Shock Corridor [Blu-Ray]
Director : Samuel Fuller
Screenplay : Samuel Fuller
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1963
Stars : Peter Breck (Johnny Barrett), Constance Towers (Cathy), Gene Evans (Boden), James Best (Stuart), Hari Rhodes (Trent), Larry Tucker (Pagliacci), Paul Dubov (Dr. J.L. Menkin), Chuck Roberson (Wilkes), Neyle Morrow (Psycho), John Matthews (Dr. L.G. Cristo), Bill Zuckert (“Swanee” Swanson), John Craig (Lloyd), Philip Ahn (Dr. Fong), Frank Gerstle (Lt. Kane), Rachel Romen (Singing Nympho)
You don’t realize it until after the movie is over--and perhaps you don’t even realize it unless someone points it out to you--but virtually every shot in Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor takes place inside. With the exception of a few subjective shots that portray a character’s psychological fragility via grainy 16mm color footage of exotic locations in Japan and Brazil shot by Fuller himself, every shot of every scene takes place inside a building, primarily a mental hospital (other locations are a strip club, a newspaper office, and a psychiatrist’s office). The fact that this consistent interior locality is easy to overlook speaks to the film’s claustrophobia; we’re not aware that it’s all taking place inside because the feeling of being trapped and confined is so palpable; it all runs together. While elements of the film have not worn particularly well over time (unless you conceded to them the honor of high camp), its overall effect is still quite powerful.
The story concerns an ambitious newspaper reporter named Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) who is so determined to unravel a murder mystery (and, in the process, surely win a Pulitzer Prize) that he is willing to have himself committed to a mental institution so he can question the inmates who supposedly witnessed the killing. Note that he is being committed. The psychiatrists at the hospital responsible for his mental care and the orderlies who are responsible for keeping the peace do not know that he is faking and think that he actually has an incestuous fetish toward his sister, a role that is played with much trepidation (and eventually regret) by his girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers), who makes ends meet dancing at a striptease club. With the blessing of his editor (Bill Zuckert) and training from a psychiatrist friend (Philip Ahn), Johnny successfully fakes mental illness and is put inside, where he can conduct his secret investigation, but always with the risk that the madness around him will become his own.
Like all of Fuller’s quickly shot B-movies, which ranged from World War II combat pictures, to westerns, to seedy film noir, Shock Corridor is about so much more than its surface narrative. Fuller loved to work in metaphor, and he managed to cram social observation and political criticism into the most lurid, tawdry, and ridiculous of subject matter; in this regard, Shock Corridor may very well be his masterpiece. In addition to the mystery element of the story (which is, quite frankly, its weakest pillar), Fuller is working on at least two different levels. The first involves the nature of obsession. The mental hospital is filled with patients whose obsessions have turned them into madmen and catatonics, but they ultimately pale in comparison to Johnny, the nominally sane hero who is willing to sacrifice his own mental health to win a Pulitzer. Fuller pummels us with Johnny’s mad quest to solve the mystery, not for its own sake, but for the sake of professional glory and personal victory: He is the driven American psyche incarnate, pushing every envelope and risking it all to bask in the glow of revelry. (Crusading journalist Nellie Bly had done something similar in 1887, and the resulting book Ten Days in a Mad-House had helped inspire Fuller to write Shock Corridor.)
This dovetails ferociously with the film’s portrait of other American obsessions, which Fuller embodies in each of the three witnesses who Johnny endeavors to question. The first patient, Stuart (James Best, a veteran TV actor who is now perhaps best known as Rosco P. Coltrane from The Dukes of Hazzard), represents the madness of the Cold War. A Korean War vet who was brainwashed by communists and now believes he is a famous general fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War, Stuart is an incoherent mishmash of reactionary conservatism and hawkishness. The second patient, Trent (Hari Rhodes), is one of Fuller’s most audacious characters: A black student who lost his mind while trying to integrate a Southern college, he now spouts racist mantras and steals pillowcases to make Ku Klux Klan hoods. The explosive racial bigotry is both radically defamiliarized and made all the more shocking and unnerving by placing it in a black man’s mouth; we are forced to recognize its inherent absurdity without the liberal guilt baggage. Finally, Johnny tries to question Dr. J. L. Menkin (Paul Dubov), a brilliant scientist who worked on both the atomic bomb and the U.S. space program and has since been reduced to the mentality of a six-year-old. His scientific aspirations and the horrors it wrought via nuclear annihilation are more advanced versions of Johnny’s own ambitions.
The heavy-handed didacticism of Shock Corridor is ameliorated to some extent by its tawdry subject matter and Fuller’s full immersion in B-movie mayhem. Although shot on a single soundstage on an extraordinarily tight schedule (10 days), Fuller gets the most out of both his performers and his subject matter. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez, whose previous work included Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), uses expressionistic light and shadow to convey interior madness, and Fuller overlays the soundtrack with echoing interior thoughts that both propel the story forward and mark Johnny’s disintegrating mental state. Some of Fuller’s techniques feel a bit antiquated and silly at this point, including a lengthy musical striptease sequence that is meant to stand in for Cathy’s presence in Johnny’s mind, but is so obviously a sop to the B-movie audience desire for a little titillation that it just grinds the movie to a halt. Even more ridiculous is a sequence in which Johnny finds himself trapped in a room with a half-dozen “nymphos” who circle him like a pride of lionesses and eventually pounce. The film’s Freudian psychology probably wore well in the early 1960s, but now it plays like near parody.
Yet, even with those flaws, Shock Corridor works both dramatically and intellectually. The actors, particularly Peter Breck, who is still known primarily for his roles on the western TV series Maverick and The Big Valley, literally throw themselves into the roles, and the raw physicality of their interactions leaves no question as to how bruised and scraped they were by the end of the shoot. Because madness is the film’s controlling tone, its dated psychological tropes actually work to make everything more insane; even the explanations have a tinge of madness. Fuller controls the environment and plays it artfully, turning the hospital’s central corridor into an increasingly constrictive space that allows no room for reason or logic, which is why it makes sense that it becomes the location of Johnny’s inevitable mental breakdown. For all its datedness and potential silliness, Shock Corridor carries a real charge that you can’t quite dismiss.
|Shock Corridor Criterion Collection Blu-Ray|
|Shock Corridor is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.|
|Audio||English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||January 18, 2011|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Criterion’s new dual-layered Blu-Ray of Shock Corridor is a welcome replacement to their previously available DVD, which was one of their earliest nonanamorphic releases (spine #19). The new high-def transfer, made from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and given extensive digital restoration, looks just about pristine. The 1.75:1 framed image is sharp and fine, with excellent detail. The finely wrought grayscale and contrast makes Stanley Cortez’s noir-ish cinematography look outstanding throughout, although the overall image is just a tad softer than you might expect (perhaps a result of the film being a low-budget indie). The disc also features a clean, lossless DTS-HD monaural soundtrack, remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm magnetic track and digitally restored.|
|Criterion has also improved over its previous DVD release of Shock Corridor by including several supplements, starting with the 55-minute documentary The Typewriter, the Rifle, and the Movie Camera. Produced in 1996 by filmmaker Adam Simon, it features extensive interviews with the always garrulous Fuller (who at the time was living in France) by actor Tim Robbins. Directors Jim Jarmusch and Martin Scorsese are also interviewed, and Quentin Tarantino makes several appearances, as both an interview subject and a curious fan going through Fuller’s garage office, which looked exactly as it did when he left the States in the early 1980s. In addition to the original theatrical trailer, there is also a half-hour interview with actress Constance Tower by filmmaker Charles Dennis (the first half of the interview is included on Criterion’s The Naked Kiss Blu-Ray). Recorded in 2007, Tower is thoughtful, articulate, and consistently classy as she talks about her own life and her work with Fuller, particularly on Shock Corridor. The thick insert booklet contains illustrations by cartoonish Daniel Clowes, a sharp essay by critic and poet Robert Polito, as well as extensive excerpts about the film from Fuller’s autobiography.|
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