I gotta give it this: that's a damned awesome title.
Genre: Mystery Drama
Starring: Peter Breck ("Black Saddle" • "The Big Valley"), Constance Towers (The Naked Kiss • "General Hospital")
Directed By: Samuel Fuller (Pickup on South Street • The Big Red One)
Overview: A Pulitzer-hungry reporter has himself committed to an insane asylum in hopes of uncovering the mystery of a murdered patient.
Whom God wishes to destroy he first makes mad - Euripides
Not the best place to seek help in becoming sane...
Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) is an ambitious reporter who's been mentally training for the article of a lifetime: solving the mystery of a murdered mental patient from inside the walls of an asylum. Johnny's plan is to have himself committed for sexual deviance, specifically the attempted rape of his sister. The woman posing as Johnny's sister is his stripper girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers), who despises and fears the sanity-risking consequences of his plan. Once inside, Johnny seeks to interview the murder witnesses, insinuating himself in the mad lives of those around him in hopes of being near when they slip into moments of lucid thought and shed light on the crime. These include a man who thinks himself to be a famous opera singer, a black white-supremacist, a patient who believes he's a General in the midst of the Civil War and a nuclear physicist who's regressed into childhood. Shock Corridor is a study into madness. Our hero, surrounded by insanity looks at it from the outside while doing his best to fake being one of them as he spends weeks investigating in hopes that his efforts bear fruit.
Unfortunately, at its core Shock Corridor is a low-budget B-movie. It's plainly apparent that the actors aren't quite pros and the script isn't exactly polished. One fight scene has the set walls wiggling in the background. There's frequent expository inner monologue. A scene with hungry nymphos is downright offensive camp, then there's the musical scene involving Cathy's stripping act. The music is inappropriate for the number, and the choreography is... well Constance may be a lover but she ain't no dancer. It just doesn't jive.
The weakest part of this production is the plot. Overall it plays out like a bad joke: "Guy walks into an insane asylum, he asks the first crazy 'who killed Sloan?' The crackpot goes nuts. Then he goes to the second loony, asks him the same thing, 'remember that guy Sloan? Who killed him?' The second kook goes nuts. Then he goes to the third fruitcake, 'who killed Sloan?' Third maniac goes nuts." *Punchline* Once you've figured out the formula - and you will very early on - it's obvious where the movie's going.
Another great moment in Shock Corridor
Luckily for Shock Corridor there's some genuinely astounding scenes that pushes it outside the confines of a typical B-Movie and makes it worthy of study. First is the likes of cinematographer Stanley Cortez (The Night of The Hunter • The Magnificent Ambersons). From intermittent usage of colour film to add poignancy to the not-so-mad words of the patients, to frequent use of double exposures of Cathy talking to Johnny in his sleep, Cortez's work shines through to bring this B-Movie into the realm of high-art. Nothing is so visually impressive in Shock Corridor as the scene where the asylum's hallways are filled with rain as Johnny tries to keep it together.
One character in particular is also worth mentioning. Seldom have I felt such a genuinely profound message as I did from the speeches of Trent (Hari Rhodes), the black white supremacist. The man's mind is clearly broken from the weight of American racism and he acts out in such a venomous hate that it becomes the highlight of Fuller's script. His story is then given such a great contextual weight by his lucid monologue, telling us how his brain was broken under the crushing weight of being a vanguard of civic responsibility and freedom. To find such emotionally uplifting social commentary in any film is impressive. To find it in a low-budget B-movie, well it clearly explains how Shock Corridor transcended its station and became a timeless Criterion Collection film.
Trent, you tortured bastard.
Performance: 7 Cinematography: 8 Script: 8 Plot: 6 Mood: 7
Overall Rating: 72% (Definitely Got a Jolt)
I enjoy getting into films I know very little about, and knowing they're on their way to my mailbox, I have no reason to give myself any more spoilers. Sometimes this bites me in the junk. Ironically, the Blu-Ray Criterion menu and Janus Films opening credits were enough to elevate my expectations. The only other Samuel Fuller I've seen is The Big Red One, and that wasn't a low budget production. Not being aware that most of Fuller's oeuvre lived in the realm of B-movie production made me wonder why Shock Corridor looked so cheap. Had I known more about Fuller ahead of time, I'd have been able to appreciate Shock Corridor for the ambitious project that it was, rather than the 'Criterion High-Art'-coloured glasses I was seeing it through. But I love a surprise and my desire for an experience unknown far outweighs moments like these, where I'd have benefited knowing more about the people behind the project.