Not a guy to mince words, two-fisted writer-director Samuel Fuller began (and ended) his tabloid classic "Shock Corridor" with a spurious quote from Euripides: "Whom God wishes to destroy he first makes mad." But he might just have well taken his epigraph from Allen Ginsberg's "Howl": "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked …"
In 1951, Fuller had the scoop on the Korean War with "The Steel Helmet." With "Shock Corridor," released 50 years ago this month, the former crime reporter had the scoop on the '60s. Conceived and produced during the run-up to America's decade-long season of domestic violence, "Shock Corridor" is the movie in which the hard rain first began to fall, accompanied by electrode-induced thunder and lightning, to flood the mental hospital in which it is set.
Fuller's script, originally titled "Lunatic," was written in the late '40s and offered to Fritz Lang. The premise, based on a famous late 19th century journalistic stunt, had a reporter feign madness to expose a murder committed in an insane asylum. By the time the scenario reached the screen, however, it had become topical — the events of late 1962 and early 1963, including the Cuban missile crisis and the escalating struggle for civil rights, had percolated in writer-director-producer Fuller's imagination.
The ambitious reporter (Peter Breck), who persuades his stripper girlfriend (Constance Towers) to pose as his sister and have him put away for attempted incest, is already half-mad. The stripper is meant to be the voice of reason. She naturally recognizes that the hero's plan is insane and tells him so in distinctively Fullerian prose: "I'm fed up playing Greek chorus to your rehearsed nightmare… Don't be Moses leading your lunatics to the Pulitzer Prize."
Haunted by doomsday visions, the mental hospital is a tabloid version of America — a place where war games and race riots are played out on the central corridor, a.k.a. the Street, as in Main Street. Or put another way, America is imagined as bedlam. At once compelling and incoherent, "Shock Corridor" was shot entirely in interior — the outside world only present as hallucination. It's a movie that regularly, if unpredictably, breaks free from its narrative straitjacket and erupts into mayhem.
Social pathology merges with individual delusion. The three witnesses to the murder are a guilt-ridden nuclear physicist regressed to age 5, a brainwashed Korean War traitor imagining himself a heroic Confederate general and the first black student to integrate a Southern university, who believes he founded the Ku Klux Klan and, in true split personality fashion, crafts signs directed at himself: "Black foreigners can't breathe our white air and go to school with our white children."
The journalist is no less maniacal. He takes the Korean War vet's pathetic sob that the press kept "hounding me, hounding me" as the cue for his own hard questioning and ultimately solves the case in a burst of irrationality, beating a confession out of the murderer. As a result, he wins the Pulitzer Prize and a lifetime assignment in the mental hospital, where he is last seen rendered speechless, an "insane mute."
Shock Corridor was an LSD bummer before the term was coined.
A living nightmare
As a critic, I tend to think in double bills: the contemporaneous social disaster epics "Jaws" and "Nashville," the hallucinatory brutalism of "The Passion of the Christ" and "Land of the Dead," the artful hysteria of "Shock Corridor" — a movie, in which Fuller got final cut, wherein no shot is wasted, every camera angle is designed to discomfit, and the dialogue reliably boggles the mind — and the angst-ridden artiness of Ingmar Bergman's similarly claustrophobic exercise in psychological sensationalism, "The Silence."
If "The Silence," which premiered only days after "Shock Corridor," is a case study, "Shock Corridor" is an editorial cartoon literalizing the idea of a sick society. Bergman believes that humanity has a sick soul. For Fuller, it's America. Like "The Silence," "Shock Corridor" is a search for meaning in an indifferent universe, except that Fuller's protagonist — or alter ego — cracks up. America 1963 was so sick that, following the logic of the contemporaneous cult novel "Catch-22," the hero has to be crazy to solve the mystery, or even want to.
Not long after "Shock Corridor" wrapped, Gov. George Wallace became a national figure by blocking the two black students who were to integrate the University of Alabama. President Kennedy was compelled to take a public stand against segregation; the night he made his televised address, a white supremacist shot and killed NAACP leader Medgar Evers in Mississippi. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. prepared to march on Washington in support of the civil rights bill, Wallace warned that should it pass, Congress would have to withdraw American troops from Berlin and Vietnam to keep order at home.
"Shock Corridor" was independently produced and released by B-movie specialists Allied Artists in New York in September 1963, two weeks after King delivered his speech and four days before the Sunday morning church bombing that killed four black children in Birmingham, Ala. Soon after the movie opened in Los Angeles, U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson was heckled and spat upon in Dallas. In November, South Vietnam's president, Ngo Dinh Diem, was assassinated. Then, so was JFK.
King had spoken of his dream, Fuller dramatized the nightmare — and naturally, not everyone was prepared to see it.
"'Shock Corridor' Should Never Have Been Made," one New York review began. The movie was not simply "outright trash" but "one of the most vicious and irresponsible pieces of film-making that the screen has given us in many years." Variety opined that Fuller was "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 sensational that his message is devastated."
Call him Cassandra. "Shock Corridor" was a flop and its scarcely less lurid follow-up "The Naked Kiss" (Towers as a hooker who leaves the life only to discover that the richest, most respectable guy in the idyllic small town where she's moved is a predatory pedophile) did even worse. Fuller's career stalled for 15 years, depriving us of the fantastic '60s films he surely would have made.
J. Hoberman, the former longtime film critic of the Village Voice, is the author of "Film After Film (Or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema?," out in paperback this fall.