Friday, September 10, 2004

Shock Corridor Directed by Samuel Fuller

In 1963 Samuel Fuller made Shock Corridor, by all accounts a low budget, borderline B-picture. Outside of Charade, it was the best American film of the year. What made this The-Little-Picture-That-Could was its harsh look into (literally) the psyche of America.

Now, when I say low budget, B, and The-Little-Picture et cetera, I make it sound as if Samuel Fuller was some fresh-faced Hollywood dream-come-true story. In reality, Samuel Fuller had been around Hollywood since 1949 when he started work on The Baron of Arizona, and became a Name in 1951 when The Steel Helmet was released. Truthfully, Fuller liked to work in the low budget arena. It seems to me that he was proud of doing a lot with a little. And with Shock Corridor, he did a whole lot.

Peter Breck plays Johnny Barrett, a journalist who has an idea - to pose as an insane man in order to infiltrate an asylum, crack a murder case, publish an article on the endeavor, and win the Pulitzer Prize. I know, this is the stuff of a $0.10 pulp novel, but in Fuller's hands it's golden. While planning the coup, Johnny hardly mentions the murder; he talks only of selling papers and winning the Pulitzer. When his girlfriend, a stripper with her own problems (a limelight fetish and very possibly some nymphomania rising), brings up the subject of morality, Johnny becomes defensive and retorts that this is the stuff that sells papers. So here we have Fuller indicting the Journalists of America: give them news, sure, but, most importantly, Give Them Thrills. It's the crux of the story, and Johnny's actions from here on out determine Fuller's take on the industry.

The question at table is who killed Sloan in the kitchen? The answer: well, not yet. Three patients (not inmates, we are told early on) witnessed the murder, therefore becoming Barrett's bosom buddies. Using each character to portray a different aspect of the culture, Fuller takes another stab at American Dogma. Before I go on, I don't believe that Fuller is intimating that America on the whole is terrible. I do believe that he is saying that certain institutions and ways of thinking in America are corrupt.

The Three Inmates, er, Patients:

1) A veteran of the Korean War who gave it all up and went AWOL. He then joined the Chinese Communist Party because of the bigotry and hatred he dwelt in while growing up. He even says that he would have joined any enemy - his environment gave him no reason to be proud of his country. It gets muddy here (comes with the pulp territory, I'm afraid), but from what I gather he returned to the U.S. and went insane. The implication is impossible to miss: American Cinema had just emerged from the Red Scare and Fuller was pretty relieved. But he hadn't forgiven anyone yet. This man's sickness is not due to Communism, but to his own homeland. Due to the lack of understanding, the ignorance, of his very own country. Barrett does not empathize with the man in any way, he just asks over and over, "Who killed Sloan in the kitchen?" In other words, he wants a name, the only thing that matters. Smacks of a certain senator from the 40's, don't it?

2) An experiment. In the late 50's the government enforced the desegregation of schools. This man, Trent, was one of the first African Americans to be imported (to be crass) into the "white" schools. He freaked out, went insane. Barrett jibes, "a lot of people were counting on you. You let a lot of people down." Now Trent imagines himself as the founder of the Ku Klux Klan - a man who hates black people and even incites a good ol' fashioned lynching attempt in the ward. Here the culprit is the bureaucracy. Specifically, the quick fixes made by the bureaucracy that are completely ineffective in dealing with the problem.

Before #3: Meanwhile, Barrett is undergoing his own mental breakdown. He is slowly becoming a psychotic in his own right. Ergo, the journalistic system is breaking down as well. It might be a tad much to attach Barrett to the entire journalistic sphere, but I wouldn't doubt that Fuller is willing to condemn the whole shebang. Barrett dreams of his girlfriend whispering far-from-sweet nothings into his ear at night, he slips in and out of mental cognizance during the day, and manages to get himself thrown into a straightjacket. Twice. And, unlike Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, this was hardly due to the protagonist's design. Read: the system is collapsing on itself because of itself.

3) A former scientist. A brilliant man who worked for NASA. He now paints suns, people, and houses of the callow variety. Formerly one of the greatest minds in the world, he is now reduced to the mental capacity of a six year old. Slowly, Barrett nurses the man back to full cerebral fortitude. In a moment of complete lucidity, the scientist tells Barrett that NASA invested a huge sum in beating the Russians to the moon. And for what? To say they got to the moon first. He goes on to say that the Russians were the first to study the mating habits of seahorses, so the government must now beat Russia to the goal of being the first country to examine a grasshopper's brain. Then the man divulges his secret: an attendant named Wilkes killed Sloan. Barrett, breaking down himself, violently turns on the man and immediately the man regresses back to his former pathetic state. The rub here is twofold: a stab at gov't responsibility and a mimetic stare at the debilitating power of journalism. Through the space-race, journalism fueled the public's hunger for victory. As the saying goes, "the lord giveth, and the lord taketh away."

Added to all these themes is a genuine talent in filmmaking. The camera bobs frenetically and the editing cuts wildly - both imitating the fractured headspace of a mental patient. And even with all the heavy subtext, Fuller manages to make a film that works as pure entertainment as well. If one were so inclined, one could watch this film without a single thought and still get great enjoyment. The visuals, the acting, the plot - all add up to great fun regardless.

In the end Barrett writes his story. He wrangles a confession out of Wilkes via the tried-and-true: fisticuffs. But the story does not end there. Flash-forward at least a month and we see Barrett's girlfriend pleading with Barrett's former doctor. Seems that Barrett, after writing his story (guaranteed to win the Pulitzer, by the way), broke down. Completely catatonic, the doctor says that Barrett had no idea what he was getting into. A man cannot subject himself to the company of confirmed lunatics and all those psychological tests without going batty himself. Meaning: sooner or later the media is corrupted. When it is placed in a closed-minded society with a jingoistic government any other result is impossible. Hardly an uplifting note, but, from what I gather, Fuller was not exactly the jolly type.


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