Friday, January 24, 2014

Some Idea of Crazy

Samuel Fuller's 1963 film Shock Corridor. What a mess. Kind of a fascinating mess, I suppose. It's like going downtown and listening to one of the wide-eyed, muttering homeless guys on a corner tell you about all the things he thinks are really important. Though it would have to be an inordinately polite specimen.

Constance Towers plays Cathy, a stripper who doesn't strip, who doesn't dance very well, and who says she hates her job. The mystery over how she is employed at all is only one of the Lake Erie sized plot holes in this movie. She pretends to be her boyfriend's sister so he, Johnny (Peter Breck), can be committed to an asylum when she tells the police about his violent incestuous urges. A plan that actually works because apparently the police make no effort to ascertain Cathy and Johnny's history or the two of them had a really elaborate set of stories and fake IDs we never see.

Johnny wants to get committed so he can interview the three inmates who witnessed a murder in the asylum kitchen. Johnny's a journalist and he hopes to win the Pulitzer Prize for this.

All three of the witnesses turn out to be mad for extremely topical reasons--one was brainwashed by Communists in North Korea; one is a black man who was one of the first integrated students who, cracking under pressure, became a white supremacist; one was a physicist who worked on the atom bomb and had a breakdown. All three have moments of sanity preceded by distorted colour documentary footage.

For a movie that doesn't seem like it gave much thought to its plot--presumably in favour of message--it spends an awful lot of time delivering exposition very awkwardly. We hear Johnny's thoughts in voice-over. The first time is when he's apparently telling himself who his boss and psychiatrist are and what they're doing as the scene opens.

I try to imagine Fuller directing Breck in this scene: "Imagine you're telling yourself who these people are as though you need to remind yourself."

The three witnesses also spend their moments of sanity to give Johnny a synopsis of who they are and what made them crazy. The guy who was brainwashed by Communists, who now usually thinks he's a Civil War era Confederate General, tells Johnny his parents never taught him to love the U.S. the way they ought to have and when he came in contact with an American prisoner in Korea who told him patriotic stories it reversed his brainwashing. Of course there's no explanation of how the brainwashing worked to begin with. As in (the far superior) Pick Up On South Street, one has the impression Fuller doesn't have a clear understanding of how Communism works in theory or practice.

Oh, I have to mention the scene with the "nymphos"--Johnny wanders into their room at one point and they hold him to the ground, proceeding to tear his shirt and bite him like animals. Look at the drawings on the walls:

The muscle man in tight shorts is particularly intriguing. I don't think these nymphos ever heard of sex.

Johnny starts to lose his mind during all this. He loses his ability to speak and refuses to let Cathy kiss him on the mouth when she visits which she for some reason interprets as meaning he's really starting to think she's his sister. I would have assumed he simply wanted to avoid blowing his cover. I'm actually not sure if Cathy was confused here or the movie was confused.

Johnny seems to go crazy for absolutely no reason. The movie drops vague hints about how the atmosphere of the asylum made him crazy. There's a director named Tim Hunter who writes in this Criterion essay for Shock Corridor, "As the film unfolds, though, the purity of the hero’s mission is undercut by his own monomaniacal ego, and the delusions of omnipotence that mask the darkest secrets of his soul. In Breck’s moving performance, Johnny becomes one of the great doomed figures of modern day film noir—unwittingly pursuing a killer at the expense of his own sanity." Well, he is there trying to win a Pulitzer, but there's nothing else actually in the movie to support Hunter's interpretation nor does he actually cite an example of a scene where we see this cause and effect.

Shock Corridor has a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes--though with only four "top critics", none of whom I've heard of and none of their reviews are classified as rotten or fresh. I really like Pick Up on South Street but, between Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, I'm starting to think Samuel Fuller may be a bit overrated.

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