80. SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963)

“My title became Shock Corridor.  It had the subtlety of a sledgehammer.  I was dealing with insanity, racism, patriotism, nuclear warfare, and sexual perversion.  How could I have been light with those topics?  I purposefully wanted to provoke the audience.  The situations I’d portray were shocking and scary.  This was going to be a crazy film, ranging from the absurd to the unbearable and tragic.”
–Sam Fuller, “A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Samuel Fuller

FEATURING: Peter Breck, Constance Towers, Hari Rhodes, Larry Tucker

PLOT: Johnny Barrett is a journalist obsessed with reaching the pinnacle of his profession—winning a Pulitzer Prize—and convinced that an unsolved murder at a mental institution will provide him the investigative opportunity his career needs.  Barrett arranges to have himself committed so he can interview the three patients who witnessed the crime, over the objections of his stripper girlfriend, who fears that he will lose his mind if he enters the asylum.  Once inside, Barrett tries to pry the information he needs out of the three witnesses during their rare lucid moments, but his constant intercourse with madmen, electric shock treatments, and a traumatic incident in the nympho ward take a toll on his own sanity.

Still from Shock Corridor (1963)

BACKGROUND:

  • Samuel Fuller, who had made successful and stylish B-pictures like I Shot Jesse James (1949), The Steel Helmet (1951) and Pickup on South Street (1953) for Twentieth Century Fox, began producing his films independently in 1956 to escape studio control.
  • Fuller’s script was inspired by journalist Nellie Bly, who deliberately had herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum in 1887 in order to write a piece exposing conditions there.
  • Fuller’s first career was as a journalist; he was a crime beat reporter for the New York Evening Graphic at the age of 17.
  • Shock Corridor was made back-to-back with The Naked Kiss (1964), also starring Constance Towers and also dealing with potentially exploitative, shocking subject matter (in Kiss, prostitution and pedophilia).  The two films are usually considered to be spiritual siblings and are often screened together.
  • The corridor set (the “street”) ended in a painted backdrop meant to give the illusion of stretching off to infinity.  Dwarfs were hired as extras to mill about at the end of the hallway to create a false perspective.
  • Cinematographer Stanley Cortez had previously shot The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and The Night of the Hunter (1955), but ended his career lensing schlock like Madmen of Mandoras, Ghost in the Invisible Bikini and Navy vs. the Night Monsters.
  • The film was shot in about ten days; Fuller friend John Ford dropped by to visit the set and asked, “Sammy, why are you shooting on this two-bit set?” to which Fuller replied, “No major would touch my yarn, Jack.  It’s warped.”
  • The color scenes are composed of unused Japanese location-scouting footage from Fuller’s House of Bamboo, from an unreleased documentary on the Karaja tribe of Brazil, and home movies from a vacation.
  • Fuller claimed that producer Samuel Firks never gave him his promised share of the profits, but was nonetheless happy with the arrangement because the producer allowed the director complete creative control.
  • When Shock Corridor was awarded a special Humanitarian Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival, Fuller reportedly declined with the words “this isn’t a goddamn humanitarian film, it’s a hard-hitting, action-packed melodrama. Give your award to Ingmar Bergman.”
  • Shock Corridor was selected for the National Film Registry in 1996 (the prestigious list of films preserved because of their cultural significance stands at only 550 titles as of 2010).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Though it’s hard to beat the thunderstorm in the corridor, it’s the scenes of Constance Towers as a naughty angel doing her hoochie-coochie dance in a feather boa on Peter Breck’s shoulder while he tries to grab some shuteye that make the biggest impression.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  Though it features its fair share of stormy strum und drang


Original trailer for Shock Corridor

hallucinations, Shock Corridor would be a weird movie even without the dramatic schizoid interludes. Fuller’s film imprisons us inside a mental hospital full of  patients who act nothing like normal people—but the uncanny thing is that they don’t act anything like lunatics, either.  They act like symbols.  Drenching the film with melodramatic performances, expressionist visuals, outlandish dialogue, and blatant sensationalism, Fuller (consciously or unconsciously) constructs a uniquely nightmarish vision of Cold War America as a hyperreal asylum.

COMMENTS:After nearly 50 years, Shock Corridor has lost much of its power to shock  audiences; but what it retains is its amazing ability to make the average viewer completely miss the point.  In 1963, many, if not most, critics dismissed the film as exploitative trash with clumsy artistic pretensions (though they might have been impressed by its energy, and considered it a guilty pleasure).  Today, many first time viewers see Shock Corridor as campy trash, with clumsy artistic pretensions.  They complain about the histrionic performances; the overblown dialogue; the fact that the mental patients aren’t clinically convincing (like the ones in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest); the schematic nature of the plot; and the naïveté of the notion that schizophrenia could be caught from exposure to lunatics, like the flu.  Inevitably, the movie’s detractors conclude that Shock Corridor is bad because it’s unrealistic.  Conditioned to believe that the only way socially conscious films can be relevant is through realism, they expect an “important” film to look like The Blackboard Jungle or To Kill A Mockingbird; they believe a film dealing with the plight of the mentally ill should be a retread of The Snake Pit, with delusion and reality clearly distinguished.  They never stop to consider how appropriate it is that a movie whose central notion is that America in 1963 is a madhouse is more than a little bit crazy itself—that the film’s consistent unreality may be a case of form following function.

The film’s persistent strangeness can be subtle enough to pass over viewers’ heads; they mistake the film’s oddness for incompetence.  Everyone comments on the absurdity of the unforgettable “nymphomaniac ward” sequence, and it’s not clear whether the campy humor (Breck’s hilarious silent alarm as he alerts himself to the presence of the dreaded “nymphos!”) is intentional or not.  But, given the deliberately strange way Fuller handles some of the early scenes—sequences that supposedly occur before Johnny loses his mind—I think there’s reason to give him the benefit of the doubt that the “nymphos!” scene is deliberately, rather than accidentally, crazy.

Consider the first time we see Cathy dancing the striptease onstage.  Her face is completely covered by her feather boa, which moves as she exhales the first few breathy lyrics of her song.  This is an odd enough vision, but it’s subtly strange that the number she performs for the leering patrons isn’t a bump n’ grind burlesque tune, but a yearning ballad called “Someone to Love.” The girlishly chaste material, performed before sequined hearts, is tonally out of sync with Cathy’s provocative gyrations.  Further, the performance requires an overdub (she answers herself with an echo-chambered “Johnny!” after she sings “I need somebody to love…”), a technical amenity that the strip club she’s supposedly performing in would seem unlikely to provide.  And add to that the fact that the audience is never shown, and remains completely silent (no calls of “take it off!”) until they break into applause at the conclusion.  Although the number is supposedly set in a nightclub, it’s an expressionistic scene that tells us more about Cathy’s internal feelings and character than it does about her work life; the entire performance may as well occur entirely inside her head.

Another odd early scene also involves Cathy—her first (of two) memorable miniature appearances dancing on top of Johnny’s head as he dreams.  As he thrashes in his sleep, she taunts him that a local critic called her mouth “a lush tunnel,” and warns him that she doesn’t like to be alone and may have to “find a new Johnny.”  The scene is important because it shows us, for the first time, that Cathy is on Johnny’s mind (literally!), and that he cares for her as much as she does for him (up until then, it appears that he’s merely been using her for career advancement, to pose as his sister so that he could get himself committed as an incestuous fetishist to investigate the unsolved murder).  The voiceover in a dream (accompanied by the traditional harp arpeggios) is a form of cinematic shorthand for revealing a character’s interior state, so it may not strike the viewer as exceptionally strange at first blush.  But, in context of the story, it’s important that the way this crucial character information is divulged is through a hallucination—a delusion inside of a mind that’s been warned that, by playing at being insane, it is risking his own sanity.  And this hallucination occurs before Johnny has been committed to the hospital (the dream of the dancing stripper will return when he’s inside the asylum, in an even stranger form).

So, even before we’ve stepped across the threshold of the asylum, Fuller has already begun accustoming us to strangeness.  It’s expected that, as Johnny loses his grip on sanity, he’ll hallucinate—as he undergoes electric shock therapy, for example, or in the insane climax where he sees the thunderstorm in the corridor.  But the movie has been slowly loosening its grip on reality almost from the very first scene; Johnny’s slide into madness occurs gradually, and—like him—we may not even notice it at first.  That’s why the “nympho” scene, strange as it is, seems perfectly in place.  Isn’t it weird that this nympho ward—where the women are so unstable and insatiable that we were told that an orderly was taken off duty there because it became “too dangerous”—is right next door to the room in which the inmates undertake their dance therapy?  That the door only locks from the inside, that there’s no sign on it warning that it’s a restricted area, that Johnny decides to wander in that strange door looking for water, rather than going back through the hallway the way he came?  That Johnny, whose sexual psychology is in question both in fiction (he’s pretending to be a pervert) and in reality (he fantasizes guilt-tripping visits from his stripper girlfriend), suddenly finds himself inside a nest of beautiful but fearsome carnal vipers?  The nympho scene may be, as the film’s critics contend, just an absurd exploitation moment that’s awkwardly shoehorned in to the plot for shock value.  But if it is, it’s a happy accident, because it keeps the viewer off guard, reminding us that anything can happen in this movie, and adds immensely to the atmosphere of mounting lunacy.

The nympho sequence is one of a few delusional digressions from the main plotline, which is often criticized for being too “schematic.”  Once Johnny enters the asylum, he quickly falls into a pattern.  He targets one of the three witnesses to the unsolved stabbing that occurred in the hospital kitchen.  Each witness is suffering from an ironic delusion that mirrors some aspect of 1963 America.  The first man was raised a xenophobic bigot, was captured and brainwashed by Chinese communists, and now believes he is a Confederate general.  A black man who broke under the pressure of being the first Negro student to integrate a university now believes he is the founder of the Ku Klux Klan.  (Hari Rhodes donning a pillowcase and standing on a bench to deliver a hate-filled rant against integration is one of the few scenes that still has the power to shock modern audiences).  Finally, there is the Oppenheimer-like nuclear scientist whose guilt over helping to build the Bomb has driven him to adopt the persona of an innocent six-year old boy.  Each of the witnesses is introduced in turn (they don’t exist before or after Johnny interrogates them), has a hallucination in color which briefly shocks him into sanity, and divulges a clue to the murderer’s identity.  The plot tick-tocks like a clockwork mechanism—ironic delusion, color hallucination, moment of lucidity—repeat, repeat, repeat.  (When the pattern is broken once, and it’s actually disconcerting).  Of course, the real world doesn’t work in this diagrammatic fashion.  But the blatantly artificial order that’s imposed on the plot, which allows Fuller to climb on his soapbox using the three witnesses as mouthpieces for what he sees as wrong with his country, utilizes the logic of a mad prophet.

Of course, real insanity doesn’t work the way it’s depicted in Shock Corridor; real madmen don’t adopt such conveniently symbolic and didactic delusions.  Fuller doesn’t care, because, despite the promises of the trailer to expose “the medical jungle doctors don’t talk about,” the film is only incidentally about mental illness.  There’s implicit social criticism of therapeutic atrocities in the electroshock sequence, but that’s about as far as the movie goes as an institutional exposé.  Fuller is far more interested in exploring his metaphor of Cold War America as a madhouse, using the story to diagnose the hypocrisies and neuroses of the American dream: xenophobia, bigotry, racism, hysteria.  Of course insanity isn’t really “catching”: in reality, you don’t become a schizophrenic yourself by hanging out with schizophrenics, and Cathy and Johnny have little realistic reason to fear for the reporter’s sanity.  But in Shock Corridor, madness doesn’t result from a mental defect, it results from moral stress.  You go insane from being shunned by your fellow citizens for having unwittingly been a Communist, from being unable to bear the weight of an entire race’s expectations on your shoulders, from guilt over using your intellectual gifts to bring unspeakable horror on your fellow man.  In this symbolic world, it makes sense that Johnny would go mad from the intense strain of trying to figure out what’s going on inside the asylum’s twisted corridors.  (The electroshock treatments probably don’t do much for his tenuous sanity, either).

Shock Corridor‘s shortsighted critics also condemn the movie for its unrealistic, hysterical performances.  Everyone in the movie either shouts or delivers their lines with solemnity that seems ridiculous; violence erupts every few minutes; and even a tender kiss results in angry accusations and flailing limbs.  But, though melodrama, particularly the soap opera-ish melodrama fashionable in early Hollywood, gets a bad name from being associated with popular trash, reflection suggests that it’s the proper tool to tell this particular story.  Everything in the movie is so consistently unreal—insanity is part of the movie’s bone structure—that only a strident tone fits right.  Melodrama deliberately seeks to exaggerate and heighten reality, particularly emotional reality.  Not only do the performers speak feverishly, the lines they are given are often absurdly overwrought.  Nobody speaks at all like a real person, and the words they say can verge on nonsense.  Cathy asks “do you think I like singing in that sewer with a hot light on my navel?” (why “navel”?), and advises “don’t be Moses leading your lunatics to the Pulitzer Prize.”  She tells Johnny, “Hamlet was made for Freud. Not you.” (What is this supposed to mean?  Johnny was not made for Freud, or Hamlet was not made for Johnny?  Does either alternative make much sense?)  Johnny tells Cathy (in a dream), “my yen for you goes up and down like a fever chart.”  No one talks this way, but it adds to the accumulation of oddities that make Shock Corridor the utterly unique, deranged, and beautiful motion picture that it is.  Just as Sam Fuller intended it to be.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The dialog is unreal and pretentious, and the direction is heavyhanded, often mistaking sordidness for realism. The performers labor valiantly, but in vain.”–Variety (contemporaneous)

“…an allegory of America today, not so much surreal as subreal in its hallucinatory view of history which can only be perceived beneath a littered surface of plot intrigue… a distinguished addition to that art form in which Hollywood has always excelled: the Baroque B-picture.”–Andrew Sarris, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

“…the total effect remains strange and harrowing, particularly in Shock Corridor‘s strongest images: the linear patterns of the ward’s corridor and barred windows; the stripper’s breath blowing through a boa wrapped around her face; a climactic thunderstorm that rages in the reporter’s deteriorating psyche; and the twisting of a catatonic man’s rigid hands into a facsimile of an embrace… the disturbing, singular vision of Sam Fuller still generates heat.”–Bill Weber, Slant Magazine (DVD)

OFFICIAL SITE: Shock Corridor (1963) – The Criterion Collection – includes three essays and a selection of press clippings on the film

IMDB LINK: Shock Corridor (1963)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Samuel Fuller, Eccentric Stylist of Poverty Row – The Criterion Collection’s re-releases of Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss inspires the New York Times‘ Dave Kehr to pen this Fuller primer

The Films of Samuel Fuller – Mike Grost lists some common features of and connections between Fuller films, and makes some observations about Shock Corridor in particular

MPP: Shock Corridor – Cartoonist Rick Trembles’ one panel comic treatment of Shock Corridor from his series “Motion Picture Purgatory”

DVD INFO: In 1998 the Criterion Collection released a bare-bones edition of Shock Corridor with no special features to speak of.  In 2011 they rectified this shameful slight with a lavish edition (buy) featuring a beautifully remastered print, illustrations by comic book artist Daniel Clowes, and a thirty page booklet with an essay by poet and critic Robert Polito.  The disc contains two excellent special features.  The more impressive is the hour long documentary The Typewriter, the Rifle and the M0vie Camera, which introduces us to the larger-than-life, cigar-chomping Sam Fuller by examining his three separate careers as a newspaperman, World War II solider and movie director.  The doc is narrated by Tim Robbins and features tributes to Fuller from Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and Jim Jarmusch.  The second feature is an interview with the classy and elegant Constance Towers, who reflects on her experiences with Fuller and with director John Ford.  The Criterion Blu-ray (buy) contains the same features.

2 thoughts on “80. SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963)”

  1. Just saw this documentary on tv: Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0111430/

    “In 1993, Sam Fuller takes Jim Jarmusch on a trip into Brazil’s Mato Grosso, up the River Araguaia to the village of Santa Isabel Do Morro, where 40 years before, Zanuck had sent Fuller to scout a location and write a script for a movie based on a tigrero, a jaguar hunter.”

    Fuller shot the Shock Corridor color scenes there in 1953.
    There’s some discussion about SC between Jarmusch and Fuller. Great documentary all around. Recommended.

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