Saturday, 28 May 2011

Shock Corridor (1963) - Samuel Fuller

Sam Fuller at his pulpy best. Shot in a Cormanesque 10 days on just a handful of sets, on the surface this is an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents spun out to feature film length. The story is pretty simple - a patient (Slone) is murdered in a mental home, three patients witnessed said murder and Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) a journalist with an eye on wining a Pulitzer, feels that if he can smuggle himself into the hospital by acting crazy he can interview them and solve the crime. As I said it's Fuller at his pulpy best. It's never explained why the police haven't interviewed the witnesses, or even how Barrett knows about them in the first place, and let's not even start to question the fact that the testimonies of three mental patients would never stand up in court.

Of course all of the above is just what you see if you watch the film, but you don't have to look so very far under the surface to see that the mental hospital is actually post WWII America in microcosm, or at least the problems that America was going through at the time. So as Barrett moves his way through the film trying to solve the mystery, we get monologues about Communism, the after effects of war, life during the nuclear age and something that crops up in Sam's work fairly regularly - racism. In fact it's Trent played by Hari Rhodes who is the highlight of the cast for me. He gets some real choice lines and believes that he is the founder of the KKK, despite of course the fact that he's black. It's a champion idea and Fuller runs with it.

Of the rest of the cast Peter Breck as Johnny Barrett is massively over the top as characters sometimes are in Fuller's films, he's watchable but it's not such a surprise to see that he never really made a career in films and drifted back to TV work. I'd love to have seen Richard Widmark play Barrett instead, but that's just me I guess. Constance Towers as Cathy was also pretty good, she's the only female in the film really, but she gets quite a lot to do and manages to make her scenes memorable. It's the background actors that are the real joy of the film though, there's a fair bit of dribbling & screaming 'I'm fucking nuts me' type acting, but there are also some great little moments in there too.

Of course Sam Fuller was a journo before becoming a director, so I can imagine the story kind of wrote itself once the initial idea had been formed. I don't think the script is really where this film soars though, it's much more the way it's shot, all faces in half shadow, or just a strip of light across the eyes and noirish shadows in every background. Which isn't all the surprising when you see that it was lensed by the Godlike Stanley Cortez. There are shots towards the end of the film that look like they have been lifted by Kubrick for The Shining - which is after all another film about mental illness. Not important that, but interesting to me at least. As is the fact that there's always a crooked picture in the doctors offices, the film even begins with a picture being straightned. It's not too hard once you've seen the film to see what connection they have to the story, but it's a cool little touch.

You'll see the end coming a mile off, but that doesn't spoil the fun of the film. After all you get the 60's equivalent of the fight between Roddy Piper and Keith David from They Live, it just seems to go on forever. Oh and there's the best line of the film too - Nymphos!

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