“Their sickness is bound to rub off on you!”
There are some problems so titanic in scope, so devilish in their base immorality, that to approach them with anything resembling subtlety can almost seem an insult. That’s the sensibility at work in Samuel Fuller’s 1963 electroshocker of a jeremiad, Shock Corridor, which aims to jangle as many nerves as possible in the shortest time available – subtlety be damned. After all, the problem was America.
Fuller, who had been a reliably controversial B-movie generator for the previous decade-and-a-half, was nearing the end of the most productive part of his career when he dusted off a story idea that he’d knocked together years before for Fritz Lang and decided to make it himself. Fuller’s pitch was the kind of thing that he likely would have done himself back in his days as a headline-chasing newsman in prewar New York: a publicity-mad reporter, eager to crack the case of a murder that took place in an insane asylum, pretends to be insane in order to get himself committed to that asylum and start nosing around. What happens to the guy? Well, that big, blazing Euripides quote blasted across the screen right at the start – “Whom God wishes to destroy, he first makes mad” – provides some clue.
The journalist is Johnny (Peter Breck), a square-jawed kind of guy whom adolescents dreaming of becoming big-city reporters could well envision themselves as. No matter how much his va-va-voom burlesque dancer of a girlfriend, Cathy (Constance Towers), protests the idea, Johnny has his eyes fixed on the Pulitzer and can’t think of a single reason not to go for it. One good reason might have been that his cover story of being a man with incestuous thoughts toward his sister required Cathy to play his sister and perjure herself to the judge in order to get him committed. But a few training sessions with a therapist buddy of his editor convinces Johnny that he’ll be able to pop right into the asylum, get his answers and get back out again in no time.
While it provides some pleasant day-dreaming to imagine what kind of noirish nightmare Lang would have concocted out of such a story (his films seemed to take place inside asylums on a good day), Fuller brings all his pulp-fantasist fury to bear on it, creating a low-rent Cold War masterpiece that deserves to be recognized right alongside Dr. Strangelove and The Manchurian Candidate.
Initially conceived as an expose of the horrors of the mental-health system, Fuller’s Shock Corridor quickly turns out to be less about that or even about the hubris of its preening protagonist. What Fuller ends up capturing is the violent psychopathy of a society where xenophobia, racism, and Cold War paranoia were literally driving the nation insane. He embodies these issues in the three mental patients whom Johnny knows witnessed the patient’s murder, each of whom carries a wound or guilt so cutting that they’ve buried it under layers of protective manias.
Boden (played by the great Gene Evans, who starred in Fuller’s 1951 Korean War classic The Steel Helmet) wanders the ward idly drawing pictures and exhibiting all the playful naiveté of a six-year-old. The real Boden was actually one of the nation’s top nuclear scientists, whose Oppenheimer-esque internal conflicts and guilt over his part in the arms race caused him to revert to a kind of childhood catatonia, only occasionally flickering back to reality. Similarly able to occasionally return to sanity is Stuart (a lively James Best), a Korean War veteran from a bigoted small, Southern town, who was captured and briefly brainwashed by the Communists – something he was never allowed to forget after his dishonorable discharge. To bury his pain, Stuart lives as General Jeb Stuart, endlessly scrutinizing Civil War battlefield maps, and conversing with Johnny only once the writer takes on the persona of fellow Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Johnny’s pretense at being Forrest gives him an in with one of the ward’s most tragic characters: Trent (Hari Rhodes, marvelously operatic), who had been the first black student at an all-white Southern college. Literally driven insane by racism, Trent now lives as the most inveterate kind of backwoods anti-integrationist, ranting against civil rights, making Klan hoods out of pillowcases (the real-life Forrest’s hand in creating the Klan provides Johnny with a twisted kind of racist bona fides), and even leading a mob against another black inmate. When Trent stands on a bench to deliver his venomous tirade, calling for the burning of the Freedom Buses and the Freedom Riders, Rhodes puts across Fuller’s passionately ironic screed with a gospel potency
For all the comic-book intensity of its conceit, Fuller’s story doesn’t entirely cohere, particularly in its depiction of Johnny’s slide into his own kind of madness. The film’s knowledge of psychology seems mostly relegated to a few clinical terms and some portraits of Freud pointedly hung on analysts’ office walls. One inmate is credited only as “Psycho,” and when Johnny inadvertently enters a room in the womens’ ward, he seems to have actually entered a John Waters film. ”Nymphos,” he murmurs in wide-eyed fright just before the sex-starved sirens launch themselves upon him. He shrieks under the assault, which he does a lot of in this film, Fuller being unable to resist depicting insanity as a mix of catatonic staring and screaming contortions. That being said, there are a few moments of clever understatement, such as when the rotund, opera-bellowing Pagliacci (the serenely gifted Larry Tucker, who Fuller cast after seeing him perform as a comedy duo with future filmmaker Paul Mazursky) giggles at one of Johnny’s howling fits: “You were way off-key.”
The cheap theatrics, though, can’t obscure the honest intensity of Fuller’s vision here. There’s a revealing portrait of the filmmaker in the sharp-eyed and little-seen 1996 documentary The Typewriter, the Rifle, and the Movie Camera that comes packaged with this new Criterion edition (they put out a slimmer release in 1998), where he talks about what a liar he has to be as an artist, it’s simply the price of admission. But within that framework of lies, Fuller (ever the wide-eyed tabloid moralist) seems fully intent on telling some kind of bone-deep truth.
In that sense, Shock Corridor functions as one of the great American morality tales of the Cold War era, worthy of inclusion with any of the greater Twilight Zone episodes. Just as Rod Serling knew that he would only be able to tackle the great subjects of the day (racism, xenophobia, the madness of the arms race) only by placing them in a science-fiction context, so too Fuller could come at his issues in the guise of a pulpy exploitation film; albeit one shot with a shadowy, chiaroscuro intensity (beautifully captured by near-perfect transfer on this releae) by the great Stanley Cortez, of The Magnificent Ambersons fame. For all the jaw-shattering dialogue – there seems hardly a scene that doesn’t end with at least one character raising their voice to a bellow and also smashing some furniture – and hyperbolic sexuality, Fuller’s film is ultimately a good-hearted call for understanding and empathy.
His maniacs aren’t mad so much as they are victims, and America is the asylum.