Director Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor is one of those wildly aberrant works of art than can be called great, on some levels, and utter schlock, on other levels. And both are correct assessments of this film that can only be termed a didactic melodrama. What results, though, is that one is left with a so-so film- not the piece of pulp garbage that many reviewers first assailed the black and white film (with dream sequence snippets in color) as, upon its release in 1963, nor the masterpiece that revisionists have proffered in later auteur-based assessments. It had been almost a quarter century since I last watched the film, but recently popped in The Criterion Collection DVD of the film, and rediscovered its ‘charms.’
Primary among those charms are the physical charms of the film’s leading lady, Constance Towers, as Cathy the stripper, girlfriend to the film’s lead, Peter Breck (of The Crawling Hand infamy), as daring journalist Johnny Barrett, who longs to get a scoop that nets him a Pulitzer Prize, which he does by film’s end, although he goes mad. Towers is best known to soap opera fans for her decade long portrayal as Helena Cassadine on the ABC serial General Hospital, and also as Fuller’s leading lady in The Naked Kiss. She’s tall, blond, and gorgeous, with nearly infinite legs, and displays acting chops that, given Fuller’s wildly veering script, are simply terrific, by taking a trite character and imbuing her with smarts and guts. Just look at the opening scenes she has with her lover, trying to convince him to back out of an undercover assignment as a loony bin patient to dig up some dirt on an old murder. She declaims, ‘Mark Twain didn’t psychoanalyze Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer; Dickens didn’t put Oliver Twist on the couch because he was hungry. Good copy comes out of people, Johnny. Not out of a lot of explanatory medical terms.’ Heady ideas from a stripper, to say the least! We only later find out the scheme involves Cathy for perjuring herself, yet we never learn the details of why the asylum inmate, named simply Sloan, was killed, nor why Johnny and Cathy are involved, much less who Sloan was, much less why someone would want him dead. But, no matter- this is a B film, and all we need is a setup to get us in the nuthouse. The rest is taken care of by melodrama and scenery chewing acting.
The film is remembered nowadays as a precursor to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, a decade later, but in many ways, this is the better film. In other ways, of course, it’s total crap. In some ways it resembles David And Lisa, a film that came out a year earlier, but was a blatantly socially progressive film, not a B film ‘shocker.’ And in other ways, it’s barely a step above an Ed Wood or exploitation film. The biggest flaws in the film are manifest- a script that has some great moments, but too often falls back on clichés, as well as a premise based upon even then laughable ideas about mental health. The film’s Freudian underpinnings were a joke even then. Add to that some really bad acting by Breck, some asylum nymphos who rape Breck whilst singing, a deranged fat inmate named Pagliacci (Larry Tucker) who is fond of arias, Johnny’s stolid Perry White wannabe newspaper boss Swanson (Bill Zuckert), Chuck Robertson as Wilkes the murderous asylum guard- who apparently killed Sloan before he could expose Wilkes for taking sexual advantage of incompetent female inmates, and John Matthews as deadpan asylum head Dr. Cristo, and you get an idea of the up and down nature of this film. There were some good performances, however, aside from that of Towers. Philip Ahn, a regular 1960s and 1970s tv guest star, shines as the shrink, Dr. Fong, who inculcates Johnny to the barbarous methods asylums deploy, and the three ‘witnesses’ to the murder that Johnny seeks out in prison- a deranged Korean War Commie defector with Civil War delusions, Stuart (James Best), who believes he’s Confederate General Jeb Stuart; a Negro college boy, Trent (Hari Rhodes- another regular tv guest star, who had the lead human role in Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes), driven insane by racism, who believes he is the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, and leads a race riot; and Nobel Laureate Dr. Boden (Gene Evans, yet another regular tv guest star, as well as longtime collaborator with Fuller), a scientist driven insanely infantile by the Cold War and guilt over his work on the Manhattan Project. But, even their performances tend to get one note, outside of their two or three best scenes. Then again, the whole film plays like a fever dream, albeit one with a social conscience.
On the positive side, the cinematography by Stanley Cortez (who did The Magnificent Ambersons and Night Of The Hunter) is first rate, often with experimental shots and angles, and good edits that are reflexive, yet bold. The use of close-ups veers between the pedestrian in back and forth dialogue exchanges, to the horrid, in close-ups of even minor characters. Just look at the only other Negro inmate in the asylum, whom Trent repeatedly tries to lynch. I don’t know who the actor was, but the twisted look of horror he gives, in seeing one of his own people scream with bloodlust for them the hang ‘the nigger,’ is priceless, and doubly so in accentuated and off-kilter close-up. The aforementioned color dream sequences also work very well, in a Keatsian Negative Capability way, as they were bits of outtakes from a 1954 John Wayne film called Tigrero, which was never completed, and was set in the Amazon and the Orient, yet add a truly dream-like quality to the film, which prefigures a similar technique used a decade later by Werner Herzog, in The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser, where home film footage Herzog’s brother made is indelibly used in another dream sequence. On top of that, the film is not really about the murder of Sloan, as that is a classic Hitchcockian MacGuffin. After all, does Barrett really believe that the identification of Sloan’s murderer will stand up in court, since gained in a loony bin? And, when he finally beats the confession out of Wilkes, screaming ‘Who killed Sloan in the kitchen?,’ well, does anyone think that would stand up? Instead, the film is really about America and its many problems, as represented by the titular corridor, known as ‘The Street.’ The three main witnesses to the murder all represent aspects of America’s main problems of the era- racism and the Cold War, and their symbolic nature is not exactly delivered subtly, as Fuller has each of then deliver well wrought soliloquies that belie the execrable nature of some of the more wannabe ‘naturalistic’ dialogue, which instead us stilted to the nth degree. Then there is the necessary suspension of disbelief, that Barrett, as poorly wrought by Breck, could convincingly portray a sex fiend who incestuously lusts for his sister- the ruse Johnny and his boss and shrink concoct to get inside the asylum, and that he could be institutionalized after a complaint and a wildly silly scene where he foams his lust at a shrink he beats the hell out of.
Yet, one just has to love the ballsiness of Fuller. Who else but he would append to the start and end of the film, this epigraph?: ‘Whom God wishes to destroy, he first turns mad.’- Euripides (425 BC). Was Fuller a great screenwriter or film director? No. But, if you understood what drove him, you could appreciate how he wrung the most out what little he had to work with; something megabucks schlockmeisters like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas could learn much from. The upcoming Criterion DVD is a re-release of one of the company’s earlier ventures (the 19th release of the company, with over 400 now in circulation) and it is a needed upgrade. The older version had no extras on the disk, save for a nice little trailer. The actual print was mediocre, with many scratches and blemishes, although, at the time, Criterion boasted that it restored the color to the trio of dream sequences each of the murder witnesses engages in, and this adds to the film quite a bit, versus if the scenes were shown in black and white. The newer version is a visual upgrade, albeit not perfect. Unfortunately, an audio commentary is not included in the upgrade. Considering the rise of Netflix and on demand films, one would hope that the vaunted Criterion would realize that extras are the very reason people still buy DVDs. There are three extras, aside from the insert booklet featuring excerpts from Fuller’s memoir, A Third Face, and an essay by film critic Robert Polito. Those extras are the original theatrical trailer, an interview with Constance Towers, and an hour long 1996 documentary on Fuller called The Typewriter, The Rifle And The Movie Camera. The interview with Towers is the best feature of the three, as she details working with Fuller and director John Ford, among others. The documentary has some buffoonish scenes with Quentin Tarantino, Tim Robbins, and some none too deep film comments from directors Martin Scorsese and Jim Jarmusch. The film’s score, by Paul Dunlap, is typically over the top and jazzy in many parts- although standard film noir fare of the day. It also is shown in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and runs an hour and forty minutes, although it seems much quicker, for few of the scenes run on too long.
Overall, Shock Corridor is one of those works of art that is not nearly as good as its laughable and naïve supporters claim, nor nearly as bad as its fomenting detractors want it to be. It is crude, lurid, vulgar, yet also passionate, and searing in its criticism of the Camelot Era of America. America was (is) sick, and Goddamn it, Sam Fuller wanted the world to know. And, in an odd way, this film contains a bit of poetic lyricism, in its meld of the strange, the experimental, and the vulgar. In short, as flawed as it is, it is a deep slice of Americana, and worthy of the preservation bestowed on it by the National Film registry. See it, and regardless of your opinion- good or ill, it will get you talking. When was the last time a current Hollywood release did even that?