Few directors in American cinema have ever been as revered and influential as Sam Fuller; a maverick who worked in the low budget B film with very pulpy material to explore taboo and controversial subjects. An outspoken critic on the Korean War, the red scare, and southern racism, Fuller’s films often mirrored his 0wn political views, giving artistic merit and social relevance to material that would otherwise have been labeled as schlock. Few times has a director working in the genre ever been so revered and a common influence on some of the greatest filmmakers ever like Martin Scorsese and Jean-Luc Godard (who even gave Fuller a cameo role in his film Pierrot le fou). It’s the reason a film like Shock Corridor, Fuller’s mental hospital psychodrama, is hard to dismiss as just another product of B exploitative cinema of the era.
The film’s plot which follows a journalist named Johnny Barrett, played by Peter Breck, who commits himself into a mental institution in order to investigate a murder that took place inside, feels secondary to Fuller’s original intentions. The mystery at the heart of Shock Corridor, the murder of a character named Sloan, is not what interests Fuller nor the audience; Its the obsession that consumes the protagonist as he loses his own sanity trying to solve the case. The character Breck plays is also far from sympathetic, as we see his stubbornness ruin almost every facet of his life including his relationship with his girlfriend, played by Constance Towers (who would star in Fuller’s next film, the cult classic,The Naked Kiss). Yet when Fuller externalizes his character’s deteriorating psychological state with sequences, further foreshadowing Barrett’s eventual downfall for his article and chance at the Pulitzer, it’s hard not to feel empathy for the character.
Fuller visualizes Barrett’s sad sacrifice of his sanity in beautifully shot, surreal sequences such as one where Barrett is visited by his stripper girlfriend who appears as a sort of shoulder devil that teases him. Another memorable sequence shows Barrett running through the rain in an empty mental facility. What makes these scenes all the more impressive is how Fuller achieves these sequences with a shoe string budget. It’s not hard to see why Fuller is so revered among many of this generation’s independent auteurs like Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino.
But Fuller’s film is not just an excellently filmed psychodrama but a fascinating allegory for America in the early 60s. As we follow Barrett interview the witnesses of the murder, we realize that Fuller isn’t trying to make an in-depth examination at America’s mental institutions along the lines of a film like Titicut Follies. Instead Fuller explores the various taboos that has made Fuller and his films such a subject of controversy. The first witness we are introduced to is a Korean War veteran who believes himself to be a confederate soldier from the Civil War after being ostracized as a social outcast for being a Communist sympathizer; The second witness is an African American white supremest who believes himself to be the the Grand wizard for the KKK; the third witness is a once genius scientist who was involved in the development of the atom bomb, but now is a man who believes he’s a child. Off the bat, we know this isn’t a normal institution but Fuller’s own critique of America. Visualizing America as an asylum while also representing what Fuller perceived as the “insanity” of America. As we view his work today one can officially say that Fuller was not wrong in his assessment of the times; the red scare, nuclear war, and southern racism are all part of the dark side of 20th century American history.
Fuller’s is able to elevate what could have been a run-of-the-mill genre film into a kind of 60s’ Greek tragedy painting a stark portrait of America.