Like the eccentric David Lynch, the man who mangled dreams of pictorial suburbia with Blue Velvet (1986) and Twin Peaks (1990-91), iconoclast Samuel Fuller (1912-97) is deeply suspicious of picture-perfect Americana. Driven by the commonground sitting between idealism and the grotesque, he's obsessed with finding the darkness lurking beneath seemingly perfect white-picket-fenced small towns.
Fuller, an auteur who began his career (in 1949, with I Shot Jesse James) as a connoisseur of the Western and the film noir, arguably reached the top of his artistic valor with the one-two punch of 1963’s Shock Corridor and 1964’s The Naked Kiss. Two nightmarish, low-budget noirs that simplistically appear as B-level shockers but complexly stand as malevolent satires, the unofficial double feature prominently addresses the hypocrisies of American life and the way its bleakest underbellies oftentimes bleed into the mainstream.
The Naked Kiss, a psychological thriller and firm believer that you can find any frightening message in a Norman Rockwell painting if you look hard enough, deconstructed the mythologies of charming suburbia and came to the conclusion that monsters are always slinking around in the shadows; it doesn’t matter what your social standing or your reputation suggests. But that film was more inescapable night terror than outright cultural critique. You have to look for the meanings embedded in the celluloid.
Shock Corridor, by contrast, is a resolute lashing of the many insincerities of The American Dream, growing in its power the more you try to interpret its many symbolic layers.
It stars Peter Breck, in a fearless performance, as Johnny Barrett, an earnest crime reporter who decides that the only way he’s going to get himself a Pulitzer Prize is by investigating a murder that recently took place at his local mental hospital. Figuring it’d be easier to get to the heart of the truth by immersing himself in the situation rather than stand by as a mere observer, he goes undercover as a psychologically tortured proponent of incest, his stripper girlfriend (Constance Towers, the lead of The Naked Kiss) hesitantly pretending to be the sister and victim who brings her “familial troubles” to the attention of the police.
His professional dedication so ardent, Barrett puts on a performance that immediately convinces the asylum’s authorities of his faux hysteria. It isn’t long before he’s living alongside unhinged men whose instability seem to have more to do with being victims of society than with being stereotypically mad.
Initially, his decision seems conducive: he gets good intel and has plenty of time to refine the various profilings for the overreaching story. But as time passes, he starts feeling the effects that inevitably come when you’re surrounded by insanity that looms like air being breathed, causing both him and his always rational lady to ponder if getting ahead occupationally is really more important than the putting of one’s mental capacity on the line.
In a more traditional genre exercise, the murder that draws Barrett to the hospital in the first place would be the pivotal plot point, the thing that absorbs us the most. But obvious is that Fuller isn’t much concerned with the story Barrett intends to write nor the intrigue that lines the walls of the forever sanitized asylum. What sticks with us, and what makes Shock Corridor so interesting, are the interactions Barrett has with the three men who witnessed the murder, once brilliant minds who have since been riddled with derangement after finding themselves not able to psychologically handle the stresses put on them by a status quo dependent society.
One is a former soldier (James Best) who was brainwashed by his Korean opponents into becoming a Communist (and now believes he’s Confederate General J.E.B. Stewart). The next is a black man (Hari Rhodes) who thinks he’s white and a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The last is an atomic scientist (Gene Evans) who’s reverted to the mental state of a six-year-old.
But the soldier is only so damaged because he was taught racism as a child, changed his ways in adulthood, suffered PTSD during the war, and was tormented by the eventual dishonorable discharge that became him. The black man was one of the first African-American students to attend a newly integrated Southern university but was destroyed by the acrimony that buzzed around him on a regular basis. And the scientist’s psyche has been ravaged by the otherworldly stress that came with the knowledge of nuclear codes. Shock Corridor reminds us that you can do everything right, be a game-changer, and live up to the expectations set by The American Dream and still fall flat on your face when societal norms seem to contradict everything you’ve ever worked for.
But while its commentaries are ingeniously placed, Shock Corridor still manages to feel weirdly inconsequential, like a hellacious hallucination with a couple of soap box baiting moments to enliven the sum of its parts. I prefer The Naked Kiss, if only because its idiosyncrasies, similar to those of Shock Corridor, better suit its pulpy, distinctly ethereal stylistic cues. But Fuller’s artistic ticks, crushing criticisms, and glistening dialogue make it a fever dream to make the blood boil, the actors complementing his noirish sensibilities exquisitely. B