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 Replies

  • 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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