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Shock Corridor
cast: Peter Breck, Constance Towers, Gene Evans, James Best, and Hari Rhodes

writer, producer, director: Samuel Fuller

101 minutes (18) 1963
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Peter Schilling
This second movie in the DVD double-bill features Constance Towers, who also starred in The Naked Kiss. Initially banned by the BBFC, Shock Corridor has long since been elevated beyond mere cult status, and acclaimed by the likes of Derek Malcolm and Tom Milne. Excepting The Crimson Kimino (1959), I think Shock Corridor is by far the bravest and most impressive of Sam Fuller's early pictures, and the director only bettered this exercise in savage humour when he returned to filmmaking with the semi-autobiographical war story, The Big Red One (1980).
   Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) is the ambitious undercover journalist who gets himself committed to an asylum (with the help if a news editor and a psychiatrist) where he plans to identify the murderer of another inmate. Overcoming the legal objections and ignoring the anguished protests of his girlfriend, Cathy (Towers) - a glamorous stripper who appears on stage in repeated nightclub scenes, Johnny submits to the repressive rules of the madhouse, chatting amiably to the weird and crazy patients suspected of witnessing the murder. He's slightly anxious yet fiercely determined and almost swaggeringly confident that he can pull off the scheme, and there are several darkly amusing moments in the drama's middle section, as Pulitzer Prize hopeful Johnny flatters, befriends, and subtly questions his fellows in the locked wards.
   But, following brief downtime in a straightjacket and his physical - if not mental - survival of electroconvulsive therapy, our paranoiac hero goes quietly (or noisily, depending on whether viewed from inside or outside of his head) insane, from the overwhelming emotional pressures of maintaining his pretence...
   Much has been written about Shock Corridor as a metaphor for the lunacy and brittleness of modern American life, and the asylum here does present a salt and sour microcosm of the US, with the chronic madness of its characters offering carnivalesque mirror views of familiar American stereotypes. The perfect meshing of such elements as the increasingly frantic voiceover, and the superb black and white camerawork by Stanley Cortez (though the film does include a couple of colourful 'dream' sequences), effortlessly carries us towards the 'fantastic' conclusion, where Johnny stumbles wretchedly down the suddenly deserted corridor, terrified and alone while an indoor thunderstorm rages around him. After this unnerving scene, the more overtly tragic epilogue, where Cathy pathetically enfolds herself into a motionless and mute puppet-Johnny's embrace, while the doctor explains his diagnosis of 'catatonic schizophrenia' is hardly necessary. One of the gloomiest finales in all cinema history is even grimmer when we recall the vain main character's original self-assured willingness to attempt his peculiarly secret mission.
   This film's defiance of conventional screen depictions of mental illness, and its inherent darkness means it does not belong in the same archly feelgood category as bittersweet yet goofy comedies like Forman's Oscar-laden One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Zieff's acerbic satire The Dream Team (1989). Fuller's hysterically disconcerting stab into the Freudian nexus is closer to Altman's war opus M*A*S*H (1970), in its unflinchingly cynical, mordantly perverse, attitude and explicitly psychological details, if not the latter's burlesque irreverence.
   The DVD extras include: film notes, biography, filmography and a text excerpt from an in-depth, previously published, interview with Fuller (who died in 1997), plus filmographies of Breck and Towers, and a stills gallery.

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