of the American Dream relating to racism, anti-communism and the bomb.
Fuller adopts the time-honored convention of the journalist’s quest for truth by structuring his exploration of psychic damage in America. As the film unfolds, though, the purity of the hero’s mission is undercut by his own monomaniacal ego, and the delusions of omnipotence that mask the darkest secrets of his soul. In Breck’s moving performance, Johnny becomes one of the great doomed figures of modern day film noir—unwittingly pursuing a killer at the expense of his own sanity.
Fuller, by sheer force of style, energy and storytelling ability, directed seventeen films, all low-budget, in Hollywood between 1949 and 1965. Before that he had been a crime reporter, novelist, infantryman, and screenwriter. Fuller made memorable westerns (Forty Guns, Run of the Arrow) noted for their modern psychology and thorny thematics (Fuller sees racism and sexism throughout history as both a driving force and the greatest flaw in American society). His war pictures (Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets!, Merrill’s Marauders) and crime stories (Underworld U.S.A., Pickup on South Street) are energized by the raw intensity of his characters and his clear-eyed reportorial perspective. His one newspaper movie, Park Row, is exhilarating fun and breathes Fuller’s authentic knowledge of the trade. He sees war—in low-budget dramatic terms—as the emotional tension that inevitably explodes among small groups of men forced together in claustrophobic, inhuman situations. “In war, men become animals,” says Fuller.
Constance Towers (The Naked Kiss, Sergeant Rutledge) co-stars as Johnny’s stripper girlfriend who tries to warn him of the danger of his plan. The three madmen are played to the hilt by James Best, Hari Rhodes, and Fuller stalwart Gene Evans. Certainly, no one can forget Larry Tucker as Pagliacci, the 300 pound opera-singing looney who befriends our hero on his quest. Photography is by Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons, The Night of the Hunter) but Fuller himself shot the color dream sequences in 16mm (restored for the first time in many years for the original Criterion laserdisc release in 1989).
“It is the artistic force with which his ideas are expressed that makes his career so fascinating . . .” wrote Andrew Sarris. And Fuller’s career certainly reached full force with his last two “Hollywood” films,The Naked Kiss (1964) and especially Shock Corridor.
“We have to imagine Fuller’s characters as being fundamentally divided, split personalities,” writes Thomas Elsaesser on Shock Corridor for the Edinburgh Film Festival Tribute to Fuller in 1969. “They experience a kind of symmetry between the situations and dilemmas imposed upon them from without, and the contradictory nature of their own secret drives . . . . At a certain point in a Fuller movie the convergence of external and internal necessity becomes axiomatic: what makes the heroes act so violently is the intolerable reflection of an intolerable inner dilemma . . . . For in the pursuit of the Sloan murder, Johnny is groping for his own identity.”
This microcosm of America-in-an-insane-asylum that Fuller created in 1963 has lost none of its force for a viewer in 1998, and his treatment of journalistic hubris foreshadows the contemporary problem of media becoming corrupted by its all-too-compliant association with the powerful elites of government today. You get all this—plus an attack by nymphos, multiple beatings, a striptease number, and assorted electro-shock treatments—contributing to the film’s no-holds-barred melodrama.
Tim Hunter is the director of Tex (1982), River’s Edge (1985) and the screenwriter of Over the Edge (1979).