A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Shock Corridor (Samuel Fuller, 1963)

Peter Breck and Hari Rhodes in Shock Corridor
Johnny Barrett: Peter Breck
Cathy: Constance Towers
Trent: Hari Rhodes
Stuart: James Best
Boden: Gene Evans
Pagliacci: Larry Tucker
"Swanee" Swanson: Bill Zuckert
Dr. Menkin: Paul Dubov
Dr. Cristo: John Matthews
Wilkes: Chuck Robertson
Dr. Fong: Philip Ahn

Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller
Cinematography: Stanley Cortez

Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor is the kind of raw, nightmarishly energetic film that cinéastes love but more classically oriented movie lovers often find ridiculous or repellent. And sure enough, there's plenty to ridicule, starting with the film's premise that schizophrenia is a contagious disease. (This is not a film for people who take mental illness and its treatment seriously.) Johnny Barrett is a hotshot reporter lusting after a Pulitzer Prize -- "Pulitzer fever" is, as anyone who has ever worked in a newsroom knows, a real and untreatable illness -- who pretends to be in love with his sister so he can get committed to a mental hospital where he plans to solve the recent murder of an inmate. He doesn't have a sister, however, so he persuades his girlfriend, Cathy, who works as a stripper, to play the part. Cathy doesn't much want to go along with the plan, worrying that he can't handle the stress of constant contact with the inmates and may go mad himself. But she somewhat abruptly decides to go along with the idea, which is endorsed by Johnny's editor. Once inside, Johnny befriends three inmates who actually witnessed the murder. The murder case, however, is just a MacGuffin -- a plot device that allows Fuller to make symbolic statements about the malaise of America in the 1960s, afflicted by the Cold War, racism, and the nuclear arms buildup. One of the witnesses, Stuart, is a Korean War vet who briefly turned communist and was imprisoned; he now thinks he is the Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart. Another, Trent, is a young black man who was the first of his race to attend a Southern university; he was harassed into a breakdown and now thinks he's the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan -- he steals pillowcases off of beds to make hoods. And Boden is a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who helped develop the atomic bomb and is so laden with guilt that he has regressed to the mental age of 6. Johnny's friendship helps each of them break through to brief moments of sanity during which they provide clues that help solve the murder before reverting to their disturbed states. But Cathy's fears about what might happen to Johnny also come true, so at the end, as one of the doctors says, "An insane mute will win the Pulitzer Prize." This is grand exploitation B-movie stuff, treated with a mixture of low-budget quickie filmmaking and actual artistry, but it doesn't quite deserve to be taken as seriously as some of its admirers do. There are too many glaring continuity gaffes: In one scene, the closeups, lighted by the fine cinematographer Stanley Cortez, have a deep-shadowed expressionist look, but when the film cuts to an establishing shot the faces are conventionally lighted. There's a ridiculous scene in which Johnny wanders into the women's ward and is attacked by a group of what he calls, in voiceover, "Nymphos!" Six or eight women knock him down and swarm over him, but it's not entirely clear what they're up to. Later, we see Johnny with his face heavily bandaged as if they had bitten or scratched him, but after the bandages come off there are no visible bruises or scabs. The performances are mostly good, especially Hari Rhodes as Trent, but Constance Towers's part is a thankless one. She spends most of the film histrionically worrying about Johnny, but she also has to bring off a clunkily choreographed striptease scene that begins with her face completely muffled by a large feather boa, making her look in closeup like Big Bird's butt. In short, Shock Corridor is fascinating personal filmmaking, which is why it has an enormous cult following. But if you're of a conservative or conventional bent, you should know what you're getting into.

Watched on Turner Classic Movies

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