Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Shock Corridor

Shock Corridor (Samuel Fuller, 1963) If ever there was a title that needed an exclamation mark at the end of it, this was it. But, if you know Sam Fuller, gritty maverick director, and what he was trying to do with this bottom-of-the-barrel-budgeted pot-boiler, you know he probably wanted to call it simply "The Street," the nick-name for the communal "hallway" where the inmates of an insane asylum meet and greet...and interact, sometimes explosively, and reflect the madness of the world outside its walls.

Reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck, sometimes good, sometimes bad) is investigating the murder of a patient at an asylum, looking for an expose to win a Pulitzer. he's been training for a year to pull the wool over the diplomas of those weisenheimer shrinks so he can get inside. His editor, "Swannee," is all for it, but his stripper girl-friend Cathy (Constance Towers) thinks it's a bad, bad idea...real bad. But she plays along, posing as the worried sister whose fear of Johnny's "affections" creates the police report that sends him up (This is one of those police departments that doesn't do background checks, or investigations of any kind). Johnny's encarcerated as a sex maniac, and we're thrown into the sordid exploitation stuff of sadistic guards, colorful loonies, and perversions. At one point, Johnny stumbles upon the woman's ward (Fuller cuts to a bug-eyed Barrett, realizing his situation and in echoe-y voice-over says one, hilarious word--"Nympho's!") and then is set upon, "Daughters of Dracula"-style in a genuinely creepy scene. Fuller walks a razor-thin line of silly exploitation and truly daring social commentary that slaps you across the face, and you realize--he's serious! Sure, Cathy gets a performance scene as a stripper--although she it's a rather stodgy dance routine with a torch-song to go along with it (she's Mrs. Sam Fuller, after all, gotta keep the wife happy), but once we know one psychosis from another, and Johnny starts to interview the witnesses to the murder, Fuller starts doing something deeper than giving jollies to the mouth-breathers. His three murder witnesses are all victim's of the State's insanities. There's Stuart (James Best) a Korean war vet and victim of brainwashing but, as it's made clear, he's just as brainwashed by the racist upbringing he recieved growing up in the South. Then there's Boden (Gene Evans) genius missile engineer, whose so unhinged by the Mutually Assured Destruction scenarios his inventions have been targetted for, that he cracks to the abilities of a six year old child, capable only of drawing and playing hide-and-seek (although it looks suspiciously like duck and cover the way he plays it). Finally, in easily the best performance of the movie, is Hari Rhodes as Trent, a former student, allowed at gun-point to attend a previously integrated college, and in his efforts to be five times better than the white students, cracks under the pressure, becoming as bigotted as the protesters who tried to keep him out. Where Evans and Best can't seem to hurdle a mental block from turning their roles into melodrama, Rhodes plays it absolutely straight and he's the guy you remember.

Does all this actually lead to finding out who the murderer is, and what happens to Johnny? Well, I think you can guess given Fuller's cynical view of things. But he's trying to do more with it, and equate the U.S. circa 1963 with the trappings of an insane asylum. That's a brave statement, especially for a B-movie exploitation pic. But that's usually where Fuller preferred to be. He could rise above his genre and budget. There are times when the dialog tries so hard to rise above its exploitation roots and prove that it's read a book or two that it approaches Ed Wood ponderousness. But the trunk of the thing is a joy to behold, despite all the cheap tinsel and gaudy patter.

And along the way, Fuller scores a few hits against the psychiatric profession: the first shot is of a psychologist straightening his crooked diploma, and at one point during his psych evaluation, the prepped Johnny thinks "This is where he's going to ask if I hear voices.." and the shrink asks, "Johnny, do you ever hear voices?" It's a funny scene, but it also shows the limitations of the profession's pigeon-holing of individuals. (Hey, Tom Cruise! I got your next remake project for ya!)

Ultimately, History is the judge. This cheap little grindhouse flick is part of the National Film Registry. That's not voices you hear. It's the echoing cackle of Sam Fuller.

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