Criterion // 1963 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // January 18th, 2011
The medical jungle doctors don't talk about!
"That was such a sour note, John. You were way off key."
Reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) has been preparing for over a year to break the biggest story of his life. Johnny's plan: to pretend that he is mentally ill and have himself committed to a mental hospital, where he will attempt to find the pieces to a still-unsolved murder case. In order to achieve this, Johnny will need the cooperation of his lover Cathy (Constance Towers, The Naked Kiss), an exotic dancer at a local night club. Though Cathy intensely dislikes the entire plan and fears for Johnny's safety, she agrees to help him out. Johnny's plan is executed perfectly, and soon he has successfully infiltrated the hospital. However, life in an insane asylum proves to be a severe mental strain, and Johnny soon begins to wonder whether his sanity is actually slipping. Can he solve the murder before it's too late?
Shock Corridor is a film that has, "all the subtlety of a sledgehammer." That's not a quote from a dismissive critic, but from the film's own director, Sam Fuller. His film is one that deals with extremely intense subjects, and his reasoning was that they deserved an extremely intense response. Shock Corridor is not merely an examination of mental hospitals, but of journalism, Communism, racism, and so much more. "It's about America," Fuller told John Ford. The film is an ambitious one that is perpetually swinging for the fences cinematically; that it falls flat on its back from time to time is only to be expected. Despite its occasional missteps, this is unquestionably bold, memorable filmmaking.
In a way, the film's basic plot seems like a somewhat flimsy excuse to set up of a series of immensely ambitious set pieces. After all, if you think about it there really shouldn't even be much of a murder mystery. Considering how relatively simple it is for Johnny to procure information from individuals widely known to be witnesses to the murder, the head of the facility should have easily solved the case long before Johnny hatched his complicated plan. For that matter, the clues are dispensed in a somewhat hokey manner, with each person Johnny talks to providing just a little bit more information than the last. Fortunately, the murder mystery is merely set-up for what the film is really intent on delivering.
Johnny's visits with the three mental patients who witnessed the murder serve as windows into dark parts of American society, as each has been afflicted with by a different element of the culture. First up is Stuart (James Best, Sounder), a young man raised by bigoted parents in the Deep South who has become convinced that he is Confederate General Jeb Stuart. We learn that before Stuart was driven to madness, he was driven to communism. He developed an intense loathing for his own country due to the bigoted attitudes his parents demonstrated. Now he raves like a lunatic, fantasizing about leading a charge to split the nation apart.
Next Johnny encounters Trent (Hari Rhodes, Coma), the cinematic predecessor of The Boondocks' Uncle Ruckus. He is a self-loathing African-American man who stirs up the other patients with speeches promoting white power; he rambles down the hallways railing against minorities of all sorts (blacks in particular). Once upon a time, he was the sole African-American student at an otherwise all-white University, where he was subjected to endless doses of bigotry and hatred. Eventually, the pressure became too much for him.
Finally there's Boden (Gene Evans, Support Your Local Sheriff), a man who was once one of the world's most esteemed scientists. He helped create the atomic bomb, but now has reverted to a childlike state. He spends his days acting like a six-year-old; living in a fantasy world that has no room for complex horrors like nuclear weapons.
These sequences are unquestionably heavy-handed, as they are loaded with Important Speeches and striking flashbacks taking place in vivid color (the rest of the film is in black and white). Even so, they pack quite a dramatic punch and are superbly acted (Rhodes in particular is masterful in his handful of scenes). Cinematically, Fuller is screaming at the top of his lungs; howling bitterly at the things which have torn our nation apart. These people are only as crazy as the world they're living in.
Johnny slowly starts to go mad as the film proceeds, but Fuller makes a point of noting that some form of madness already exists within him. The lengths to which he'll go in the hopes of winning a Pulitzer Prize are genuinely insane. No matter how much Johnny talks about the nobility of his goal, the fact of the matter is that he's potentially doing harm to other patients, himself, his girlfriend and the field of journalism by breaking the ethics barriers that he does. It's nothing but a shameless bid for glory and Johnny's transformation is nothing but a switch from an accepted form of insanity to an unaccepted one.
Even some of the moments that don't work on one level do work on another. For instance, the scene in which Johnny is attacked by a large group of nymphomaniacs (yes, this really happens) comes across as absurd sensationalism, but it's so well-staged by Fuller (as a group of girls pile on Johnny, some of the others circle around and sing an ominous version of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean") that it functions superbly as a piece of cinematic craftsmanship even as it misfires as a piece of storytelling.
The 1080p/1.75:1 transfer is pretty solid, though much of the film seems a bit soft at times. While there's no way around that, the level of detail is as impressive as it can be, a consistently light level of grain is present and scratches and flecks are kept to an absolute minimum. The color sequences seem a bit rougher than the rest of the film, but this is probably due to the fact that they are largely comprised of stock footage. The crisp mono soundtrack gets the job done nicely, as Paul Dunlop's score sounds exceptionally robust for its age. Dialogue is clean while the minimal sound design comes through nicely. There's no hissing, popping or crackling to be heard at any point.
Supplements are a bit lighter than usual for Criterion, but they're nonetheless well worth checking into. First up is 30-minute interview with actress Constance Towers (whose performance as Cathy is one of the film's high points, acting-wise) and critic Charles Dannis, both of whom provide some valuable information on the film. Next up is a 56-minute 1996 documentary on Fuller's career entitled "The Typewriter, The Riffle & The Movie Camera." This piece offers a broad overview of the director's work and features interviews with Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Tim Robbin, Jim Jarmusch, and others. Finally, you get a trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by Robert Polito and a great piece on the film by Sam Fuller. The latter is a little self-congratulatory but nonetheless quite candid; it's essential reading for fans of the film. Oh, and the booklet also offers a couple of superb illustrations from the great Daniel Clowes (who also provides the film with its striking cover).
While some misfired moments still manage to work on some level, there's no denying that time has been unkind to certain parts of Shock Corridor. This is particularly true when it comes to the way the film deals with psychology, which the average viewer would have been less familiar with at the time. The film's attempts to explain how psychology works feel more than a little oversimplified and patronizing in the age of In Treatment, though admittedly it's never as bad in this area as some other older films are (Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound immediately comes to mind).
Many of Sam Fuller's best films are about more than they initially seem to be (consider the way his outwardly lurid White Dog uses its odd story as a way of exploring institutionalized racism), and Shock Corridor certainly falls into that category. It must have seemed breathtakingly bold in 1963 and it still packs quite a wallop today. Though it isn't always as effective as it wants to be, the film is an angry sermon well worth hearing. Criterion's Blu-ray release does this fine flick justice.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1963
MPAA Rating: Not Rated