Director/Screenwriter: Samuel Fuller
By Roderick Heath
Sam Fuller’s gloriously overheated oeuvre, with his Brutalist-like fondness for aesthetic rough edges, journalistic punch of perspective, and crisp visual stylistics, retains the power to compel and surprise long after its heyday. But in his own time Fuller’s rugged, non-conformist attitude and penchant for bold and declarative, controversy-courting themes condemned him to a precipitous slide from the status of big studio director to independent scrounger. Fuller’s career trailed off into a thirty-year stretch of occasional films, many barely noticed by the critics who were championing his ‘50s work. Shock Corridor was one of the last of the run of aggressively energetic, intelligent but hyped-up flicks he made when he was trying to sustain himself on poverty row budgets in Hollywood. Shock Corridor is supposedly a murder mystery set in a hospital for mentally disturbed patients, but really has virtually nothing to do with then-contemporary psychiatry and everything to do with Fuller’s analysis of a social landscape that seems to have struck him as 95 percent crazy. Johnny Barrett’s (Peter Breck) self-appointed mission to win a Pulitzer Prize by finding the killer of a man named Sloan hidden amongst the hospital residents is the starting point for a long journey through the twists of the American moral and sexual psyche circa 1963 that is, on occasions, one of the best metaphors for a social project since Melville sent his mariners after the white whale. Some directors lose their will and wit in low-budget genre work, but Fuller seemed to revel in it: he could make raw melodrama, sexploitation, seamy production, and unfiltered sensationalism work for him.
Johnny, at the outset, has gained the approval of his editor, “Swanee” Swanson (Bill Zuckert), to pursue the story, and Swanee has pressed his psychiatrist friend Dr. Fong (Philip Ahn) to tutor Johnny on how to fool doctors, police, and hospital staff to get himself placed in the hospital. His girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) is integral to the plan: she has to pose as his sister, to whom he’s supposed to be incestuously attracted, as the first manifestation of a dangerous instability that will require incarceration. But Cathy, a scholarly woman who’s probably smarter than Johnny but who works as a stripper to makes ends meet, is vehemently afraid of the plan, sensing something strange and masochistic in Johnny’s pursuit. Cathy and Johnny’s verbal combat over the advisability of the plan instantly ignites the powder keg Fuller has amassed, Cathy swiping a cigarette out of Johnny’s hand in rage and then pleading with him to reconsider; their dialogue explicitly evokes Hamlet and Greek tragedy as leitmotif (pretending to be mad, illusory identity, secret incest) and mission statement. The film has already quoted Euripides at the outset: “Those whom God wishes to destroy they first make mad.” But whom does God wish to destroy?
Johnny’s subsequent emotional coercion of Cathy finally forces her to present the false story to the police, and Johnny assaults the psychiatrist who interviews him, landing him squarely where he wants to be. In the hospital, he encounters a panoply of bizarre patients, like rotund opera freak Pagliacci (Larry Tucker), and some equally disturbing staff. He works his way into the lives of the three men who witnessed the murder. Stuart (James Best) is a hick who believes he’s Confederate Cavalry General Jeb Stuart; Trent (Hari Rhodes), an African-American student who went crazy after being used as an integration guinea pig; and Boden (Gene Evans), a former nuclear scientist who’s reverted to a childish state. Just how tenuous Johnny’s hold on to sanity himself is soon evident—when he’s been sedated and locked up even before hospitalization, he hallucinates Cathy in her performing persona, making taunting come-ons and resting on his shoulder like a psychosexual Jiminy Cricket.
Each of his quarries in the hospital is enacting a trauma that is linked to the others. Stuart’s mind snapped after he returned from Korea, where he’d deserted and adopted Communism, the first time in his life he’d felt any pride in himself after being raised by racist redneck parents. The example of an heroic, genuinely patriotic POW finally brought him back to the fold, but he was still ostracised on return and took refuge in the fantasy of being a Southern military hero, one who leaps to his feet in joyful salute when Johnny poses as Nathan Bedford Forrest, Stuart’s commander and also the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. That works as well, if differently, with Trent, for he, in his psychosis, spouts white supremacist rhetoric and claims himself to have founded the Klan. Boden’s mind was broken by his part in inventing the atomic bomb. Between the three of them, they suggest the whole state of postwar America has been defined by deranged, fractious responses to the Age of Anxiety, with roots going back to the Civil War and beyond and resolving logically in the mass paranoia of the Cold War, racial strife, and the nuclear era. Suddenly it starts to look a whole lot like Fuller had his entire country in mind when quoting Euripides. “The last egghead I had in here was Ben Franklin!” snaps an aggressive orderly about another patient as Johnny enters, and one doubts the reference to the brainiest of the Founding Fathers is accidental.
Fuller’s metaphors are suspect, but he tackles them with such electric intensity and personally felt passion that he converts his hoary raw material into an orchestral psychodrama. Fuller repeatedly references his own life and career(s) as well as invoking a sociohistorical survey—the film is punctuated by colour documentary footage that Fuller shot himself whilst on location for various film projects. From the very first scene, the faintly nails-on-a-chalkboard emotional intensity is sustained, and the relationship of Johnny and Cathy sets the urgent tone of the proceedings. Johnny strikes up an uneasy friendship with Pagliacci, who awakens him one night bellowing Verdi in his ear and then playacts murder on him, a blackly funny and peculiar mix of feigned violence and tender, possibly homoerotic intimacy; Dr. Cristo (John Matthews), the hospital’s medical chief, assures Johnny the Pagliacci is actually harmless. Later, Johnny pretends to embark on a paddle-steamer ride with Trent. Meanwhile Cathy’s gnawing anxiety manifests in one priceless little moment when, in speaking with Cristo, she rattles her fingernails repeatedly on a desktop, tipping him off to something peculiar in her psyche, too. Not knowing the truth he begins to assume that the fictional incest wasn’t entirely one-sided.
The notion of a man acting crazy so well that he becomes crazy is hoary, but more dynamic is the idea of a man being drawn to an institution to fulfill a need within himself that beckons with greatness, but proves to be madness, oddly anticipates Kubrick’s The Shining. Breck’s performance is modulated in a similar way to Jack Nicholson’s in Kubrick’s film, already acting ever so vaguely dissociative and regressive under the guise of cocksure determination as Cathy tries to make herself heard. The innermost enigma of Johnny’s search for the murderer proves to have been motivated not by hate or irrationality, but by sex—the murderer, the seemingly friendly orderly Wilkes (Chuck Roberson), was molesting catatonic female patients, and Sloan was murdered for knowing this. Equal and opposite gender savagery is manifest when Johnny finds himself unexpectedly in a ward for nymphomaniacs; rather than a paradise of pleasure, the women lurk like waiting birds of prey, one of them singing “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” as a mocking chant, menace thick in the air. Fuller stages the scene like a set piece from Psycho (1960) as Johnny can’t open the door behind him and tries to leave quietly, only for the women to assault him in carnivorous passion like the Bacchantes falling on Orpheus in a devouring love-rage. Their unhinged sexuality contrasts Cathy’s efforts to play the falsified love-object whilst simultaneously asserting her wisdom.
Fuller cumulatively suggests through Johnny’s search that the great American need to penetrate and triumph is part of its problem. Simultaneously, the spectacle of individuals acting the opposite of what they are to save them from reality is the repeated motif. Unlike a lot of pleading-spouse duets, Johnny and Cathy’s relationship is vital to this story, in part because both are subsuming themselves—Cathy less happily—in roles to get ahead. Her burlesque act gives Fuller ample opportunity to lift the eye candy quotient in the movie, but he also hits a note of uniquely odd romanticism as Cathy sings her song for the patrons, heavily made-up face floating in a feather boa as she steadily disrobes before a tacky backdrop festooned with tinsel hearts. Towers is gorgeous and the song lustrous, yet there’s something sublimely forlorn about the whole sequence that lays down the emotional groundwork for what follows. Later, when she pleads with Swanee to make him aware of Johnny’s mental state, Fuller stacks the deck tellingly by having him patronise her whilst she’s dressed in skintight leotards.
Cathy is defined, sequentially, as an intellectual, a stripper, and a tragic lover, and Fuller photographs her as lonely, distinct from her milieu, standing out all the more individually the more Johnny sinks into his, often presenting an overt contrast between her fraying emotions and her ludicrous dress, whilst patronised all the while about her concerns about Johnny. Johnny puts his body on the line in an even more profound way than she does, partly, it’s hinted, out of frustration. Cathy’s stage act is comparatively tame, whilst one of the more dim-witted women she works with remarks that the only act that would be worth anything is one that goes all the way, which is precisely the enterprise Johnny’s engaged in. Johnny’s fantasy of Cathy has nothing to do with the real woman, but the one who embodies the wispy erotic-emotional fantasy on stage. Later, he entirely reconstructs her into an untouchable icon of desire by identifying her with the fake sister she’s embodying, unable to reconcile the disparate versions of womanhood Cathy inhabits that he can’t cope with.
As equally trenchant, and more easily discernable, as Cathy’s mask is the self-made Klan hood that Trent dons to rant racist rhetoric and chase down one of his fellow black patients, presenting the feverishly sick spectacle of the frightened older man being pursued by the whipped-up loonies led by another black man wearing the ghoulish camouflage of race-hate (“Let’s get him before he marries my daughter!” he shouts). Johnny’s choice to identify himself as Forrest is canny not merely in how it taps into both Stuart’s and Trent’s delusions, but also in explicating how conjoined the neuroses of war, caste, and colour are in American society. The ritual form of Johnny’s encounters with his three quarries is to satiate their fantasies, allowing them to have moments of lucidity presaged by dreams that evoke their buried traumas tangentially. Fuller introduces a self-reflexive note by having the dreamers remark that they have their dreams “in colour,” thus acknowledging that their world is an inauthentic, black-and-white one. Trent’s dream of tribal rituals with masked dancers is accompanied by his voiceover disquisitions on the dates of the crucial Supreme Court desegregation decisions—associating legal rulings with tribal lore: the political is primal—and memories of vicious assaults by clansmen. When the madmen have moments of clarity, Johnny’s pursuit of his truth comes constantly at the cost of his inability to hear their crucial stories; his specific objective is finally distinct from broader truths he’s not interested in discerning.
Fuller makes a meal out of his own former profession’s capacity to pursue the sensational and ignore the contextual. His punishment for Johnny is the most lethally amusing one that can be imposed on a media creature: he is stricken by a recurring inability to speak. When he does finally extract the identity of the killer, Johnny’s own collapsing psyche, pushed along by submission to electroshock therapy, prevents him from offering it up, and then he forgets it; only his own colour dream and psychotic fantasy of being trapped in an indoor rainstorm hands him the metaphoric key, the memory that Wilkes, the murderer, supervises the hydrotherapy cures. Whilst Johnny does manage the conventionally heroic act of uncovering the killer and defeating him in a furious physical showdown, it’s at the cost of his sanity—he descends into a catatonic state after he’s written his prize-winning story. Fuller’s breathless histrionics, as evinced in the rainstorm scene, with Breck contorting and screaming, tend to be so heightened in concept that they cease being naïve and becomes hallucinatory.
In spite of the low budget, Shock Corridor is technically superior, with former Orson Welles collaborator Stanley Cortez providing no-nonsense cinematography and Jerome Thoms’ compulsive, occasionally disjunctive editing. The acting, particularly by Towers and Rhodes, is remarkably good in the context. One of Fuller’s subtler technical coups comes in a dinner sequence when Johnny sits between Pagliacci and another patient, the uneasy silence punctuated only by the amplified sounds of food being chewed, inevitably resolving in a violent eruption. The very finish, with Cathy desperately trying to mould Johnny’s arms so that he’ll embrace her, is a logical terminus indeed; he’s now the perfect, immobile love object, completely calcified and mindless, and Cathy’s devoted sanity seems as crazy as he is. It’s a gruesomely affecting end to a perversely brilliant film.