Shock Corridor and Masculine Fragility
I want to thank Schroedinger’s Cat for inviting me to post with her on her blog. She thought our two ways of writing about movies and culture would be compatible, so here I am! I still have my (sadly neglected) blog about Pre-Code movies, so I’m going to use this space to talk about other movies in the same vein that don’t fit into the Pre-Code time period of 1929 to 1934. Today’s topic is Samuel Fuller, who managed to independently produce his own films his own way at the height of the studio system by imitating the ploy of the Pre-Codes and not submitting his films to the censorship office until they were completed. This allowed him to explore stories and subjects that were supposed to be off-limits, as in today’s featured film, Shock Corridor (1963).
A word of warning for those who’ve never read my regular blog, The Insufferable Movie Snob: my motto is “All Spoilers, All The Time.” If you don’t want to know what happens in Shock Corridor, go watch it and then come back to read this.
First of all, if you’ve never seen a Samuel Fuller film, you may not want to start with Shock Corridor. Trust me on this. Maybe start with Underworld USA (1961) or The Steel Helmet (1951) instead, because this movie gives you concentrated Fuller at top volume, complete with bizarre hallucinations, barely audible voiceovers, and a “mystery” plot that’s a complete throwaway. The murder that Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) goes mad trying to solve is the shaggy dog story on which Fuller hangs his musings about the toxicity of American masculinity.
One of the reasons I love Fuller’s films so much is their strange combination of hard-hitting brutality and hallucinatory fantasy. He delivers his philosophy with a punch to the head that leaves you a little disoriented, but certainly gets his message across. Shock Corridor was made fast and cheap – according to Fuller, he filmed for 10 days on a single soundstage – but it lands a punch square in the middle of the fantasy of impregnable American masculinity, showing us a series of men who have been damaged to the point of madness by their attempts to live up to impossible standards, and then discarded in the insane asylum. It shows a toxic, all-male world where women are only allowed as weeping visitors desperate to communicate with the men they love or as insane “nymphos” who rip apart any man unlucky enough to encounter them. Johnny’s fellow patients are desperate to talk, to tell their stories, but Johnny is so focused on his single goal that he has no interest in listening to them and, like all the selfish men in Fuller’s films, he pays a heavy price.
So what is it that Johnny wants? Without using her name, he wants to best Nellie Bly, the intrepid reporter who made her reputation in the late 19th century by getting herself committed to an insane asylum and reporting on the horrific conditions inside. Bly was able to get the asylum investigated and conditions improved through her reporting, but Johnny just wants fame. Specifically, he wants to win a Pulitzer Prize for his story by solving the unsolved murder of one of the asylum’s inmates.
In order to do this, Johnny has been coached by a psychiatrist to fake an incestuous infatuation with his sister, only Johnny doesn’t have a sister. Instead, he has talked his girlfriend, Cathy (Constance Towers), into pretending to be his sister and reporting him to the police so he will be involuntarily committed. She balks at the last minute, pleading with Johnny to not go through with his plan, but he insists and, after he cuts off communication with her, she goes to the police station and haltingly reports that her “brother” has been molesting her.
Enter the first Fulleresque touch – Cathy is a stripper/torch singer, who has one of the weirdest, most melancholy strip tease scenes you’ll ever see as she sings about wanting to find a man who will love her (though this is 1963 Hollywood, so she only strips down to a bikini). Johnny clearly has issues with her career and says some cruel things about it when they argue which, in a Fuller film, is what seals his eventual doom. Fuller’s films are filled with women who are prostitutes, junkies, and strippers, but woe betide the man who disrespects them or belittles them. The Fuller universe will always punish those men in the end.
Johnny successfully fools the psychiatrists at the hospital and the asylum, but it’s obvious that he’s not very stable to begin with, because he hallucinates a miniature Cathy who taunts him the very first night he’s under psychiatric observation. He tries to shake it off and continues with his plan, but we in the audience already have a very bad feeling about this.
In order to solve the crime, Johnny needs to talk to the three witnesses, who are all fellow patients at the asylum. Since this movie is an Allegory (with the emphasis on that capital A), all three witnesses are men who cracked when they couldn’t handle the stress of their professions.
The first is Stuart, played by James Best, who’s probably best known to my generation as Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on the 1980s TV show “The Dukes of Hazzard,” and had a long and active career as a supporting actor. Stuart is a soldier who was brainwashed by the enemy in the Korean War and renounced America, only to turn back again after he bonds with a captured sergeant who is (it is strongly implied) the caring father figure he never had. Now Stuart believes he is a more famous traitor, Confederate General Jeb Stuart, and spends his days planning his battles against the Union. Johnny tries to befriend Stuart, but is blocked again and again, first by a riot in the lunchroom, and then by Johnny’s own mistake of stumbling into the Nympho Ward.
That’s right, there’s a Nympho Ward, but this is a Fuller film, so it’s the most frightening part of the movie. Re-watching it, I thought of the Maenads, the followers of Dionysus who tore men and animals apart in the frenzy of their worship. Johnny is beaten and assaulted by them, barely escaping with his life. His pitiful state convinces Stuart to talk to him, and Stuart has a few moments of sanity, talking about why he became a traitor and why he came back to America, but Johnny’s only interested in hearing about Sloane’s murder, and Stuart retreats back into his madness after dropping one clue – the killer wore white pants, which means he must be either a doctor or an attendant.
Next, Johnny moves on to the second witness, Trent (Hari Rhodes), a Black man who tried and failed to integrate a Southern college. Now Trent is convinced that he’s a white supremacist and spends his days stealing pillowcases and making rabble-rousing speeches that convince the rest of the patients to chase down a Black patient who uses the drinking fountain. Trent is probably the most famous character in the film and Rhodes plays him with magnetic charisma, even as he foully spits racist rhetoric. Again, Trent eventually opens up to Johnny and talks about the pressures that drove him mad, but again Johnny is only interested in himself and his mission to win the Pulitzer, so Trent retreats back into his madness after dropping another clue.
When Stuart and Trent each tell their story, Fuller drops incongruous color travelogue footage into the black-and-white movie. It’s jarring and out of place and doesn’t make any logical sense but, hey, that’s Fuller. And it does pay off later in its own oddball way.
Meanwhile, Johnny’s own burgeoning madness is beginning to interfere with his investigation. When Cathy tries to kiss him on visiting day, he turns away in disgust – she can’t expect him to kiss his own sister that way! As he deteriorates, she reluctantly gives permission for electroshock therapy, which makes him rational enough to befriend Boden (Gene Evans), a brilliant nuclear scientist who has retreated back to childhood.
Upon re-watching, I now wonder if Boden is “truly” insane the way Stuart and Trent are. His ploy of being six years old seems to be more of a way to escape his life, because he’s capable of rational conversation much faster than either Stuart or Trent and – most importantly – we see no dreams in color. But Boden only gets his story out because Johnny has a strange spell of muteness where he is unable to ask who the killer is, forcing him to listen to Boden’s story. Johnny finally manages to croak out the question and gets the killer’s name, but he attacks Boden when he sees the portrait that Boden has drawn of him and ends up in a straitjacket, unable to remember the name Boden told him. However, we the audience heard Boden say the name loud and clear so, as far as we’re concerned, the mystery is over. We know who the killer is. But our hero doesn’t remember it.
Next comes the most famous sequence of the film, where Johnny hallucinates that it’s raining inside the corridor, with bolts of lightning that shock him as he tries to run away. But even worse – he has a dream in color. Now, like Stuart and Trent, he is truly mad.
The denouement comes fast and furious: Johnny remembers the name and attacks the guilty attendant, forcing a confession from him after beating him severely, but it’s too late. Johnny won his Pulitzer, but he’s now mute and unresponsive, the pressure of his dream too much for his fragile psyche.
What really comes across by the end of the film is that Fuller is angry – angry at the ruined lives he’s just shown, angry at the pressures that modern society puts on men that forces them into situations they’re in no way equipped to handle. Since he’s Fuller, he’s especially angry at our bigoted society – in his story, Stuart says that the only thing his Southern sharecropping family taught him was bigotry and hatred, and never taught him why he should be proud to be American rather than just why he should hate everyone else. And, on another level, Fuller’s angry at the young men like Johnny who throw themselves into the grinder and get chewed up, again and again, because they actually believe all of the bullshit about masculinity that they’ve been fed.
At the end, the asylum’s psychiatrist can only watch as Cathy desperately tries to wrap Johnny’s arms around her in a parody of an embrace that comes too late — he is now completely lost to the world, unable to cope with the price he decided he had to pay for success.