Cast & Crew
An ambitious newspaperman, Johnny Barrett, induces his stripper girl friend, Cathy, to pose as his sister and have him committed to a mental institution so he can investigate the unsolved knife murder of one of the patients. Three inmates witnessed the crime: Stuart, a former soldier brainwashed in Korea who now believes he is a Civil War general; Trent, a Negro broken by the ordeal of having been the first nonwhite to enroll at a southern university; and Boden, a former nuclear scientist whose mind has deteriorated to that of a 6-year-old child. While pretending to be a patient, Barrett is attacked by a group of nymphomaniacs, placed in a straitjacket after a riot, and forced to undergo shock therapy. Eventually he learns from Boden that the murderer is a hospital attendant, Wilkes, whose motivation arose from the need to suppress the revelation that he was having sexual relations with some of the female patients. After extracting a confession from Wilkes, Barrett is released and goes on to write an exposé, which is awarded a Pulitzer Prize. But the experience has been too much for him: he suffers a mental collapse and is returned to the institution.
Herbert G. Luft
Ryder Sound Service
Joseph Von Stroheim
The two experiences that marked Samuel Fuller (1911-1997) most deeply were his service as an enlisted man in the First Infantry Division ("The Big Red One") during World War II and his earlier work as a newspaper copy boy and later crime reporter. Not surprisingly, several of his films draw upon these two aspects of his life for subject matter: war films such as The Steel Helmet (1951) and The Big Red One (1980) and films dealing with journalists such as Park Row (1952) and Shock Corridor (1963). Fuller, who often wrote and produced as well as directed his own films, insisted that film was above all a medium for personal expression; his independent stance and his bold, go-for-the-throat filmmaking style influenced French New Wave directors, especially Jean-Luc Godard, who even used him for a cameo as himself in Pierrot le fou (1965). His instincts as a reporter drove him to seek out sensational subject matter; not only was he one of the first directors to deal with the Korean and Vietnam wars, he frequently addressed the problem of racism in American society in his films, culminating in the little-seen and misunderstood White Dog (1982). At the same time, films such as Park Row and Forty Guns (1957) are stunning virtuoso displays of style, with complex crane and tracking shots lasting for several minutes.
Shock Corridor was the first of two films that Fuller directed for Leon Fromkess and Sam Firks under the auspices of Allied Artists, the second being The Naked Kiss (1964). Fuller described the inspiration for Shock Corridor as follows: "When I was a reporter I was taken into a ward for the insane by a cop and he tried to pull a joke on me and lock me in there. And I considered doing a story in this setting for some time, an expose. The insane are very interesting--because they are a lot like you and me. Most people are a lot closer to this than they want to believe. So I came up with a story, with the reporter. There was...a famous female reporter who made a big expose of the insane asylum on Wards Island by pretending to be insane. So I had this. And then there was the timing. At that time in the United States there were many things happening, big changes, people tearing each other apart, and I thought I could represent some things about the country, how it was like an insane asylum. You had the black and white thing. You had the war veterans who deserted. You have the man like Oppenheimer, with the A-bomb."
The film was produced under severe budgetary limitations; for instance, the long hospital corridor that makes up the centerpiece of the film was considerably shorter than it appears. At the far end hung a painted backdrop, with midgets pacing back and forth in the background in order to force the illusion of depth. While the film lacks Fuller's trademark long takes, it does feature Expressionistic lighting by Stanley Cortez (1908-1997), famed cinematographer of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and The Night of the Hunter (1955). Cortez, whose reputation in Hollywood was damaged by the notorious cost overruns on Ambersons, was forced to work on low-budget exploitation films at this stage of his career; some of these films include The Navy vs. the Night Monsters (1966) and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966). However, his cinematography for Sam Fuller on this film and The Naked Kiss is among the best of his career, especially considering the budget and technical constraints under which he was working.
One of the most immediately striking features of the film is its use of color inserts during the dreams and hallucinations of the inmates. The Brazilian footage was shot on location by Fuller while doing preliminary work for a film entitled Tigrero. Fuller recalls: "I had a story set in the Matto Grosso, among the Jivaro. It was about a tiger hunter and there's a story with a husband and wife. I stayed with the Indians there for six weeks. I was their guest. These were head-shrinkers and they shrunk a head for me and I filmed it. Wayne and Tyrone Power would have done the pictures, but the studio couldn't get the insurance to take the stars into the jungle. They couldn't leave Rio. They thought it was too dangerous." The story behind this project has been recounted in the 1994 documentary Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made. The Japanese footage was shot by Fuller while working on the film House of Bamboo (1955). In both cases the 16mm color footage is anamorphically squeezed, adding to the surreal quality of the episodes. For the version shown on TCM, the original color sequences have been restored as Fuller intended.
Gene Evans (1922-1998), one of Fuller's favorite actors after his brilliant work in the role of Sergeant Zack in The Steel Helmet, recalls playing the character of Boden for Shock Corridor: "That was a difficult character. Sam called and said, 'I don't know anybody else who can do this part.' He didn't have any money, but it didn't make any difference--I would have done it for nothing, anyway. It was difficult to get that character just right. It needed a hell of a transition. The guy was like a child one moment and then all of a sudden there's an about-face and he starts talking physics, the A-bomb, scientific stuff. A hell of a switch. And unless it came off swimmingly it was going to be bad. And I had broken my finger just before I did it. I was in a fight in a joint down on Melrose, near Paramount. I hit a guy just as hard as I could hit him, and he went down and got right up. And I went running to get out the door, because I didn't need any more of that guy. And I had busted a finger from when I hit him. I went to a clinic and they put a sling on it, but Sam said, 'You can't work with that on. That looks ridiculous.' So I took if off and after a couple of days I've got a bent finger. And Sam says, 'Well, that's what you get for going out fooling around.'" Evans also worked with Fuller in Park Row and Hell and High Water (1954).
A film as sensational and stylistically outrageous as Shock Corridor was bound to alienate many critics upon its release. The reviewer for Variety writes, "In Shock Corridor, writer-producer-director Samuel Fuller apparently is trying to say something significant about certain contemporary American values. The points are sound and have merit. But the melodrama in which he has chosen to house these ideas is so grotesque, so grueling, so shallow and so shoddily sensationalistic that his message is devastated." On the other hand, A. H. Weiler, a film critic for the New York Times, praised the performances as "hard, driving and realistic." Today Shock Corridor has become one of Fuller's most admired and frequently revived works.
Director, producer and screenwriter: Sam Fuller
Cinematographer: Stanley Cortez
Editor: Jerome Thoms
Music: Paul Dunlap
Sound: Philip Mitchell
Set design: Charles Thompson
Principal Cast: Peter Breck (Johnny Barrett), Constance Towers (Cathy), Paul Dubov (Dr. Menkin), John Matthews (Dr. Cristo), Philip Ahn (Dr. Fong), Chuck Roberson (Wilkes), James Best (Stuart), Hari Rhodes (Trent), Gene Evans (Boden), Larry Tucker (Pagliacci).
BW & C-101m.
By James Steffen
Shock Corridor - Samuel Fuller's SHOCK CORRIDOR - The Criterion Collection Edition on DVD and Blu-Ray
Almost any Fuller film from the '50s is a jolting experience. A strong personality with a style developed from experience working on tabloid newspapers, Fuller has little interest in traditional Hollywood glamour and finesse. Much of I Shot Jesse James plays out in intense, claustrophobic close-ups. His movies are packed with personal views on Cold War politics and his love of American journalism. The petty crooks of Pickup on South Street refuse to play ball with the cops and the F.B.I., but they also hate Communists. The visuals in a Sam Fuller film can be seductive (Pickup's erotic opening subway scene) or politically audacious (Mt. Fuji framed between the boots of a dead American soldier in House of Bamboo) but they're always direct and unsubtle. French critics celebrated Fuller's style as pure cinema and later critics dubbed it with the term "Cinema Fist". Critic Andrew Sarris pegged him as "an authentic American primitive".
This brings us to a pair of independent Sam Fuller dramas made back-to-back in 1963. The first was filmed on a ten-day shooting schedule with scarcely more resources than an early Roger Corman production. If any film fits the criteria of auteur critics, Shock Corridor is it. Fuller directed, wrote the script and cast many of the roles with actors he'd worked with before. The picture takes place on only five or six interior sets, one of which was designed by the art director of Children of Paradise, Eugène Lourié. Shock Corridor may be Fuller's most extreme picture, a chaotically radical statement about American madness.
With the help of his editor and a friendly psychiatrist (Philip Ahn), reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck of Verboten!) has himself committed to an asylum. He hopes to learn the truth about an unsolved murder in the psycho ward, and write a story that will earn him a Pulitzer Prize. Johnny's steady girl Cathy, who works as a striptease singer (Constance Towers) cooperates only because she's afraid of losing his love: she tells the police that she is Johnny's sister, and that he is incestuously obsessed with her. The scheme works, and Johnny is installed in the asylum with dozens of real mental cases. Although the doctors sincerely want to cure their charges, the ward itself is not conducive to mental health -- when Johnny becomes irritable and unmanageable, he's forced to undergo shock treatment. Three patients witnessed the murder, and Johnny slowly gets them to say the name of the guilty party. Stuart (James Best) is a victim of brainwashing in Korea, and thinks he's a Civil War general. Trent (Hari Rhodes) is a black man but preaches white supremacy. And nuclear scientist Boden (Gene Evans of The Steel Helmet and Park Row), unable to face the consequences of his discoveries, has reverted to a six year-old mentality. Cathy is horrified to discover that Johnny's personality is disintegrating but he refuses to call off the hoax ... even when he experiences strange hallucinations, and begins to lose his ability to speak!
It's no wonder that Sam Fuller became a god to the French New Wave, as the director's overall approach to filmmaking seems intent on breaking cinema down into its basic building blocks. When measured against conventional feature work Shock Corridor often appears to be borderline incompetent. The first dialogue scene establishes the overall hysterical tone. Four people in a room take turns shouting reams of exposition about Johnny's planned undercover mission. Everybody talks like Sam Fuller, loading their sentences with literary and Bible allusions, often two to a sentence. Emotional and shallow, Fuller's dramatic style seems a psychological outgrowth of his comic-book action films of the 1950s.
Most of the acting is overacting, albeit pitched at a consistent level of hysteria. Peter Breck twists himself into a pretzel to perform Johnny's constantly changing moods. Fuller frequently thrusts the anguished faces of Breck and Constance Towers into the camera. None of it is believable but it's all of a piece. The movie comes off as a series of crazy exaggerations of "normal" dramatic scenes. The three witnesses (Hari Rhodes, James Best & Gene Evans) deliver excellent work; we're only made uncomfortable by Fuller's schematic, cliché-based conception of the mentally ill. To illustrate his thesis that America is a Looney Bin, Fuller populates the asylum with a pack of overacting freaks.
Ploys to keep the audience off-balance serve only to heighten the air of artificiality. Cathy sings a sensitive torch song while performing a vulgar strip act. Her costumed figure is later superimposed in miniature over the sleeping Johnny, taunting him. Johnny is bombarded by irrational patients, outbursts of violence and the overreactions of the ward attendants. Remove any of us from our comfort zone, and we'll crack up.
Fuller uses the asylum as a microcosm of an America haunted by topical psychoses -- the imperative to succeed, forbidden sex, the threat of Communism, racial injustice and nuclear annihilation. The difference between Sam Fuller and other "message" filmmakers is that Fuller writes in bold headlines, not subtle subtext. His memorable combat films aim right for disturbing issues other filmmakers won't touch. When he leaps into the civic debate, he's like the proverbial bull in a china shop, too brash to be believed.
Some quieter moments with Hari Rhodes and Gene Evans are actually touching, and players Frank Gerstle (a desk cop) and Chuck Roberson (a ward attendant) show admirable restraint. But more typical is the wild miscalculation of the scene where Johnny mistakenly walks into a room containing a number of dazed, melancholy women that pace about singing weakly. Just when we're thinking that this must be the dreaded Tennessee Williams ward, Fuller cuts to a close-up of Johnny's horror stricken eyes: "Nymphos!" This cues Johnny being mauled and scratched within an inch of his life by a pack of raving harpies. Even if one has so far suppressed the urge to laugh at Shock Corridor, this goes over the edge.
The disc's extras tout the endless corridor set by art director Lourié as a marvelous piece of visual trickery. It might be, if Fuller didn't show it so often. After the second cut it is obvious that the far stretch of hallway is occupied only by a pair of midgets that continually pace back and forth, no matter what the scene. Worse, Fuller spoils the designer's forced-perspective illusion by shifting his camera from the center line, revealing the corridor to be exactly what it is, a foreshortened set with a flat painting at the rear to continue the perspective to the vanishing point.
Otherwise, the cinematography of Stanley Cortez (The Night of the Hunter) serves Sam Fuller well. Rooms are flat-lit but all of the character close-ups are carefully modeled, in keeping with the director's emphasis on aberrant psychology. The asylum setting almost justifies this lack of continuity -- it's not unusual for Fuller to cut directly from a flat-lit medium shot of an actor, to a close-up with heavy dramatic lighting. Fuller and his collaborators do pull off one terrific effect with the corridor set, when Johnny hallucinates that it is awash with rain from a thunderstorm. This kind of delirious expressionism, providing a visual correlative to Johnny's growing insanity, was rare in American films of the time.
Shock Corridor may be crude and rude, but it is the work of genuine artist, a rare director who was able to make films that express his personal identity. Fuller had to give up ownership of the film and never saw his money from the producers, but in the long run Shock Corridor helped make his reputation. We think he got the better of the deal.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Shock Corridor is a perfect transfer of this low-budget B&W production, with widescreen framing that focuses our attention away from ceilings and floors of Fuller's cheap sets. The added sharpness shows the film's budget (as when solid walls shake like sets from an old Monogram picture) but also lets us see the details that Fuller spent his money to achieve, such as the expert fantasy superimposing of Cathy caressing Johnny's sleeping face, like a seductive Barbie doll. The film becomes even more eccentric when Fuller pops to squeezed color for two more asylum hallucinations, featuring 16mm footage he filmed while location hunting in Japan and South America a decade before.
Disc producer Susan Arosteguy fashions an attractive package of extras. Tim Robbins, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch and Martin Scorsese are on-screen for a 1996 documentary about Fuller's career, The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera. Actress Constance Towers appears in a lengthy interview. She talks about her work with Fuller on Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, as well as her entire career story up to and through her time working for John Ford. A trailer is included as well for the film's 1965 Allied Artists' release.
The insert booklet contains an essay by Robert Polito and some anecdotal excerpts from Fuller's autobiography A Third Face. The appropriately cartoonish disc illustration artwork is by Daniel Clowes.
For more information about Shock Corridor, visit Criterion Collection.
To order Shock Corridor on Blu-Ray, click here. To order it on DVD, click here.
by Glenn Erickson
Shock Corridor - Samuel Fuller's SHOCK CORRIDOR - The Criterion Collection Edition on DVD and Blu-Ray
The hallucination sequences include footage shot on location in Japan for House of Bamboo (1955), and footage shot by Samuel Fuller in Matto Grosso, Brazil for the unfinished film Tigrero (see Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made (1994).)
This film was selected to the National Film Registry, Library of Congress, in 1996.
The working title of this film is Straitjacket. Original title: Long Corridor.
Limited Release in United States February 13, 1998
Released in United States 1998
Released in United States August 8, 1991
Released in United States June 1998
Released in United States Summer June 1963
Shown at Avignon/New York Film Festival (Fuller Tribute) in New York City (French Institute) April 24 - May 3, 1998.
Shown at French-American Film Workshop in Avignon, France June 24-28, 1998.
The 1998 release is a restored print.
The hallucination sequence was shot in 16mm.
Released in United States 1998 (Shown at Avignon/New York Film Festival (Fuller Tribute) in New York City (French Institute) April 24 - May 3, 1998.)
Limited Release in United States February 13, 1998 (Film Forum; New York City)
Released in United States Summer June 1963
Released in United States June 1998 (Shown at French-American Film Workshop in Avignon, France June 24-28, 1998.)
Released in United States August 8, 1991 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum: Sam Fuller Retrospective) August 8, 1991.)