02nd Sep2019

‘Shock Corridor’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Starring: Peter Breck, Constance Towers, Larry Tucker, Gene Evans, Hari Rhodes, James Best | Written and Directed by Samuel Fuller

shock-corridor-blu-cover

The prolific Samuel Fuller carved a niche – or perhaps a gutter – in making exploitation shockers just outside the Hollywood studio system. His had an ability to elevate trash material to something approaching art. Writer and producer on most of his movies, he undoubtedly wielded enough control to be regarded as an auteur.

He also had high-minded ideas. Shock Corridor opens and closes with a quote from the controversial Greek tragedian Euripides: “Whom God wishes to destroy He first makes mad.” Sandwiched between is an absurd thriller, nonsensical and enjoyable and almost certainly allegorical.

Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island saw a detective enter a mental asylum to solve a case. Here, the guy going deep is a Pulitzer-pursuing journalist named Johnny (Peter Breck), who’s there to solve the murder of a man named Sloan. (It’s not clear why no one else is investigating this, although perhaps it speaks to the status of the mentally unwell at the time.) Johnny enters the asylum by pretending to lust for his sister. Cathy (Constance Towers) is actually his girlfriend, and she’s dead against this whole scheme. She has little to do in the movie except sob, complain, and dance in her underwear.

Johnny needs to question three witnesses – and they’re all doolally. Stuart (James Best) believes he’s a Civil War general; Dr Boden (Gene Evans) is an ex-Nobel-winning scientist who now has the mind of a child; and Trent (Hari Rhodes) is a black man on a recruitment drive for the KKK. It doesn’t seem like Johnny thought through his approach. He works through the witnesses one by one, and instead of sticking with each to draw more information, he gives up as soon as they start ranting. And if he’d simply asked the relatively rational Dr Boden first, he could have saved himself a lot of bother.

There are other, tertiary madmen prowling the corridor. Most notable is the rotund Pagliacci (Larry Tucker), an Italian American who loves to sing opera. As a time capsule, Shock Corridor is fascinating because it’s preposterously dated in its view of mental health. There’s a hilarious moment when Johnny ventures into the women’s ward and suddenly finds himself set upon by a pack of rabid “nymphos”.

While some effort is made to illuminate the plight of the witnesses – Trent’s situation is of particularly horrifying contemporary significance – Johnny’s remarkably rapid descent is an unconvincing collapse into a generalised, nameless, ear-chewing insanity. It starts with dreams of Cathy, seducing him. Then he starts to believe that she really is his sister. Why does this occur? Who knows.

There’s an uncomfortable undercurrent here: the creeping suggestion that spending appreciable time with the mentally ill – empathising with them; seeking to understand their perspective – will lead inevitably to contracting their brain sickness. Therefore, better keep them under prison conditions. The person-centred revolution of Carl Rogers and co had clearly yet to take hold.

As with The Naked Kiss (also released on Criterion this week), Fuller has a boldly artistic eye, often painting light in thick, comic book-like blocks. He has a penchant for montage. There’s a great moment when Johnny undergoes electric shock treatment, and his writhing is represented by what is effectively a looping gif, while strange figures and half-memories dance around him. I like the way that the madness of the individual patients is represented by colour footage – it’s one of the few stylistic quirks to really draw us into their experience, as the grey screen floods with overwhelming technicolour.

As a relic of a dangerously archaic mental health system, Shock Corridor is fascinating and valuable. As a work of narrative fiction, it’s troubling, and too silly, too scrappy and too stuttered to satisfy.

SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES:

  • New, restored high-definition digital transfer (with uncompressed monaural soundtrack)
  • New video interview with star Constance Towers by film historian and filmmaker Charles Dennis
  • Excerpts from The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera, Adam Simon’s 1996 documentary on director Samuel Fuller
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • PLUS: Illustrations by cartoonist Daniel Clowes (Eightball, Ghost World) and a booklet featuring an essay by critic and poet Robert Polito and excerpts from Fuller’s autobiography, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking.

Shock Corridor is out on Blu-ray now from Criterion.

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