Film School: Shock Corridor

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Film School: Shock Corridor

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Despite some wrong-headed politicians, misguided wars, and small-minded laws, I love my country. Nothing and nobody can take it away from me. But goddamit, this nation gives me ulcers sometimes!—Samuel Fuller, A Third Face

Sam Fuller’s most renowned movie of the 1960s had its roots back in the ‘40s. It started life as a film Fuller, who began his Hollywood career penning screenplays for other directors, had written for Fritz Lang—Straitjacket, as it was originally titled, was to be a searing expose of the shocking quality of care that mentally ill patients were receiving in institutions across America.

That version didn’t pan out, but the idea stayed with Fuller throughout the Cold War ‘50s, and into the beginning of the notoriously fraught ‘60s. As the years passed, the idea expanded beyond an indictment of America’s mental health care system to include [as listed in Fuller’s autobiography], “racism, patriotism, nuclear warfare, and sexual perversion.” This is the film that would be known as Shock Corridor

In the movie, Pulitzer-hunting journalist Johnny (Peter Breck) decides to feign incestuous urges towards his “sister” in order to get himself committed to a mental asylum that was the recent site of an unsolved murder. By interviewing three patients who were witnesses to the crime, he hopes to discover the killer. His girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers), reluctantly plays along, pretending to be his sister. As it turns out, however, the closer Johnny gets to unveiling the murderer, the looser his grip on his own sanity becomes.

Shock Corridor is perhaps the finest example of Sam Fuller’s perpetual battle between lurid sensationalism and a genuine passion for the messages he wanted to convey.

Early on, an orderly discloses to Johnny, “I used to work in the female wing, but the nympho ward got too dangerous for me.” And indeed later, those same “nymphos” almost maul Johnny to death in a way intended to seem animalistic. Throughout, the conditions of various patients are played up for theatrics and shock value; the high key lighting with which they’re shot is hugely effective at adding drama, but often at the expense of their humanity. It can all get a bit… leery

And yet one of Shock Corridor’s central theses is that the line between the people that walk the corridor of the mental hospital and the ones who walk the streets outside is not as bright and stark as we’re frequently led to believe. The three patients that Johnny talks to who have witnessed the crime all explain themselves in moments of lucidity, and it’s clear that the mental load they’ve been asked to bear—institutional hypocrisies around race and war and the atomic bomb—have just become impossible to carry. Listening to them tell their own stories, it’s all too understandable how they would end up the way that they did. 

While Johnny’s undercover mission was born of professional ambition, the way he—however fraudulently—meets these patients where they are speaks to a genuine empathy standing tall amongst the film’s seamier impulses. At its heart, Shock Corridor is about the mental toll of living in a world perpetually on the verge of collapse, rife with chaos and violence both emotional and physical—though contemporaneous events like the Cold War and the Civil Rights struggle were clearly at the forefront of Fuller’s mind, the existential horror of living in a tinderbox remains depressingly relevant today. Over the course of the movie, we are asked to feel for these patients more than we are to gawp at them, and Fuller makes that easy to do.

As was usually the case with Fuller’s films, the scope of his thematic ambition was not matched by his financial backing, which makes his formal inventiveness all the more impressive. Throughout the early parts of his incarceration, Johnny is haunted by the idea of what Cathy might be doing without him in the outside world—Fuller depicts this inner turmoil by imposing a pint-sized hallucination of Cathy onto the screen, who taunts Johnny by whispering in his ear and telling him how much his ambition and hubris have cost them both. There’s a silliness to these sections, sure, but it’s overridden by the proto-Lynchian strangeness; the way they collide with all the other tricks Fuller uses (the sporadic scenes in color, the little people hired to stand at the end of the titular corridor to give it more of a sense of perspective) to make up a world that feels viscerally uncanny.

A word here about Constance Towers, who never had much of a big screen career outside of the two movies she made with Fuller, but really deserved to. Statuesque and beautiful, with long blonde hair, her character here is a stripper—a common denizen of Fuller’s films. Nevertheless, the routine we see near the beginning of Shock Corridor is the most unconventional striptease; dignified, almost regal as she sings the torch song “I Want Someone to Love” and removes her clothes, Towers gives Cathy a strength and a sadness that overrides the sordid milieu. Though Peter Breck has the showier, meatier role here—he reportedly needed hospitalization to recover from the physical exertions of playing Johnny—it’s Towers who provides Shock Corridor its vital emotional anchor.

Fuller loved Towers’ performance, and gave her the lead in the following year’s The Naked Kiss, which would be his final great work for the next 16 years. And we will talk about his triumphant 1980 return to filmmaking, The Big Red One, next week…

Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.

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