By 1963, when he started filming Shock Corridor on a rented soundstage, Samuel Fuller had come ruefully and puckishly to view himself as a “Lindy,” a diminutive for Charles Lindbergh designating a prostitute who, like the famous aviator, operates solo, and a tag he said he first encountered as a baby-faced crime reporter for Bernarr Macfadden’s New York Evening Graphic in the 1920s brothels of Upper West Side Manhattan. “I’ve known prostitutes since I was young,” Fuller recounted to Jean Narboni and Noël Simsolo for their 1986 Cahiers du cinéma volume of storytelling interviews with the director, Il était une fois (Once upon a Time). “I began to understand that for every dollar, they kept only thirty-five cents. The madam fixed the rates. When they were unhappy, she asked . . . ‘Do you want to be a Lindy?’”
Much as newspapers and movies crisscrossed in Fuller’s experience, actually he had been shifting in and out of Lindywood throughout his cinematic career, sometimes affiliated with a studio (variously major or Poverty Row), sometimes flying alone. Freelance journalism had transported him from New York to California, where he switched to writing screenplays. Admiration for The Dark Page, Fuller’s 1944 crime novel about a Manhattan tabloid, prompted producer-exhibitor Robert L. Lippert to sign him to supply scripts for his B-picture action factory—Fuller agreeing to draft what turned into I Shot Jesse James (1949) if he could, for a nominal wage, direct it himself. The critical and financial success of his low-budget Lippert films soon led Fuller to Twentieth Century-Fox, where, working closely with Darryl F. Zanuck, he created Fixed Bayonets! (1951), Pickup on South Street (1953), Hell and High Water (1954), and House of Bamboo (1955), along the way producing independently his labor-of-love newspaper valentine Park Row (1952). After Fuller left Fox, following Zanuck’s departure in 1956, he wrote and directed Run of the Arrow (1957), China Gate (1957), Forty Guns (1957), Verboten! (1959), The Crimson Kimono (1959), and Underworld U.S.A. (1961) through his own production company, Globe Enterprises, a dynamic if precarious Lindy run, until financing Globe proved impossible. A contract with Leon Fromkess for a duo of ambitious, personal films— one about a journalist, Shock Corridor (1963), and the other about a prostitute, The Naked Kiss (1964)—then established the vagabond and disconcerting template for the rest of Fuller’s creative life. The legendary Fromkess—formerly of PRC, where he oversaw Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, among other B classics, and later of Samuel Goldwyn Studio, where he superintended The Best Years of Our Lives—seemed ready-made for Fuller. But Fromkess was now backed by an apparently slippery real estate pooh-bah, Sam Firks. As Fuller continued the Lindy/indie story in his autobiography: “Of course, I’d never see a nickel of those promised residuals. Inexplicably, I’d become a ‘Lindy’ in the world of filmmaking, an independent making movies whenever and wherever I could find a producer.”
During interviews about Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, Fuller disdained cinematic subtlety—typically informing a New York Times writer in 1965, “I learned early that it is not the headline that counts but how hard you shout it.” Still, Shock Corridor, a brutal fable about a hubristic journalist, Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck), who shams his way into a nuthouse to solve a murder and climb to the pinnacle of his profession, mixes its episodes of sensational bluntness with cunning, even delicate effects, sustained through a succession of astute contrasts and correspondences. The movie starts with a screaming scarehead—“Whom God Wishes to Destroy He First Makes Mad. Euripides, 425 B.C.”—and this hard sell of overwrought catastrophe ricochets through Johnny’s stripper-intellectual girlfriend Cathy’s (Constance Towers) invocations of Hamlet, Freud, Moses, and Greek choruses. But Fuller immediately follows his weighty Athenian dramatist with Johnny’s own vernacular, shoulder-shrugging introduction—“My name is Johnny Barrett. I’m a reporter on the Daily Globe. This is my story . . . as far as it went”—launching a scene that will smartly probe whose “story” Shock Corridor ultimately is, and how inflected, or tainted, by retrospect are Johnny’s observations.
Shock Corridor in convulsive miniature, the opening episode in Dr. Fong’s psychiatric office stands among Fuller’s most daring and stylish accomplishments. The viewer tumbles through one of the many play-within-a-play trapdoors of the film as the earnest interview of a sexually troubled patient by his therapist is revealed to be Fong’s dress rehearsal of undercover reporter Johnny for his upcoming “role” as a man in love with his sister.
Fong (Philip Ahn) emerges here as a sort of assistant writer-director of the story Johnny intends to act out and then write up himself—Johnny later will describe his conversations inside the mental hospital as going “according to Fong’s script,” and the shrink midscene even fires up a signature Fuller cigar, as if to clinch the analogy. Johnny believes his “experiences alone can mean a book, a play, a movie sale,” and Fong, during his angry run-through, sounds as arrogant and reckless as his mock patient in pursuit of his coveted Pulitzer. “Means I’m a pretty good teacher,” he eventually summarizes, clueless as to the ethics of his production.
Circling Johnny and Fong is another complementary pair, Cathy and Globe editor Swanee (William Zuckert), simultaneously implicated actors and observing audience. Cathy quickly calls Johnny on his bad faith gesture to impersonate a sick person for personal triumph, in contrast to prior journalists who performed similar stunts “for a purpose.” She is presumably remembering the nineteenth-century crusader Nellie Bly, who got herself committed to Blackwell Island Insane Asylum to expose the miserable conditions of the wards; Bly’s Ten Days in a Mad-House Fuller claimed as a source for Shock Corridor. Cathy initially, though, seems critical out of wise concern for Johnny, while Swanee self-servingly praises Johnny’s extensive Method actor preparation for his potential Globe scoop (“He’s been conditioned for one whole year to ride that horse”).
For all the bluster, artful portents shimmer through that opening scene like distantly glimpsed heat waves. Do we sense Johnny’s subsequent sexual turmoil in his testy retorts to Cathy about “those hookers,” “your dive,” and singing “in your skin”? Or discover Cathy’s mutually destructive fear of losing Johnny in her insistent “Don’t you dare analyze me! I’m in love with a normal reporter holding down a normal job,” even though stripping is her own chosen path to normalcy? (“I’m saving money so we can have that normal life!”) And when Dr. Fong reminds Johnny that “it will be a daily duel between the insane and your own sane mind,” he’s warning the reporter against giving away his “role” in the hospital—but isn’t Fong also mapping his destiny?
Success for Johnny depends on Cathy’s deftness at sustaining her part as his incestuous love interest in what she calls “your rehearsed nightmare”—and aspects of acting and writing recur in many guises across Shock Corridor. Cathy goes onstage as a singing stripper, but she also performs for the night clerk at the police station as she files a complaint against her “brother,” and afterward for the doctors treating him. Johnny casts himself as incidental protagonists inside his fellow patients’ delusions—a steamboat pilot, Confederate general and KKK Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest—and in voice-overs attempts to shape his article by anticipating dialogue (“Now if you’d just ask me what made me feel different, this story will write itself”) and even sprightly atmospherics (“God-haunted ghost. Not bad for a lead”). But when are they faking, and when simply—or complicatedly—living? They both inadvertently divulge more about themselves than their assigned roles, so pinpointing their moments of counterfeiting can be tricky—and indeed, tracking Johnny’s control over “my story” veers down a blind alley. When Cathy, for instance, anxiously drums her fingers during a meeting with Dr. Cristo (John Matthews), is she distressed as Johnny’s sister or his lover? Don’t Johnny’s hospital dreams, in which he is visited by an alternately taunting and coy tiny succubus Cathy, intimate his everyday sexual fears and guilt, such that we surprisingly concur when, late in the film, Dr. Cristo diagnoses him as “suffering from a form of dementia praecox . . . characterized by childish behavior, hallucinations, emotional deterioration”?
Johnny imagines a sort of muckraking detective memoir with himself as hero, but his narrative rapidly rolls up its own autonomous energy and logic; every gain in his knowledge about the killing is another reel downward in his psychic devolution. Inside a framing prologue (spotlighting Pagliacci, played by Larry Tucker) and epilogue (with Johnny himself), Shock Corridor follows a tripartite structure, as Johnny quizzes the other three eyewitnesses to Sloan’s killing—Stuart (James Best), a Korean War defector whose “folks fed me bigotry for breakfast and ignorance for supper . . . a hymn of hate,” now turned Confederate general always refighting Antietam; Trent (Hari Rhodes), the first African American student to integrate a southern university, here convinced he’s the founder of the KKK; and Boden (Gene Evans), an atomic scientist reduced to games of hide-and-seek on the ward floor. These pure products of America were all driven crazy by their own and their country’s intractable contradictions—a literally schizophrenic historical legacy: the Civil War, race, and the bomb. For the three interviews, Fuller lodges a pattern of a visual or auditory hallucination followed by a moment of lucidity that allows Johnny to secure a precious clue. Boden’s derangement involves hearing his name respectfully called over a private public address system by his distinguished former employers at NASA and the Pentagon, while Stuart and Trent are racked by vivid color images—for Stuart, Fuller recycled location-scouting footage he shot in Japan during House of Bamboo; for Trent, he dropped in his own documentary films on the puberty and fertility rituals of the Karajá Indians of Brazil, created when he was trying to develop Tigrero for Zanuck in the midfifties.
Johnny eventually undergoes his own hallucination—a dazzling waterfall after a Learish “feel what wretches feel” storm (that also revisits Fuller’s abandoned Brazil movie). But more than Boden, Stuart, or Trent, it’s the sad clown Pagliacci, nicknamed after another infamous play within a play, Leoncavallo’s opera, who is the ghost of Johnny’s future. Just as Pagliacci can’t peer beyond his claustrophobic musical obsessions, exuberantly conducting hospital brawls as though he were Arturo Toscanini at the Met, and dismissing Johnny’s agonized screams as a “sour note,” the reporter can only focus on his ever intensifying, ever narrowing quest, indifferent to his fellow patients except as sources, and indifferent too to Cathy’s appeals for his love. What originates with Euripides finishes a Fractured Fairy Tales cartoon—“What a tragedy!” Dr. Cristo says. “An insane mute will win the Pulitzer Prize.”
Robert Polito’s most recent books are the poetry collection Hollywood & God and Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber.