Criterion // 1963 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // September 18th, 2000
"Hamlet was made for Freud, not you."
Johnny Barrett is a man with a mission: he wants to win a Pulitzer Prize. To accomplish this, he undertakes an even more dangerous mission: to infiltrate a mental asylum and solve a murder. Convincing his stripper girlfriend to pose as his sister and turn him in for attempted incest is tough enough (and the Freudians start drooling already), but can he interview the volatile inmates, solve the crime, and escape with his mind intact? Don't bet the funny farm on it.
The year was 1963. Most of us think today America was like Camelot, in those heady, lively days before the tragic fall of JFK and the morass of Vietnam. But Americans in 1963 were in the midst of a Cold War, still haunted by the specters of Cuba and Berlin and Korea. Racial tension was seething, and about to boil over into riots, protest marches, and near civil war in some areas. And while some in Hollywood still gave the public that happy escape from the pressures of reality, some filmmakers were challenging audiences to face their worst impulses.
Let's be honest: Sam Fuller did not make politically correct, feel good movies, where all social ills could be solved in ninety minutes by the warm drawl of Jimmy Stewart and a few hugs and cookies. His films are dark, cynical, and a little sordid. They lure you in with a little sex and violence, and then knock you over the head with real ideas.
Shock Corridor is bookended with a quote from Euripides: "Whom God wishes to destroy he first makes mad." Of course, some might argue that the seeds of madness are already inside us. Take Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) for example. He wants that Pulitzer Prize so badly that he will pretend to suffer from incestuous urges, check himself into a mental hospital, and get his story by any means necessary. His editor and a psychiatrist of dubious ethics love the idea, but Barrett's girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) says, "You've got to be crazy to want to be committed to a mental asylum to solve a murder."
But getting at the truth is far harder than Johnny anticipated. His only witnesses to the unsolved murder are three madmen, each suffering from some form of disassociation. Stuart: a former Korean War soldier who briefly converted to Communism, convinced now that he is General Jeb Stuart, fighting a more "civil" war over ideology. Trent: a black college student and "guinea pig" for desegregation, who believes he is a white racist and founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Bowden: nuclear weapons scientist, regressed to the mind of a six-year-old who only wants to draw pictures.
The mystery plot (which I comment on briefly in my Deep Focus column on the Detective Film) is really rather thin. Who killed Sloane in the kitchen? Why hasn't anyone bothered to investigate this crime before now? Well, since we don't even learn Sloane's name until 30 minutes into the film, it is hard to see this mystery as anything more than director Fuller's excuse to get us into this mental asylum, and to give Barrett some overwhelming (but ultimately meaningless) goal that will overshadow all his other thoughts. As Barrett drives himself to solve the case, his own anxiety burns, taunting him with images of Cathy hovering over him like one of those devils on your shoulder in cartoons. We watch Barrett unravel, but it is pretty clear that the loose threads were always already there.
So if the mystery plot is really just a McGuffin, what is Fuller really trying to accomplish by setting the story in this mental asylum? The key is in the patients themselves. Fuller's aim is to expose and critique the social evils of Cold War American culture: redbaiting, racism, nuclear holocaust, and even the abuse of psychology. He pulls no punches here. Take a look at Trent (in a powerful performance by Hari Rhodes), donning the white hood and screaming about "niggers marrying his daughter." Watch how he makes a catatonic patient hold up his arm in a Nazi salute and remarks that it looks like the Statue of Liberty. America is a mental asylum, and the patients are all around us.
The incendiary tone of the film is helped by aggressive performances all around. Peter Breck bullies his way through the role of Johnny Barrett, emitting piercing screams as his sanity breaks down. Most of the rest of the cast seems to go at full tilt as well, in true film noir fashion. Special mention should be made of Larry Tucker's performance as Barrett's wardmate Pagliacchi. On the surface, he seems warm and comic, like a funny if annoying sidekick, but with small disturbing traits that subtly remind you that he is crazy. For example, in one early scene, he wakes Barrett up with a boisterous aria from "The Barber of Seville," but his hand over Barrett gently mimes a stabbing motion. Is there something dark and sinister about this clown that we can never really understand?
Director Samuel Fuller, who also wrote and produced, is in complete control of his camera. While the sets are clearly made on the cheap, he takes advantage of the stark cinematography of Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons, Night of the Hunter). Fuller and Cortez keep the camera moving in to heighten the emotional pressure on his characters, letting their faces bear the detailed and worried looks that the sparse sets cannot. This is a world which is very black and white, with sharp contrasts and no soft focus, even during Cathy's burlesque number. But Fuller juxtaposes this with three brief color sequences (restored by Criterion for this edition): softer, grainier, more dreamlike (Fuller used leftover footage he shot himself in Japan and South America). These are fantasy sequences, dreams of the characters that suggest that the world outside the asylum is richer and more "colorful" (in fact, Stuart and Trent both remark deliberately that their dreams are in color).
Criterion's transfer is well handled (from a 35mm low contrast print, according to the packaging), although the print shows some dirt and scratches. The sharp contrast of light and shadow is quite clear, although a little color bleed is visible on highly detailed objects (Criterion includes color bars to help adjust your system). Although the restored color footage has the slightly-washed look of a home movie (which it more or less is), that roughness seems to enhance its contrast with the rest of the film. On the whole, it is in pretty good condition for a B-movie from 1963. The sound mix is monaural, with some echo in spots to give it the illusion of depth, especially during internal monologues. Not much hiss, and again, pretty crisp for its age.
On the whole, Shock Corridor is a B-movie with the guts to aim for something bigger. It is full of the usual sordid trappings of drive-in fare of the age: the mention of incest, a burlesque musical number (no nudity, which one character snidely comments on), a brutal attack by beautiful nymphomaniacs, and a jarring electroshock sequence. This is the sort of stuff that got audiences in the seats. But Fuller's real purpose here is to send a message. There is an unpleasant edge to Fuller's inclusion of the voyeuristic formula devices (hence the coldness which permeates them): you can have your ice cream, but you'll still have to eat your vegetables.
At first glance, you would not recognize this as a Criterion disc. Where is the commentary track? Where are the supplements? No subtitles even? Of course, most of the principals involved in the film are dead (pity they couldn't have gotten some feedback from Fuller himself before his death in 1997), but the lack of even a trailer or two from his other films (much less a commentary track that might point out Fuller's sharp eye for detail and command of film technique) on Fuller's career here suggests a rather dismissive stance toward the film. Only a brief overview of Fuller's career by Tim Hunter (who showed the influence of his idol in his creepy 1985 film River's Edge) appears on the insert. A single-layer, bare-bones presentation (with only the theatrical trailer tacked on) is just unlike them. Their release of Fuller's 1964 film Naked Kiss is similarly underproduced.
Now I know Criterion better than that: there mere fact that they took the time to even restore the picture and associate it with their label conveys a certain mark of respect. But if Fuller's politically charged films are ever to gain the critical respect they deserve, Criterion has to show that they are more than simply B-pictures with a social conscience.
Shock Corridor still has the power to pick a fight with you, even if its message will leave you more bruised these days than bloody. While the Cold War may be over, and we pride ourselves on being a more "enlightened" society, Fuller's indictment of our tendency to mentally retreat from the social evils we create still resonates in a world where insanity sometimes spills into the streets and schoolyards, yet we pretend it must be someone else's fault. As the attendant Wilkes tells Barrett (and us) early on, "We're here to help you to remember not to forget." It may not be a happy message, but why do you think Fuller called it Shock Corridor anyway?
Sam Fuller and company are fully acquitted, although I suspect they need to adjust their medications. Criterion is released for past good behavior, but the court admonishes them not to mistreat any of their patients in the future.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1963
MPAA Rating: Not Rated