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September 4, 2004

Shock Corridor

Now that I'm getting settled into fall semester (three weeks down), I'm trying to watch more "escapist" movies. Last night, it was indie movie guru Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor. Shock Corridor is the 1963 film that the cinephiles are watching during the opening sequence of Bertolucci's The Dreamers, and after seeing Fuller's film, I can see why the French New Wave filmmakers admired it so much.

Shock Corridor is about Johnny Barrett, an ambitious newspaper reporter who hopes to win a Pulitzer by going undercover as a mental patient in order to solve a mysterious murder. In the opening scene, Johnny trains with a psychiatrist friend, learning to perform the symptoms of mental illness in much the same way that a college student might cram for a final exam. His girlfriend, a stripper with an intense affinity to her feather boa, worries that Johnny will get caught--or worse, that he will become insane because of his exposure to the patients in the asylum. The film is shot in gritty black-and-white, with several long shots of "the street," the long hallway where the patients congregate to socialize. In addition, there are several surrealistic shots of dreams and fantasies that disrupt this grittiness in fairly complicated ways, but I don't want to describe them in too much detail because the pleasure in being surprised by these shots was so much fun.

Once inside, Johnny begins having nightmares involving his girlfriend and her career as a stripper. At the same time, he slowly makes progress on solving the murder by talking to the three principle witnesses, all of whom are trauamtized by both the murder and their own pasts. These witnesses include: a southern Korean War veteran who claims to have been brainwashed by the Communists and now believes himself to be a Civil War soldier; a black man who as a child crossed picket lines to attend a formerly white college and now believes himself to be a white supremacist, and a nuclear scientist who has regressed to the mental capacity of a two-year-old. All three patients offer some version of satire on late '50s America, including the paranoia that produced McCarthyism, segregationism, and the Cold War. In an odd way, the film reminded me of the more recent--and less overtly political--spoof film, Bubba Ho-Tep (my review).

Many of the reviews I've seen downgrade the film for its tabloid style, but that's what makes it so enjoyable in my opinion. The pseudo-Freudian language and the false seriousness make the film a great B-movie experience. Another reader of the film faults the film for showing the world outside the asylum as being equally "grim, painful and downright weird as that inside." In a sense, that seems to be the point of the film; the "outside" world is just as crazy as the asylum, if not moreso. I'd also disagree with the claim that the film satirizes "America’s demand for over-achievement." It's not the desire for over-achievement that dooms the black patient to madness; it's the fear and paranoia of the community around him. But no matter what, for the next few days, I'll be walking straight to the Samuel Fuller shelf at my local videostore.

Posted by chuck at September 4, 2004 1:50 PM

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If you can possibly get your hands on a print or bootleg tape of Crimson Kimono, you should watch it. In my view, it's Fuller at his best, marrying B-movie generic pleasures with meticulous style. Plus, fascinating racial politics and gender psychodynamics!

Barring that, Naked Kiss or Underworld will do...

Posted by: Chris at September 4, 2004 9:46 PM

Glad you got to see Shock Corridor, it is on my personal list of the top 10 movies ever made. All the "defects" that various commentators allege (like the girlfriend/stripper and her feather boa) actually add to the expressionistic power of the film. I love the moments when hallucination breaks through the fourth wall, as it were, and enters the diegesis -- like when Pagliacci is singing and the whole orchestra comes up; and above all, the rainstorm in the corridor.
For other Fuller works, I agree with Chris' suggestions, especially Naked Kiss. There's also Forty Guns, probably the most extravagant Western ever made, hilariously hyperFreudian and phallic; and Pickup on South Street, a great, gritty noir, which both indulges in and ridicules McCarthyite anti-communist paranoia.

Posted by: Steve at September 4, 2004 10:27 PM

Naked Kiss is next on the list. I know that my video store has several other Fuller films (they actually have an entire shelf), so I'll keep all of these recommendations in mind. I forgot to mention Pagliacci--what a great character. And, yes, I'd agree completely that the feather boa is great expressionistic image.

Posted by: chuck at September 5, 2004 12:17 AM

Yes, "Shock Corridor" is pretty amazing.

I might also recommend the 1962 Sydney Poitier film "Pressure Point" (with Bobby Darrin as a racist psychopath, and Poitier as a black psychiatrist who has to try and cure him).

It has some interesting "translations" of psychoanalytical conditions to the screen (a la Shock Corridor at moments), as well as some good early 60s stuff on race and racism.

Only good video stores will have it.

Posted by: Amardeep at September 5, 2004 2:27 PM

I'm particularly interested in Forty Guns. Anyone know where I can get a copy? It apparently was never officially released to video.

Posted by: Rusty at September 5, 2004 3:35 PM

Rusty, I just checked at Movies Worth Seeing, and "Forty Guns" wasn't there. I just picked up "Naked Kiss," so should be a fun night!

Posted by: chuck at September 5, 2004 11:04 PM

I loved Bubba Ho-Tep. My viewing companion most decidedly did NOT. But we both agreed that, of all the films we saw last year, it was the most fun to describe over lunch the day after seeing it.

It may be too mainstream for you, but I caught Garden State last night and really liked it. Great soundtrack too.

Posted by: Lori at September 7, 2004 1:31 AM

I saw Garden State this weekend, but haven't felt inspired to write about it. The soundtrack was nice, and on ocasion, the film inspired me to want to make movies. But other moments felt rather flat, as if it felt obligated to fulfill certain conventions of the indie genre.

Posted by: chuck at September 7, 2004 7:21 AM

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