Shock Corridor – Written Dir Prod Sam Fuller 1963 –
Peter Breck, Constance Towers.
Viewed on 16mm print at Side Cinema, Newcastle June 6 2004 by Adrin NeatrourShock Corridor – Written Dir Prod Sam Fuller 1963 –
Peter Breck, Constance Towers.
Viewed on 16mm print at Side Cinema, Newcastle June 6 2004 by Adrin Neatrour
The overt story here is that a newspaper reporter – Peter Breck – goes undercover into a mental hospital to find out who murdered man called Sloan who had been a patient in the hospital. The purpose of the reporter’s quest is to win ‘the Prize’. In Shock Corridor the Prize is not ‘an apple from the tree of life’ or ‘water from the well of youth’, but ‘the Pullizter’ America’s most prestigious award for outstanding investigative jounalism. The story from its opening fake psychiatric session, in which Breck is being coached by a psychiatrist friend to play the part of an incestuou s brother who is fixated at an early age on his sister’s ‘braids ‘ (Goldilocks), has a distorted mythic/fairy tale like structure – the architypal quest. Donning the mantel of insanity the reporter has to pass into and through the rings of hell in order that he may return to claim his Prize. The trophy he covets is public acclaim and recognition of himself as hero. Breck is a loner in the Hollywood tradition of the individual driven to achieve his goal but caste by Fuller into the quasi mythic realm of fairytale the story is given a psychic twist that jolts it into dimension that undermines its Hollywood format. The film is a journey into the madness of America, a Dantesque descent. A film in which America is a lunatic asylum in which the victims of communist witch hunts, race and the military industrial interests are opponents of social mechanisms that conspire to destroy their minds. However its most powerful visual component is the specific use made of superimpositions of the ‘Beatrice image’ in the form of Cathy, Breck’s girl friend who poses as his sister. As Breck lies on his hospital cot at night his demon conjures the presence of Cathy beside him and the sequences are burnt through with a radioactive element of incestuous eroticism. The pretext for Breck’s forced hospitalisation is the claim by his girlfriend Cathy that she is his sister and that he has incestuous designs on her. Cathy -the sister/ girl friend stripper, madonna/ whore role is played out with high octane carnal charge by Constance Towers. In Breck’s dreams she appears in superimposition hot and close to his body. Her image in these sequences is suspended in space and time and like x-rays burn into Brecks consciousness brazenly flaunting the sexual contradictions of a culture that has two dominant female roles – virgin and slut. A culture which not only expects women to perform both parts in the appropriate setting, but which in the filmic world of the American male imagination has no other roles for women. Certainly Fuller’s depiction of Breck’s splitting male ego, is as a schizoid response to these inherent contradictions, the double bind Breck experiences in trying to contain these two polar ideas within the persona of Cathy. The end result of the process for Breck is violence and catatonia – total emotive investment (confusion of you/me) followed by complete emotional withdrawal(total immobility). Fuller in his powerful use of erogenous superimposition points directly to the decontextualised nature of the female and the price paid for this process. As Breck moves through the rings of hell he encounters America as machine that destroys its finest minds at the point where they experience the contradictions which like fault lines lie just beneath the surface of this society. The inherent tensions between phantom recognition of equality and engrained racial oppression, between the coercive military imperative to build an empire of death and the individual conscience, between state certainty of its invincablility and individual confusion. These inherent and multiplying oppositions between the ideal and the actual create chasms of insanity into which those unable to internally resolve the flow of contradictions, disappear. The most brilliant sequence depicting this process is the ‘race riot’. In this section the hospitalised young black civil rights champion takes on the mask of a Klu Klux Klan leader and incites the inmates into a lynching mob against the only other black patient. Introducing this sequence are a number of archive/ documentary shots of what I think was a New Guinea village. The figures in this sequence are dressed in their extraordinary constumes and as a presage of what is to come act as prefatory images to the lynching sequence giving context to situations in which peoples are both broken up in and by space and time and exist eternally through time in memory. People who have lost everything can still remember what they once were. Even shards of reliquary documentary footage have this power. Breck’s descent into the circles of madness is motivated solely by the prospect of attaining his pure self ordained intrumental ends. A fairy tale architype terminally distorted by Hollywood scripting: the enthronement of the individual success. Breck is fixated on finding out who murdered Sloan – who Sloan was matters not; all that is important to Breck is the instrument of his death. Breck’s fixation on his own personal desire to get the Prize, leads him to purely exploitative relationships with his respondents. The inmates only exist to supply him with the leads that he needs to take him to Sloan who takes him to ‘the Prize’. Overwhelmed by his desire he cannot hear their voices. He is deaf to their real story told in their real voice as his cynically manoeuvres and manipulates the patients to get the information that he needs. Uninterested in what they tell him he leaves them who desperately need voice, without voice. Finally having squeezed them for facts he abandons them ever more deeply embedded in their schizoid states than when he first encounters them. Betrayed. For Breck the final sum of the totality of contradictions and betrayals experienced within the insane asylum is the loss of his own voice. He who uncoupled the stories of the voices that spoke to him from what he wanted to hear (in the tradition of poetic justice) pays physically with the price of his own voice. The detachment of the means of expression from the actuality experienced conducts Breck into a state of muteness. As the doctor of charge of the hospital says: “ It’s tragic: he’s the first Pullitzer Prize winner who’s a schizophrenic mute.” At the heart of the film lies a deluge of truly Biblical proportion as Breck hallucinates that the asylum has been overwhelmed by the realm of water: a realm that at once cleanses and is a reminder not to forget. The section is fine piece of film, it succeeds in having the intensity of eschatological prophecy, it feels like the end of the world. The sequence is suberbly shot and crafted using post production superimposition of lightening to direct Olympian bells and bolts intimately and directly at the crazed Breck. The use of supereimposition of lightening with an erotically charged personal intensity mirrors the earlier images of Cathy, in fact they are like the return of the female furies, conjured by Breck, who after driving him insane with their body now return in the form of pure electrical presence to turn his body to immobile stone. This Flood in total seems to be part of the deeper circuity of the film that channels the film into phases of forgetting and remembering, remembering and forgetting, forgetting to remember and remembering to forget. The characters forget and remember what has happened to them, they forget and remember who and what they are. Shock Corridor seems to have as the primal charge coursing through its circuitry the Nietzschean idea of eternal recurrence. All this remembering and forgetting all these cosmic reminders are the destiny of the damned forever to repeat the experience of history. Shock Corridor is framed within its opening and closing shots. The film opens with a caption on which is written a quote from Euripides: “Those whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad.” The film closes with a caption on which is written a quote from Euripides: “Those whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad.” Adrin Neatrour June2004