Once upon a time, this installment of Scenic Routes was going to star a gaggle of homicidal nymphomaniacs. Those of you who’ve seen Shock Corridor—arguably Samuel Fuller’s most bugfuck movie, and that’s saying something—can confirm that I’m not remotely exaggerating for effect. They leer, they lust, they devour. I’d only seen the film once, back in 1998, and while I loved it pretty much from start to finish, it was definitely the hero’s unfortunate visit to the nympho ward that wound up lodged most securely in my memory. Still, I figured I might as well rewatch the whole thing, if only for context’s sake, since it had been a while. And midway through one of the most startling and vituperative and downright ballsy anti-racist broadsides ever to emerge from the thick of the Civil Rights era, I found myself with a whole new agenda. Maybe I was just too young and ignorant for this schizoid sermon to properly register the first time; now its forthrightness strikes me as visionary.
On its largely uninteresting (if still enjoyably zany) surface, Shock Corridor is the tale of an investigative reporter, Peter Breck, who goes undercover in an asylum in order to discover who committed a murder there some time earlier. Posing as an incestuous fetishist, he sells his phony psychosis to the staff while simultaneously cozying up to the crime’s three witnesses, all of whom are well off their respective rockers. The identity of the killer is strictly a MacGuffin, but then so is Breck’s predictable (if still enjoyably zany) descent into no-kidding madness as he throws himself ever more fervently into his role. What interests Fuller is the variety of ways in which he can use the inmates to reflect the sickness of America’s soul. One witness was brainwashed by Communists and now believes himself to be a Confederate soldier. Another was so traumatized by his contribution to the atomic bomb that he’s regressed to early childhood. And the third…well, take a look for yourself.
Bracing, no? That’s Hari Rhodes, perhaps best remembered as the sole sympathetic human in Conquest Of The Planet of the Apes, doing his best Sidney Poitier impression opposite Breck, and the sheer ferocity of this single scene makes most of Poitier’s noble vehicles from that time look even more tepid and sanctimonious by comparison. The concept alone deserves some sort of special citation for inventive didacticism. What better way to underline the absurdity of racial hatred than to put it in the mouth of a complete lunatic? How better to defamiliarize the issue than to jolt the audience out of its complacency by depicting that odious mindset as an act of self-hatred, as the product of a mind so overwhelmed by unjustified vitriol that it turned upon itself? Most of us automatically tune out when someone starts spouting blatant nonsense; here, Fuller makes the garden-variety bigotry of his day so in-your-face outlandish that its ludicrous import can’t help but sink in. (“Let’s get him before he marries my daughter!”)
In truth, for those of us under 60 or so, it’s difficult even to imagine how Shock Corridor played at the time of its initial release. It opened on September 11, 1963—three months to the day after George Wallace made his pathetic anti-integration stand at the University of Alabama, precisely two weeks after Martin Luther King, Jr. announced that he had a dream. As over-the-top as Rhodes’ language in this scene seems from today’s perspective, I’m guessing that it would have sounded almost commonplace to some contemporary audiences, apart from its unexpected source. (I wasn’t around, so do correct me if you know otherwise.) In any case, that something this weirdly inflammatory was made from the front line of the Civil Rights movement, rather than from a comfortable retrospective distance, boggles the mind. It’s as if, say, Good Night, And Good Luck had been shot and released in 1953, well before the Army-McCarthy hearings and the Senate censure. Fuller had no use for polite, measured dissent; his aggressively messy tabloid style was more akin to a spiked cudgel.
Which, it must be said, many people once felt he wielded with all the athletic grace of a one-armed alcoholic lemur. Reading the occasional fleeting remark about the wildly divisive opinions of Fuller’s work in the ‘60s makes me wish there’d been a blogosphere back then. Mainstream American critics generally considered Fuller an overwrought hack: “The film is dominated by sex and shock superficialities,” sniffed Variety of Shock Corridor, accusing its maker of “mistaking sordidness for realism.” (How anyone ever saw this movie as realistic I have no idea.) The then-fledgling auteurist brigade, on the other hand, championed Fuller’s raw energy, insisting that his films’ alleged flaws—the outsize performances, the sometimes stridently literal dialogue, the oft-choppy visual syntax—were indivisible from their exhilarating passion and brio and nerve. In their view, and in mine, to get hung up on niceties of verisimilitude and craft is to miss the point entirely. Just strap yourself in.
That view ultimately triumphed—so much so that you’ll find the DVD for Shock Corridor (and Pickup on South Street, and The Naked Kiss, and White Dog) in the Criterion section. But I think it tends to give Fuller too little credit, as if he blindly blundered his way into awesomeness again and again by sheer force of will. Granted, some elements of his movies flirt a bit with camp; defending the nympho scene as more than unintentional comedy, as I’d originally planned, would have presented quite a challenge. But his emphasis on vitality at the expense of elegance reminds me of Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 phase, when he suddenly stopped fretting about eyelines and the 180-degree rule and other allegedly crucial matters and just used whatever take struck him as the most honest. It’s not that Fuller doesn’t know when his movies cliff-dive into Excess Bay; it’s that he doesn’t give a damn, because the emotional effect he’s after just can’t be achieved via ordinary, rule-following means.
And he achieves effects I rarely see in anybody else’s work. When Rhodes stands on the bench near the end of the scene and launches into his KKK recruitment speech, Breck, who’s waiting for Rhodes to have a lucid interlude so he can be questioned about the murder, remains seated, silently watching. Another inmate takes up a standing position to Breck’s right (our left), and when Rhodes cries “America for Americans!” this other nut echoes the cry, at which point Breck suddenly stands in apparent alarm. Fuller and his editor, Jerome Thoms, create this moment in a way that’s “wrong” by conventional standards (even today), cutting rapid-fire from a low angle of Rhodes to a medium shot of Breck, still seated, and then to a close-up of the other inmate, seen in profile on the left half of the screen with negative space on the right, into which Breck abruptly looms a fraction of a second before we cut back to Rhodes. Try that sequence in any editing class in the country and see what kind of response you get. And yet the “mistakes”—establishing Breck still seated for a split second before having him lunge upward into the frame in the next shot, and then cutting away before his unexpected presence can even register—are precisely what create such an unusually vivid sense of impending violence, much like the now-ubiquitous jump cut. Fuller’s films, with few exceptions, are highly sophisticated in their crudity. And that’s a damn sight better than being crudely sophisticated, which is what we mostly get around Oscar season.
What’s that? You say you want to see the goddamn nymphos too? Oh, very well then.