blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Shock Corridor (1963, Samuel Fuller)

Writer, director, and producer Fuller ends Shock Corridor’s main plot so quickly, it’s like he’s in a hurry to get to the epilogues. Except the epilogues are where Corridor falls flat and doesn’t have the time to get back up. As the film progresses, Fuller makes some significant achievements and builds up such an incredible momentum it seems impossible he’ll run out of speed.

Sadly, he does. Shock Corridor pulls Fuller in just too many directions and he goes with a genre standard. Or at least a genre reliable. Corridor—at the start, anyway—is a film noir. Lead Peter Breck narrates the opening in the past tense; later, he’ll narrate in the present. It doesn’t really matter; the narration’s not successful, but Fuller proves it necessary, so it’s then becomes more tolerable. There is a move Fuller misses for the narration, which is a bummer because it literally would tie the movie together.

The first thirty or so minutes is about reporter Breck trying to convince girlfriend Constance Towers to go along with his scheme to get himself committed to the state mental hospital so he can catch a murderer and win the Pulitzer Prize. He forgets to mention he’s not going to just any state mental hospital, but the one with the celebrity patients. There’s some talk about how well Breck has researched the people he needs to interview inside the hospital, but they turn out to be so famous they’d have been on a magazine cover.

Towers thinks it’s too dangerous, not to mention illegal. Not to mention gross. Breck, his boss Bill Zuckert, and Zuckert’s war buddy turned psychiatrist whistleblower Philip Ahn want Towers to pretend she and Breck are siblings and he’s been coming on to her for years. When she’s finally had enough, she’ll report him, he’ll get hauled off to the mental hospital because it’s 1963, and even though everyone acknowledges men are dangerous to women… sometimes the ladies are really asking for it.

Ew. Also, that detail should come up in the plot and doesn’t, which is a big problem with the film heading into the third act. So when Fuller’s able to right the ship, it’s magnificent. He paces it just right, leverages Breck just right—despite Brock’s sometimes omnipresent narration, he’s far better at the brooding physical stuff—and we’re almost home.

Then wipeout when Fuller dumps treating Towers like a real character. At least she’d been the de facto protagonist for the first act, some of the second. Doing right by her would’ve made up for her always getting the shit end of the stick in Corridor. When she balks at going through with the plan, Breck reminds her she works in a strip club, and so she can’t talk. We then see Towers’s performance, which is a torch singer nightclub number, while she strips off pieces of her skimpy outfit and undulates absurdly. Once hospitalized, Towers in the skimpy outfit will become the angel (and devil) on his shoulder, superimposed, imagined, objectified. Meanwhile, the real Towers is trying to convince newspaper editor Zuckert to pull Breck out, especially after his doctor—an unfortunately middling John Matthews—calls Towers to interview her about her and Breck’s fake family relationship.

All while Towers is going to visit Breck, and they paw each other.

It’s a mess.

But it’s near perfection when Fuller gets going with the procedural—well into the second act. Fuller hammers in big ideas, does fantastic callbacks, and all while basically presenting a jingoistic patriarchal worldview with some very problematic beliefs about mental health. Because Shock Corridor isn’t about Breck’s Pulitzer dreams or Towers’s skimpy outfits (though it is, obviously, it very much is about her skimpy outfits; Fuller worked hard to make up reasons for her to be in them). Anyway. It’s about these three patients and how they’ve been experiencing modern life.

First is James Best. He’s the only one we meet in the first act. The other two actors were busy when they were shooting those crowd shots and what not. Best initially presents as a Southerner who can’t get over the Civil War (shocker), but then it turns out he’s a Korean War vet who defected to the Soviets. See, his parents had raised him to be a racist Southern shit, but then something happened in the war, and he realized it was bullshit and he was being patriotic wrong, so he became a defector. And a worldwide celebrity.

Until he meets Lee Marvin from The Big Red One. Kind of seriously. There’s not not a Sam Fuller connected universe.

Best’s low okay. Until Hari Rhodes shows up, Corridor’s acting peaks aren’t particularly considerable, so low okay isn’t bad. It also gives Breck one of his first good brooding scenes when he’s got to listen but not narrate. Since we get so little about Breck’s state of mind—the question from scene one is will Breck go insane after being institutionalized—scenes where he’s got to reflect are great. And too rare, especially since he’s got a tedious “cat got your tongue” subplot in the third act to delay things for dramatic purposes.

But even with Best just being better than expected, the content’s unexpected. Shock Corridor spends the first act trying to be lurid without being too lewd. The second act is about white racists coming to terms with imperialism (sort of), followed by a Black man (Rhodes) driven insane due to the pressure of being the only Black student at a hostile Southern university, then a nuclear physicist who knows all the times we’ve averted nuclear destruction.

Gene Evans plays the physicist and ends up being Corridor’s biggest successful swing, which is something because the way Rhodes’s mental illness presents is he thinks he’s a white Klan member who wants to lynch Black people. The staff at the integrated hospital know Rhodes is a threat to the other patients but only acknowledge it after Rhodes has attacked someone. It’s a big logic hole.

Rhodes is also absolutely spellbindingly phenomenal. Even when Fuller’s script sends him a particular curveball. Usually, within a couple of lines, Rhodes has made the outlier seem foundational to his character. He consumes it. Rhodes raises Corridor to another level. With this performance in this part, it’s clear Fuller’s more ambitious.

And he makes the Evans thing work.

And action finale.

He totally fumbles the finish. The last story to tell would be Towers’s. And then Fuller takes then that acknowledgment away while leaving another thread visibly untied.

But Corridor’s often a glorious success.

Rhodes is the hands-down best, followed by Evans, then Towers. Zuckert’s good but barely in it. Larry Tucker’s great as another patient.

Great black and white photography from Stanley Cortez throughout. Jerome Thoms’s editing is less consistent, usually thanks to Fuller’s lack of coverage. It gets really good for much of the second act, then also takes a hit for the conclusion.

Shock Corridor’s outstanding. Disappointing as all hell but outstanding.

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