By Daniel Barnes
In his 1963 film Pierrot le Fou, Jean-Luc Godard cast B-movie deity Sam Fuller as a Fuller-esque partygoer who declares, “Film is like a battleground: love, hate, action, death…In one word, EMOTION.” It’s ostensibly a Godard line, but it feels uncannily authentic coming out of Fuller’s mouth, and often serves as an almost too-easy summation of Fuller and his movies: film as a battlefield, life as a battlefield, human society as a battlefield, the streets as a battlefield, and quite often an actual battlefield as a battlefield.
The same year Pierrot le Fou was released, and not too many years after Godard and the Cahiers du Cinema crowd recognized the auteur tendencies in his work, Sam Fuller wrote, produced and directed Shock Corridor. If the rest of Fuller’s oeuvre advances the notion of film as a battlefield, then Shock Corridor re-imagines film as make-believe as insanity as a battlefield as film. Perhaps it is a coincidence that Fuller’s onscreen call for a more elemental cinema came the same year as Shock Corridor, but I believe this is his most explicit commentary on movies, as well as the raving lunatics who make them.
Why else would Fuller cast a dead ringer for Orson Welles in the role of an asylum guard (read: studio exec) who tells our intensely unreliable, mentally deranged, and sexually repressed hero (read: Hollywood filmmaker), “This is your table from now on,” except to lay out an elaborately ironic commentary on the studio caste system that victimized both directors? In a sly reference to Charles Foster Kane, the Welles stand-in even snarls to our journalist protagonist, “Born phonies, all you newspaper men.”
Newspaper man Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck, a longtime TV actor who would never get a meatier role) really is a phony, of course – as the film opens, he is preparing to get admitted into an insane asylum under false pretenses. The ostensible point of this heavily conditioned performance is to expose the unsolved murder of an inmate, but the killer and victim are thoroughly incidental, and Johnny only seems to care about winning the Pulitzer Prize. He invokes the award’s name as though it was part of an incantation, and very early we get the impression that the “performance” of insanity is all too natural for him.
Johnny demands that his sexy, nest-craving girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) sell the ruse by pretending to be his sister, and by having him committed for “attempted incest.” It would seem that a brother-sister relationship is more in line with Johnny’s mindset, anyway, and there is a strong suggestion that Johnny’s obsession with gaining admittance to the asylum is a sort of subliminal self-diagnosis, an elaborate plot to forestall domestic bliss with Cathy. Yet on his first night in the asylum, Johnny envisions Cathy undulating across his slumbering form, and awakes in terror as she whispers, “I have a right to find another.” The head doctor at the asylum diagnoses Johnny with “internal sexual conflict.” You think?
In Shock Corridor, madness is something that people share, like patriotism or love-making or a flu virus, and one of the script’s most sublimely absurd story beats is the way that the fever of insanity unexpectedly breaks into flashes of lucidity. Johnny works his way through a list of deranged witnesses to the murder, integrating into their insanity and pouncing on their brief psychological cloud breaks for bits of evidence. The witnesses form a funhouse mirror room of perverted American dreams – the American GI-turned-Commie rat-turned Confederate general; an astrophysicist with the mind and moral center of a child; and the film’s most profoundly offensive character, a black man so damaged by racist invective that he imagines himself to be a white Klansman.
That feeling of an airborne and unpredictable dementia also begins to seep into the consciousness of Shock Corridor – the soundtrack becomes increasingly jagged and shots often don’t match each other, as though the film itself were succumbing to madness. Real life is rendered in crisp and shadowy black-and-white, while color Super 8 becomes the film stock of nightmares. After nearly an hour of omnipresent – and by this point, clearly unreliable – non-diegetic narration, Johnny quizzes a fellow inmate, “Do you hear voices?” Shock Corridor becomes the collective madness of its own audience.
There are outlandish and out-sized moments in Shock Corridor – the attack of the nymphos, the indoor rainstorm, Cathy’s Expressionist musical number, a fistfight in the hydrotherapy chamber, the asylum’s noir-ish shadows – but it all feels strangely organic and logical, like insanity must feel to the insane. Semi-incredulous hilarity and genuine discomfort become inseparable, culminating in the classic moment where Johnny’s doctor despondently stares out a window and says, “What a tragedy…an insane mute will win the Pulitzer Prize” (this was before Thomas Pynchon took the prize, remember).
The end of Shock Corridor goes the opposite route of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, another movie about a deranged protagonist released just a few years prior. Instead of comfortably contextualizing Johnny’s madness, offering a stepladder back into the world of the psychologically unblemished, Fuller denies us the smooth corners of easy resolution. Johnny solves the murder, savagely beating a confession out of the killer, and goes on to write his career-making and Pulitzer Prize-winning article. However, it turns out that post-asylum period was just another “flash of sanity,” and as the film closes, Johnny has completely crashed into catatonic schizophrenia. Psycho is a movie about madness; Shock Corridor IS madness, and as such it is Fuller’s consummate statement on the world of filmmaking.