With the recent release of Samuel Fuller’s “Shock Corridor” on special edition DVD from the Criterion Collection, I thought I would look at the film for this week’s column.
“Shock Corridor” is a chilling experience, a film where you are set adrift in an unpleasant situation, never sure what you will see next. Fuller plunges you into the den of total madness and has you squirming every second. Tonally, the film owes a lot to Hitchcock classics like “Strangers on a Train” and “Psycho,” but goes deeper with the psychological turmoil of its characters; in those films, you at least had a sense of some stable reality to the story. With “Shock Corridor,” you get to watch a stable reality unravel.
By the time he made the film, Fuller had been directing since the late ’40s, working mostly on pulpy B-movies that were primitive in style but filled with unbridled zeal. “Shock Corridor” retains an exploitational energy, but is imbued with a depth and intensity that elevates it above its drive-in roots. Fuller always lacked the deft touch of a great filmmaker, but had so much energy for the craft that his work was always interesting to watch. “Shock Corridor” is rough around the edges in places, but pulses with the excitement of a filmmaker who knows he has an interesting story to tell.
It centers on a journalist named Barrett (Peter Breck) who thinks the quickest way to a Pulitzer Prize is to solve a recent murder in a mental hospital.
He devises a way to go undercover as a mental patient and investigate the crime from within the hospital. He works with a therapist on ways to fool the hospital’s admitting psychiatrist and gets his worried girlfriend (Constance Towers) to pose as his sister. She reports to the police that he has been making violent advances toward her. After his arrest, Barrett is quickly admitted to the institution.
The premise is totally implausible, but it’s simply a means to putting Barrett inside the institution. Once he is there, the film really takes off. Fuller and his cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, create a mental ward that is deceptively mundane, filled with odd, sinister touches. Fuller uses harsh, penetrating light on the characters, always casting deep shadows on the walls behind them. His camera slowly creeps through the set like an objective witness, watching as Barrett encounters each new character.
Then there is the titular corridor running through the ward, an expanse where the patients congregate. Aptly called “the street,” the corridor is like a mysterious highway where Barrett encounters plenty of colorful strangers. The details of the murder are left murky, but he knows it happened in the hospital cafeteria and was witnessed by three patients: Boden (Gene Evans), Stuart (James Best) and Trent (Hari Rhodes). If he can befriend each one, Barrett thinks he can get them to reveal their secrets.
But in befriending them, Barrett starts to risk his own sanity. The three men each represent a different facet of trauma related to the ’60s; Stuart is a former veteran still wresting with his war experience, Trent is a rebellious black man driven mad by institutional racism, and Boden an ex-nuclear scientist who has retreated from the era’s harsh political realities into a child-like state. As he listens to each man rant and rave, Barrett starts to lose his grip on reality.
Using the three patients as symbols for larger cultural issues is a bit ham-handed on Fuller’s part, but he does it to make a larger point; no matter what they say or tell him, Barrett is still only concerned with solving the murder.
As important as issues of racism and nuclear power are to his time, he is still only concerned with his own professional ambition. His descent into madness is Fuller’s commentary on the consequences of middle class apathy.
Regardless of his symbolic approach, Fuller brings the film to life through the bizarre energy of the situation. The scenes of Barrett engaging with the other patients have a hypnotic quality. Watching them ramble on in the throes of paranoia, it’s easy to get lost in their words. Fuller, who wrote the screenplay, provides us with a kind of beautiful nonsense in the film’s dialogue; you’re simply never sure what you are going to hear next.
The crudity of the film’s logic is almost beside the point. The plot is a jumping off point for Fuller’s real ambition, which is to startle and unsettle you with the power of his images.
He creates a setting that is filled with tension and bizarre danger, and doesn’t let up until the viewer feels the same discomfort as his protagonist. He pushes the limits of the audience with this film, and provides an exhilarating experience.
Reach Dennis O’Neil at 270-887-3237