Friday, July 28, 2006

Shock Corridor (Fuller, 1963)

There’s a compelling statement at the core of Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor. A journalist has himself admitted to a mental hospital in order to gain access to three patients who were witness to a murder. These patients with their particular idiosyncratic behaviors represent the paranoia and guilt of America at the middle of the twentieth century. First, there is a man who believes that he is a Confederate general. He is also fiercely anti-Communist and is disappointed to discover that he himself betrayed his own country by becoming a Communist. Second, there is a young black man who spews vile racist rhetoric and even imagines that he has created the Ku Klux Klan. And, finally, there is the nuclear scientist who has regressed to the mentality of a child. Once we start to make the connection between these three characters, it becomes hard to see Fuller’s setting as merely what it seems on the surface. There’s a deeper purpose here. When we remember the Euripides quote that precedes the film – “Whom God wishes to destroy, he first makes mad” – it becomes clear that Fuller is issuing a warning for his time. Not only is the United States saturated with madmen he seems to say, but those who still retain their wits are in danger of being immersed and transformed.

Unfortunately, all this is buried beneath execution that varies dramatically from genuinely effective to horribly grating to unintentionally comic. Fuller’s asylum is reminiscent of the Monty Python sketch in which all of mental patients suffer from the same affliction – overacting. Peter Breck, in the lead role as the investigating journalist, is the worst offender. His performance style is over-the-top even in his quieter moments. When the time comes for him to convince the medical staff of his mental instability, he really lets loose, chewing not only the scenery, but the boom mike and several unfortunate crew members. Breck is not alone however, as Fuller has instructed his actors to shoot for a performance style that is all affectation and no honesty. One only has to look to the loonies of Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade to see how Fuller’s suffer by comparison. Hari Rhodes fares best in the role of Trent, the black student who believes himself to be a white supremacist. His performance leads what is by far the film’s most captivating sequence in which he protests school integration, dons a white hood and then leads a race riot directed against a fellow member of his own race. This scene points to the chilling experience Shock Corridor might have been with less meandering, more carefully observed performances and more focus on communicating the dark themes that drive the film’s script. As it is, Shock Corridor lands only a glancing blow, making it a somewhat engaging curiosity, but not an experience that is likely to linger.

**1/2

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