Shock Corridor

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #19: Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor.


It was nice see­ing this film again. Samuel Fuller has that pe­cu­liar po­si­tion that only seems pos­si­ble in the world of film; a mas­ter of cin­ema, but also a pro­ducer of schlock. Shock Corridor is a per­fect ex­am­ple of this sort of dou­ble­think. It most cer­tainly is a piece of ex­ploita­tion cin­ema, meant to bring peo­ple to the the­ater through its overblown and seedy por­trayal of the men­tally ill, but it also sup­plies the spec­ta­tor with thorny po­lit­i­cal ques­tions in a dis­tinc­tive, mas­ter­ful and lurid style.

The ac­tors are no-names and the act­ing is blunt. So is the edit­ing. So is the di­a­logue. Fuller has no pa­tience with flair in this film. Although there are parts that seem quite styl­is­tic, they were not done for styl­is­tic rea­sons. Each choice is made for prac­ti­cal util­i­tar­ian ef­fi­cacy and it is from this fo­cus that the style de­rives. This is very dif­fer­ent from The Sword of Doom, where mad­ness is sub­servient to its por­trayal. In Shock Corridor, mad­ness points to its own causes as, in brief mo­ments of lu­cid­ity, the pa­tients ex­plain and in­her­ently crit­i­cize the so­cial stresses which drove them mad.

Fuller uses these mo­ments to make his great po­lit­i­cal points. One pa­tient, a sort of Manchurian can­di­date trai­tor who thinks he is a Confederate gen­eral ex­plains that Communism of­fered him what his own up­bring­ing never could, ed­u­ca­tion and open-mind­ed­ness, at the cost of his loy­alty to his coun­try. An in­fan­tile ex-Manhattan project sci­en­tist preaches of the evils of Cold War men­tal­ity arms-rac­ing, and most dis­turbingly the first black stu­dent to at­tend a white uni­ver­sity tells how the racism of the South drove him mad, ul­ti­mately con­vinc­ing him that he is the founder of the Ku Klux Klan and a white su­prema­cist. [See the YouTube clip linked at the end.]

In an­other vein, Johnny the re­porter, who has in­fil­trated the asy­lum in or­der to de­ter­mine which of the three char­ac­ters above can iden­tify a mur­derer, is slowly dri­ven mad by his prox­im­ity to the pa­tients and the treat­ments ad­min­stered to him by the staff. The de­struc­tion of his per­son­al­ity due to an ex­cess of am­bi­tion be­comes the ba­sis by which we can em­pathize with the plights of the other pa­tients. The scene with the nymphos [Resulting in one of the best VO nar­ra­tion lines ever: “Nymphos!!”] is ex­ploita­tion cin­ema at its best, but is a nec­es­sary step for Johnny’s road to mad­ness.

There are as­pects of noir to this film that can be ex­am­ined in com­par­ison to Fuller’s Pickup on South Street, but since that is also a Criterion film, I’ll do that then. I’ll sim­ply say now, that a re­porter pro­tag­o­nist and his strip­per girl­friend are the ar­che­typal seedy char­ac­ters for noir.

This is an­other film where the cin­e­matog­ra­phy is out­stand­ing. Stanley Cortez’s cam­era move­ments and fram­ing in­vite the viewer into each patient’s sub­jec­tiv­ity. These se­quences are the films most blunt and most ef­fec­tive. The viewer is star­tled by abrupt switches to color stock footage when the pa­tients hal­lu­ci­nate and the scene with Paliacci’s singing is jaw-drop­ping in terms of both cin­e­matog­ra­phy and post-pro­duc­tion. [See the YouTube clip linked at the end.]

For those who find grace and style to be in­sep­a­ra­ble and any art that is not “high” to be no art at all, this film will seem like so much trash. For the ca­sual viewer the film will of­fer en­ter­tain­ment but its an­gry tone and sug­ges­tion that mad­ness is the only es­cape from a world gone mad will not res­onate. The re­sult is a film that de­mands an open mind and broad taste for true ap­pre­ci­a­tion of all its as­pects. Just like every­thing else ever, re­ally.


Criterion Essay by Tim Hunter
Culture Court es­say by Rick McGrath.
The Guardian re­view.
• Many stills and cap­tions from the film.
YouTube clip fea­tur­ing the black white su­prema­cist.
• YouTube clip of one of Johnny’s dream se­quences fea­tur­ing Paliacci.
The Criterion Contraption’s re­view.

3 thoughts on “Shock Corridor

  1. On the sub­ject of photo jour­nal­ists, mad­ness and trapped vi­sions, we thought it time to take an­other look at ‘Shock Corridor‘, along with Hitchcock‘s ‘Rear Window‘and the more re­cent ‘SOP‘from Errol Morris (Alan Taylor, JFK-I, Berlin).

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