July 8th: Electric Boogaloo

Shock Corridor

143. Shock Corridor (Sam Fuller, 1963)

Sam Fuller had a bit of a problem with censorship throughout his career. Shock Corridor was banned for release in Britain by the BBFC because it dealt with issues of mental health in such an explicit fashion, a big taboo alongside sex and violence in those days. Peter Breck plays Johnny Barrett, a reporter hell bent on winning a Pulitzer prize to the extent that he will con his way into a mental institution in order to solve the murder that took place there. It’s a pulpy noirish plot that is used as a framework for Sam Fuller to drape a blanket of lurid sleazy images over. Johnny’s girlfriend, Cathy, is a burlesque stripper. In order to get Johnny into the asylum she pretends to be his sister and therefore the object of a dysfunctional desire. Fuller makes this desire as confusing as possible because the longer Johnny is in the asylum and the closer he gets to discovering the killer, the more his mind fractures under the strain.

Coated in seedy, lurid overtones and willing to display the madness of the situation in full, Shock Corridor is the kind of B-Movie that is so much smarter than it lets on. The three inmates that Johnny attempts to get information out of each represent a key facet of American culture at the time. The first is a veteran of the Korean war who has been so disillusioned by the Cold War’s ideological attrition that he has reverted to the mind of a Civil War general, a war where American’s fought each other. The second is a man whose mind was so pressured by being the first black student at a Southern white college that he envisions the racial hatred as justified. He spouts Klan ideologies to the other inmates and sparks a bizarre attempted lynching. The final inmate is a former Army officer so consumed by fear of the atomic bomb that he has receded mentally to the comfort of behaving like a child.

Smart stuff Mr Fuller and brave too. Shock Corridor shows the hospital as the microcosm of American society and suggests that America is a chamber pot of seething madness and noise. Was he right? Was the delirious hope of the 50s/60s really giving the signals already that America’s innocence was on the wane, was he predicting the messy destruction of this optimism in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam? I think he was and I think he wrapped it up in an excellent sleazy little B-movie with enough fast paced action, suggestive sexual tension and sheer madness to sell it to the thrill-seeker audience.

Note: Shock Corridor is listed in the Neon book 1000 Essential Movies on Video under Mental Movies.

Second Note: The posters for this film are excellent and from an era where foreign distributors often chose to vary, alter or completely re-do film posters. This is the excellent French poster.