Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Target #233: Shock Corridor (1963, Samuel Fuller)

TSPDT placing: #715
Directed by: Samuel Fuller
Written by: Samuel Fuller
Starring: Peter Breck, Constance Towers, Gene Evans, James Best, Hari Rhodes, Larry Tucker, Paul Dubov

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 Only]

Do you remember the nightmare sequence in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945), when Don Birman watches a bat decapitate a helpless mouse? Film experiences don't get much more lurid than that, but Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor (1963) somehow manages to maintain this intensity for 101 minutes. Everything is so grimly and determinedly over-the-top that you occasionally feel like laughing, but then Fuller grips you by the throat and doesn't allow you to exhale. A natural precursor to films like Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), this B-movie exploitation flick is intense and nasty, deliberately pushing viewers outside of their comfort zone. This is the sort of low-brow nonsense that could never have been produced by a major studio, yet Fuller relishes his low-budget creative freedom. He obviously had a lot of fun inventing characters so incredibly outrageous that audiences would flock to see them – there's an overweight would-be opera singer, a war veteran who thinks he's a Civil War general, an African-American white supremacist and even a roomful of ravenous nymphomaniacs!

Like any good B-movie should, Shock Corridor (1963) builds itself upon a shaky and unlikely premise. Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck, who reminds me of a young Martin Sheen) is a hot-shot journalist with aspirations towards the Pullitzer Prize. In order to crack an unsolved murder in a psychiatric hospital, Barrett offers to have himself committed, fooling police and doctors into believing that he has made incestuous advantages towards his sister– actually his long-time girlfriend, Cathy (Constance Towers). There are, of course, unaddressed hurdles in this ridiculous scheme: why would the authorities never bother to verify Cathy's true identity? However, once Barrett gets inside the mental ward, we're so fascinated by its peculiar brand of loonies that we don't ask any further questions. The supporting performances vary greatly in subtlety and credibility, but there's no doubt that they hold our attention, prone to unexpected violent outbursts and momentary reclamation of their sanity. Barrett's murder investigation is straightforward and episodic: he merely befriends each of the three witnesses in turn, and waits for them to come to their senses.

This being my first film from Samuel Fuller, I'm not sure whether or not his films typically have underlying political messages. However, Shock Corridor is certainly a confronting critique of the American mental health system; indeed, how can the mentally ill ever recover if even a sane man loses his sanity after just several months in such an institution? I was tempted to think that Barrett's mental deterioration was based on the findings of the disastrous Stanford Prison Experiment, in which human behaviour was drastically influenced by one's appointed status as either a "guard" or a "prisoner." Then I remembered that Zimbardo's study wasn't undertaken until 1971, which makes Fuller's conclusions even more audacious and groundbreaking. The film was shot by cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who also worked on The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and The Night of the Hunter (1955), who superbly blends the raw, gritty aesthetic of low-budget schlock with the surreal, distorted visuals of big-budget film noir. Call it bold, call it outrageous, call it ridiculous –but there's no doubting that Sam Fuller is a director to watch.

Currently my #6 film of 1963:
1) The Haunting (Robert Wise)
2) Irma la Douce (Billy Wilder)
3) The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) From Russia with Love (Terence Young)
5) (Federico Fellini)
6) Shock Corridor (Samuel Fuller)

What others have said:

"Though you need to view this pic by accepting its outrageous premise and campy hysterical set pieces with a sense of disbelief, it tosses out the reasonable moral lesson that you can't mess with madness without expecting big problems and that unbridled ambition could lead to insanity. If anything, the sensationalized crudely made pulp melodrama more than lives up to its title. This minor classic is quintessential Fuller, lively as a handful of bees and as amoral as a room full of nymphs."

"Nowhere nearly as polished as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which also explores some of the same ideas as far as portraying "crazy" people as metaphors for society, Fuller's low-budgeted masterpiece screams for more recognition. Although I generally prefer DVD editions that allow directors to discuss some of the thoughts they had during the shoot, I'm almost glad that Fuller doesn't reveal his thinking here. That means that we can view Shock Corridor a number of times and gain new insights to discuss with other film addicts. And that's to the film's credit."

"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 on South Street] 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."

1 comment:

Mike said...

Sounds interesting, but then B movies always are. At least I've enjoyed most of the B-movies I've seen especially the ones involving Lance Henrikson. Haven't seen too many classic B movies.