“Shock Corridor is not only outright trash, but stands also as one of the most vicious and irresponsible pieces of film-making that the screen has given us in years.” This kind of American review, which characterised Sam Fuller as a semi-fascist vulgarian – a yellow journalist translating himself into a purple film-maker – was once so prevalent that when the French started fashioning him into an auteur on the same level as Nicholas Ray, another of their saints, absurdity seemed to be being piled upon absurdity.
There is no doubt that Fuller was a remarkable film-maker. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept every film he made as some kind of gospel. You certainly can’t accept Shock Corridor as such. But I defy anyone to see it for the first time and not be in some way amazed by its energy or even by its passionate crudity.
Johnny, the central character, is a crime reporter, like Fuller once was. A man called Sloane has been murdered in a mental hospital and he persuades his editor that he should be passed off as insane to get inside the asylum, solve the case and win the Pulitzer prize. Cathy, his stripper girlfriend – “Her body is a symphony, her legs a rhapsody,” according to the screenplay – is reluctantly forced to say that she’s his sister and he’s been making incestuous advances. After questioning, he’s admitted for sexual therapy.
But faced by the inmates, one of whom was once a genius who helped make the atomic bomb and who may or may not have witnessed the murder, Johnny’s own mind begins to snap. Attacked by voracious patients in the nympho ward, he starts to believe Cathy really is his sister and he’s given shock treatment. In the end he finds the killer, looks like getting his Pulitzer prize but is too insane even to feel Cathy’s desperate hug.
Such a story, if put before your average producer now, would be laughed out of court. It’s trashy, lurid and preposterous. But you can’t take your eyes off the screen because, despite the tatty sets and often ludicrous lines, the film-making is incredibly brave, direct and furious. The whole film is like a thunderstorm. What does it say? Not a lot about mental asylums, awful as they probably were at the time; but, when you consider the patients, quite a lot about America.
One of them let down his country as a soldier in Korea and was branded a traitor, another couldn’t stand the pressures of being a black guinea-pig at an all-white Southern college, a third realised what he had done working on the A-bomb. As for Johnny, he is obsessed not with justice but with his own ambition. The only truly sympathetic character in the movie is Cathy, the stripper. If her mouth is a tunnel, as the screenplay suggests, it’s the only one that speaks consistent sense.
Possibly Fuller made better films, such as The Naked Kiss and Pick Up on South Street. Shock Corridor, though, is a good introduction to the artless art of a true original. I did two Guardian interviews with him at the National Film Theatre, when he was a still incredibly energetic old man. But by then, chewing his regulation cigar and spitting out aphorisms, he had cast himself in the guise expected by his adoring fans. Vastly entertaining as it was, you couldn’t get beyond that to the real man. Truffaut put his worth as well as any. “Sam Fuller,” he wrote, “is not a beginner, he is a primitive; his mind is not rudimentary, it is rude; his films are not simplistic, they are simple, and it is this simplicity I most admire.”