Shock Corridor: Criterion Collection
January 13, 2011
Samuel Fuller was one of the quintessential genre directors working in Hollywood during the 1950s as he brought his trademark two-fisted gusto to genres like the film noir (Pickup on South Street), the war film (The Steel Helmet), and the western (Forty Guns). In the early 1960s, he managed to independently finance two pulp masterpieces, Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964). On the surface, they are unabashed genre films but lurking underneath Fuller injected powerful commentaries on then-contemporary social issues. In the case of Shock Corridor, he used the premise of a reporter going undercover as a patient in a mental hospital to investigate a murder to comment on the issue of racism in America.
Johnny Barrett (Breck) is a reporter for the Daily Globe newspaper and who dreams of winning the Pulitzer Prize by committing himself to a mental hospital in order to solver a murder. His girlfriend stripper Cathy (Towers) is worried that being surrounded by all kinds of crazy people will have a bad effect on him. As she tells him at one point, she’s “fed up playing Greek chorus to your rehearsed nightmare.” Cathy is the voice of reason to Johnny’s cocky hubris, telling him, “Don’t be Moses leading your lunatics to the Pulitzer Prize.” But of course, he doesn’t listen and is confident that he can pull this off while also getting his fame and fortune.
Once inside, Johnny meets a colorful collection of patients, like the man who thinks he’s an Italian opera singer, a man proud of being impotent, another one who believes he’s a general in the American Civil War, and, most intriguingly, an African-American who believes he’s a racist white man. Naturally, prolonged exposure to all of this madness begins to put the zap on Johnny as he gradually loses touch with reality. Fuller, the master of heightened melodrama, cranks it up another notch with this film as evident in the scenes where Cathy tries to get Johnny out of the hospital after six weeks, or when he finally snaps his cap, culminating in a show-stopping sequence that only Fuller could get away with.
At times, Shock Corridor resembles a horror film, like when Johnny wanders into a room full of female patients that swarm and attack him while he screams in terror. Fuller’s film is a fascinating look at what Barton Fink (1991) called, “the life of the mind,” and the thin line between sanity and madness.
Included is the excellent documentary, The Typewriter, the Rife and the Movie Camera, about the life and career of Fuller with the likes of Tim Robbins, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, and Martin Scorsese talking about the man’s influence on them and others. Fuller is as gleefully hard-boiled as his films as he discusses his philosophy about life and cinema, which, not surprisingly, are the same.
There is an interview with actress Constance Towers done in 2007. She talks about how she met Fuller, her impressions of him and what it was like working on his films, most notably, Shock Corridor.
Finally, included is a theatrical trailer.