By Michael McNulty
Samuel Fuller has become somewhat of a regular feature of the Forgotten Friday Series, but there is something so indelibly magnificent about his canon of films that make not making every Friday instalment a Fuller film an act of sheer willpower. In fact, it should be mandatory that everybody have a Fuller box-set sitting on their DVD shelf that they can reach for whenever they are in doubt as to what to watch. This is the man that described cinema, in his cameo in Goddard’s Pierrot le Fou, as, “a battlefield, with love, hate, action, violence, and death… in one word, emotions,” and his films are all those things and more. So, this week, sit back and enjoy Fuller’s pulpy mystery-melodrama, Shock Corridor.
Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) is an investigative journalist for The Globe newspaper who plans on having himself committed to the loony bin to uncover the truth behind the murder of a patient named Sloan. In order to get himself locked up, Johnny, along with newspaper’s editor, Swanee (Bill Zuckert) and consulting psychiatrist, Dr. Fong (Philip Ahn), have concocted a sordid backstory that will see Johnny play the role of a brother with an incestuous obsession for his sister. The latter role being reluctantly filled by Cathy, Johnny’s sweetheart and stripper down at the local skin bar.
Fearing that Johnny has not understood the potential repercussions of the endeavour he is about to embark on, “their sickness is bound to rub off on you,” Cathy refuses to play her part. But, Johnny is a man trying to get to the top of his profession. He has his eye on the Pulitzer Prize and will stop at nothing to get it, so four days of cold shoulder brings his girlfriend around and Cathy reports him to the authorities.
Once in, he sets about trying to solve the mystery. There were three witnesses, Stuart (James Best), a Korean War veteran and defector to the communists, Trent (Hari Rhodes), a Black-American white supremacist and Boden (Gene Evans), a man rendered insane by his involvement in the production of the A-bomb and Johnny must try to extrapolate the truth from them in their fleeting moments of lucidity, whilst maintaining his own sanity.
The investigation serves as little more than a McGuffin, driving the plot forward whilst Fuller stuffs America, dream and all, into the film’s nuthouse and blasts away, exploring wider themes of America’s social state. Each witness serves as a representation of America’s flaws according to Fuller. Shock Corridor may lack some of the finesse or subtlety that you expect from a powerfully thoughtful picture, it’s crude and rude and exploitative, an entire scene is dedicated to a group of nymphos pulling Johnny apart, but it’s not pretending not to be. It’s firecracker cinema, high intensity, grossly entertaining and shockingly insightful.
Made on a budget of approximately $ 200,000 and over the course of 10 days, Shock Corridor can’t shake its schlocky aesthetic, the sets are built on a soundstage and obviously so. But, it adds nothing, but more atmosphere to the film, helping to create this sense of questionable reality and sanity that furthers the plight of Johnny as he slowly breaks. Visually, Shock Corridor speaks the same language as Fuller; it’s blunt and frank and draws such emotion from the scenes it captures. The film is unafraid to hold onto and follow its characters as scenes unfold and then get up close and in their face, augmenting their emotional and psychological turmoil.
Peter Breck is phenomenal as the prize hungry Johnny. He throws himself into the film so completely. Like Jack Nicolson’s over the top Jack in The Shining, Breck finds the same balance, he’s performance is mad and excessive, but pumped with such thrilling energy that it’s always entertaining. Shock Corridor culminates in a nightmarish dream sequence in which Fuller flooded the sound stage so that the studio could not make him reshoot the ending, which pretty much sums up what you’re in for. So do yourself a favour and watch Shock Corridor tonight.