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Johnny Barrett is a journalist determined to win the Pulitzer Prize at any price. He attempts to feign mental illness in order to become an inmate at a psychiatric hospital and investigate an unsolved murder case. His girlfriend, a professional stripper, poses as his sister and fabricates accusations of him sexually accosting her in order to have him committed. Inside the hospital, he attempts to interview three possible witnesses during their rare moments of lucidity: a veteran who was brainwashed during the Korean War and branded as a Communist upon returning home; an African-American who couldn't bear the strain of being a symbol for integration; and a nuclear physicist who retreats into the world of childhood rather than participate in the greater madness of the arms race. However, as the investigation unfolds Barrett finds himself losing his grip on his own sanity. Can he solve the case before he loses his mind altogether?
The two experiences that marked Samuel Fuller (1911-1997) most deeply were his service as an enlisted man in the First Infantry Division ("The Big Red One") during World War II and his earlier work as a newspaper copy boy and later crime reporter. Not surprisingly, several of his films draw upon these two aspects of his life for subject matter: war films such as The Steel Helmet (1951) and The Big Red One (1980) and films dealing with journalists such as Park Row (1952) and Shock Corridor (1963). Fuller, who often wrote and produced as well as directed his own films, insisted that film was above all a medium for personal expression; his independent stance and his bold, go-for-the-throat filmmaking style influenced French New Wave directors, especially Jean-Luc Godard, who even used him for a cameo as himself in Pierrot le fou (1965). His instincts as a reporter drove him to seek out sensational subject matter; not only was he one of the first directors to deal with the Korean and Vietnam wars, he frequently addressed the problem of racism in American society in his films, culminating in the little-seen and misunderstood White Dog (1982). At the same time, films such as Park Row and Forty Guns (1957) are stunning virtuoso displays of style, with complex crane and tracking shots lasting for several minutes.
Shock Corridor was the first of two films that Fuller directed for Leon Fromkess and Sam Firks under the auspices of Allied Artists, the second being The Naked Kiss (1964). Fuller described the inspiration for Shock Corridor as follows: "When I was a reporter I was taken into a ward for the insane by a cop and he tried to pull a joke on me and lock me in there. And I considered doing a story in this setting for some time, an expose. The insane are very interesting--because they are a lot like you and me. Most people are a lot closer to this than they want to believe. So I came up with a story, with the reporter. There was...a famous female reporter who made a big expose of the insane asylum on Wards Island by pretending to be insane. So I had this. And then there was the timing. At that time in the United States there were many things happening, big changes, people tearing each other apart, and I thought I could represent some things about the country, how it was like an insane asylum. You had the black and white thing. You had the war veterans who deserted. You have the man like Oppenheimer, with the A-bomb."
The film was produced under severe budgetary limitations; for instance, the long hospital corridor that makes up the centerpiece of the film was considerably shorter than it appears. At the far end hung a painted backdrop, with midgets pacing back and forth in the background in order to force the illusion of depth. While the film lacks Fuller's trademark long takes, it does feature Expressionistic lighting by Stanley Cortez (1908-1997), famed cinematographer of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and The Night of the Hunter (1955). Cortez, whose reputation in Hollywood was damaged by the notorious cost overruns on Ambersons, was forced to work on low-budget exploitation films at this stage of his career; some of these films include The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966) and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966). However, his cinematography for Sam Fuller on this film and The Naked Kiss is among the best of his career, especially considering the budget and technical constraints under which he was working.
One of the most immediately striking features of the film is its use of color inserts during the dreams and hallucinations of the inmates. The Brazilian footage was shot on location by Fuller while doing preliminary work for a film entitled Tigrero. Fuller recalls: "I had a story set in the Matto Grosso, among the Jivaro. It was about a tiger hunter and there's a story with a husband and wife. I stayed with the Indians there for six weeks. I was their guest. These were head-shrinkers and they shrunk a head for me and I filmed it. Wayne and Tyrone Power would have done the pictures, but the studio couldn't get the insurance to take the stars into the jungle. They couldn't leave Rio. They thought it was too dangerous." The story behind this project has been recounted in the 1994 documentary Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made. The Japanese footage was shot by Fuller while working on the film House of Bamboo (1955). In both cases the 16mm color footage is anamorphically squeezed, adding to the surreal quality of the episodes. For the version shown on TCM, the original color sequences have been restored as Fuller intended.
Gene Evans (1922-1998), one of Fuller's favorite actors after his brilliant work in the role of Sergeant Zack in The Steel Helmet, recalls playing the character of Boden for Shock Corridor: "That was a difficult character. Sam called and said, 'I don't know anybody else who can do this part.' He didn't have any money, but it didn't make any difference--I would have done it for nothing, anyway. It was difficult to get that character just right. It needed a hell of a transition. The guy was like a child one moment and then all of a sudden there's an about-face and he starts talking physics, the A-bomb, scientific stuff. A hell of a switch. And unless it came off swimmingly it was going to be bad. And I had broken my finger just before I did it. I was in a fight in a joint down on Melrose, near Paramount. I hit a guy just as hard as I could hit him, and he went down and got right up. And I went running to get out the door, because I didn't need any more of that guy. And I had busted a finger from when I hit him. I went to a clinic and they put a sling on it, but Sam said, 'You can't work with that on. That looks ridiculous.' So I took if off and after a couple of days I've got a bent finger. And Sam says, 'Well, that's what you get for going out fooling around.'" Evans also worked with Fuller in Park Row and Hell and High Water (1954).
A film as sensational and stylistically outrageous as Shock Corridor was bound to alienate many critics upon its release. The reviewer for Variety writes, "In Shock Corridor, writer-producer-director Samuel Fuller apparently is trying to say something significant about certain contemporary American values. The points are sound and have merit. But the melodrama in which he has chosen to house these ideas is so grotesque, so grueling, so shallow and so shoddily sensationalistic that his message is devastated." On the other hand, A. H. Weiler, a film critic for the New York Times, praised the performances as "hard, driving and realistic." Today Shock Corridor has become one of Fuller's most admired and frequently revived works.
Director, producer and screenwriter: Sam Fuller
Cinematographer: Stanley Cortez
Editor: Jerome Thoms
Music: Paul Dunlap
Sound: Philip Mitchell
Set design: Charles Thompson
Principal Cast: Peter Breck (Johnny Barrett), Constance Towers (Cathy), Paul Dubov (Dr. Menkin), John Matthews (Dr. Cristo), Philip Ahn (Dr. Fong), Chuck Roberson (Wilkes), James Best (Stuart), Hari Rhodes (Trent), Gene Evans (Boden), Larry Tucker (Pagliacci).
BW & C-101m.
By James Steffen