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Shock Corridor

by Peter Bogdanovich
October 5, 2011 4:26 AM
6 Comments
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Shock Corrider

Samuel Fuller was a real hero. Long before he ever directed a movie, he had already had an extremely rich and colorful life. He was a crime reporter for a New York tabloid, a published novelist, and then a corporal throughout America’s involvement in World War II, going wherever the First Infantry (known as “The Big Red One”) went, which was practically every major theater of operation in the western hemisphere. Sammy was on the beach at Normandy on D-Day, and at the liberation of concentration camps. Wherever he was, he usually carried a 16mm camera and filmed a great many of these events (as he would do throughout his life—including the first day my first-born child came home from hospital). Upon his return, he was suffering from noise fatigue and battle shock to such a degree that for a while he could not bear to hear even the tap of finger to table.

In 1949, Fuller began directing his own scripts with a distinctively off-beat Western, I Shot Jesse James. A couple of years later, he had his first hit with the independently produced Korean War film (the first to deal with that conflict), The Steel Helmet. From the start, Fuller’s pictures had an iconoclastic, hard-hitting pulp-fiction approach that combined boldly plotted melodrama with often sensational social themes. His unusually personal films, and his own maverick style in life—-extremely warm, but fiercely independent, pugnacious, loud, forceful and inexhaustible—-made him a hero to a number of disparate filmmakers, from Godard to Spielberg to Tarantino, from Martin Scorsese to Curtis Hansen.

To me, Sammy was a true pal, helped my career invaluably by essentially doing a complete rewrite of my first movie’s script (Targets) in about two hours, pacing back and forth in his living room. I reciprocated as best I could by helping to get one of his made (The Big Red One). But Fuller also gave me a few memorable filmmaking tips, including one I think of whenever preparing a picture: “Save your money for the finish, kid,” he said, and didn’t just mean that literally, since an ending transforms a picture, being what we are left with, and therefore of crucial importance.

One of Fuller’s most typical and adventurous works, if not among his best realized, is the wildly political Shock Corridor (available on DVD), a kind of harsh, surreal cartoon, combining Daumier and Dick Tracy. The outrageous plot: A newspaperman (Peter Breck) conspires, with the help of his editor and his extremely dubious girlfriend (Constance Towers), to get himself committed to an insane asylum in order to solve a brutal killing that happened there. The quote from Euripedes which opens and closes the movie gives a pretty good idea of where the story goes: “Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.” (The film-insider’s alternate is “Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make great in show business.”) The reporter gets his wish for glory and becomes, as someone says at the end, “The first Pulitzer Prize winner who’s mute and insane.”

On his way down the long corridor of the title, the reporter digs up information from three inmate witnesses to the murder: a nuclear scientist who’s now drawing pictures like a six-year-old (Gene Evans); a Southern Civil War fanatic who went over to the Russians during the Korean War (James Best); and a black man (Hari Rhodes) who has been driven to becoming a rabid racist, a hater of himself and all who are not “100% American.” When this character—-one of the best acted in an otherwise uneven ensemble—-puts on a Ku Klux Klan hood and starts spouting racist vitriol, the picture’s subversive intentions become clear, and the image it projects so ironically of America’s worst tensions is as sharp and vivid as a slap in the face.

Not all of the movie is as potent, some of the plot machinations are pretty implausible, and sometimes clumsily handled, yet the almost primitive simplicity of the bold and daring concept manages to prevail. Shock Corridor is a picture which, if presented in Polish or German with English subtitles, would be considered an unqualified masterpiece.

It isn’t quite that. The very best of Fuller includes all of his war pictures—-Spielberg claimed Fuller as his major influence on Saving Private Ryan—-and the riveting Richard Widmark crime melodrama, Pickup on South Street (see Picture of the Week 9/18/10), the bizarre Barbara Stanwyck western, Forty Guns, the viciously compelling Mafia film with Cliff Robertson, Underworld, U.S.A. These should be seen before Shock Corridor, which is for those of us who already love Sammy Fuller, and can see around its faults--its budgetary, casting, and time limitations--to the wonderfully exciting, strangely innocent, and deeply moral man within.

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6 Comments

  • Allan Maurer | October 27, 2011 5:28 AMReply

    My choices for Fuller's best films would be "Fixed Bayonets," with a cameo from James Dean of all people, and "Park Row," about the famous NYC newspaper street. But I think it was critic Manny Farber who warned, "You can't take his stuff seriously."

  • weivv | October 24, 2011 1:11 AMReply

    dfgdfg

  • CHrista Fuller | October 19, 2011 8:15 AMReply

    SHOCK CORRIDOR was shot in ten days ---- like an angry rap song....

  • Christopher Stilley | October 7, 2011 3:30 AMReply

    The Big Red One did a lot better on cable where it gained cult status...Trying to get people interested in a war picture in the late 70s must have seemed a hopeless task...However,its one of my fave Fuller pictures,a kind of throw back to the war films of the 40's,50's and 60s with edgy modern elements tied in with an excellent performance by Lee Marvin.

  • Casey | October 6, 2011 9:11 AMReply

    Shock Corridor is frustrating to watch. The ideas are fascinating and the best scenes are electrifying, but there are times when it just falls flat. Still, Fuller was one of the most original filmmakers of his time, and he deserves a lot of credit for the way he continually tried to challenge the audience. Recently I watched Crimson Kimono and Steel Helmet, both groundbreaking films in different ways. Fuller had his limitations as a filmmaker, but he was absolutely fearless as an artist.

  • Chris Barry | October 6, 2011 2:39 AMReply

    I recently watched Shock Corridor and was wowed by the sheer insane bravado of it all. My pick for best Blu-ray release of the year.

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