Tough Nuts to Crack: Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1982)

Sam Fuller occupies a pretty unique place, or rather places, in the Canons of Film Criticism. For the Cro-Magnites, Fuller is the great American primitive, swinging through the trees with a camera between his toes – he may have a pea brain but he sure got big eyes – and rhythm. For the outlying Solar Plexites, Fuller’s a down-home, funky director, as American as violence and cheesecake. For the Aesthetes, he’s a poetic film noir auteur, a modernist – they saw him in Pierrot le fou and scrambled off to see his films. And, by gosh, there they were: recurrent themes, Brechtian distanciation, jump cuts, dislocation of sound and image, all you could ask for in an authentic American Artifact. For the Moralists, Fuller is either a Nasty Fascist or a Misunderstood Liberal. Not that any of these fish are completely out of Fuller’s tank, but they never seem to swim together. While the first shut off the sound track before the film begins, the second howl delightedly at bald ideological statements and intense off-the-wall discussions of Beethoven and art, the third studiously avert their eyes to read the title on an upside-down book and the fourth triumphantly amass ammunition or anxiously seek out hidden spokesmen of Reason and Justice.

Shock Corridor, however, provides a convenient feeding-ground for various species, since the time-honored ambiguity of sanity/insanity carefully blankets potentially embarrassing displays of patriotic fervor or ‘class-displaced’ intellectualism, and any sieve can be used to separate reason from its supposed opposite.

Not that Shock Corridor suffers from any dearth of either patriotic fervor or intellectualism. There is the usual stepped-on black feverishly proclaiming love of country as if mysteriously challenged by some off-screen voice to love it or leave it. Of course this same black then becomes his rabid challenger with a vengeance: leave it or die, lest he, like Johnny, marry his own sister. Cathy drops enough literary allusions to stock a small library: Moses leading his madmen to the Pulitzer Prize, Oliver Twist (unpsychoanalyzed), Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer (ditto), Jekyll and Hyde, Greek chorus to rehearsed nightmare, and the cap-off: “Hamlet was made for Freud, not you!” Yet this is neither a random assortment of texts nor a carefully woven network of symbolic allusions, but rather a mass of floating signifiers which touch, reflect, suggest articulations neither made nor rejected all through the film. Johnny, like Moses, may never enjoy his prize, what with him being an insane mute and all by the time he gets it. Pagliacci’s and Oliver Twist’s institutional dietary complaints are not unrelated. The Jekyll and Hyde throw-out boomerangs back to Cathy since after all she’s left holding the Hyde. Huck Finn, or rather Mark Twain, resurfaces later in the idyllic Mississippi River interlude between Johnny and Trent which turns, suddenly and without transition, into a race riot. And the displaced relationship between Huck, Jim, Twain, Johnny and Trent becomes scrambled in ways reminiscent of that between Hamlet, Freud and Johnny Barrett. Who writes, who reads? From whom is the pronoun excluded? And Why Can’t Johnny Read?

Johnny can write, “This is my story, as far as it goes.” But what does the adjective possess? The story that Johnny wrote or the story that wrote Johnny? And if it is his(s)tory, how far does it go? Certainly beyond the original script, where Johnny acts crazy and gets admitted to the State Mental Hospital, there to find the answer to the earth-shattering question: “Who killed Sloan in the kitchen with a butcher knife?”, winning the Pulitzer Prize and getting to the top of his profession: “my experiences alone will make a book, a play – or even a movie sale!”

Indeed, the first scene in Dr. Fong’s office looks like something out of The Bad and the Beautiful: producer (Swanee), script consultant (Dr. Fong), writer/director/star (Johnny) and recalcitrant actress (Cathy) argue about “meaningful” stories vs “what sells”. There’s even the fake start, the ‘movie within a movie’ opener which could be a porn production entitled “Braids”. On set with the loonies. No Hollywood-within-Hollywood film would be complete without the good old Oedipal-within-Oedipal complex: the scripted incest between Johnny and his “sister” and the Swanee-Johnny-Cathy (producer-director-actor) triangle with all the moral trimmings. The father/superego figure backs work as the alienation of desire, the production of a commodity for a false idea of self. Cathy justifies her own alienating work by its sacrifice to the integrity of Johnny’s redeeming labors and finally by its service to an eventual “normal” life.

Cathy wins the scene; Swanee, deploying the superior forces of his class, wins the battle. From his white-walled office, dominated by giant portraits of journalistic founding fathers, completely cut off from the workings and workers of the paper, Swanee summons Cathy from the promiscuous clutter of the dressing room, stamped by the EXIT sign to the pay phone framed by a blackboard headed DAYS OFF where her name figures along with the other girls, already spelled out above the dressing mirrors: Bunny, Dolores, etc. In his role as heavy/father, Swanee defers the sexual union of the “children” until Cathy enacts this refusal. To prove she “really loves” Johnny she must “go all the way for him” not by sleeping with him but by pretending a relationship that makes sex between them verboten and keeps him locked up until he ceases to desire her (Cristo to Johnny strapped to a table: “Is your desire for your sister still as strong?”).

But the Hollywood script level is by no means the “ultimate” self-reflective essence of the “film as film”. However brutally simple any element in a Fuller film, its insistence, its power and its absolute irreducibility within any sequence belies any simple signified, explodes the “normality” which subsumes all change, possibility and conflict into readable units of already recognizable patterns, as it shuffles all carefully graded hierarchies of meaning.

In the strongly symbolic logic of a Fuller film, symmetry insists only to be displaced. Figures assume symbolic roles within a context only to break apart, reform, exchange roles, or lose their hard-edged clarity as the context shifts. Take the complex choreography of the first scene. At the throwing off of the fake script, Fong’s aggressively asserted dominance over Johnny (blown when Johnny slips and reveals his own linguistic mastery, becoming questioner: “Do you think I’m a fetishist?”), reverses as Johnny assumes voice-over control of the scene, occupying centre stage, ringmastering the camera pans right to redefine Fong and left to reveal and introduce Swanee. But when Swanee tosses the ball to Cathy, discovered in the totally inhabited “fourth wall” of the audience by his lumbering cross-over to her, her resistance throws the whole set-up out of whack. Each character (except the “disinterested” Fong, aggressor only by profession) then seeks to assert his mastery over the others, forcing them into confrontations, corners and out of the frame. Cathy’s dramatic exit leaves the duo Fong/Swanee and a lone Johnny, very isolated in the frame.

Once Swanee has lost his Johnny-given power over Cathy (curiously, holding the sexual power of attorney over an impotent man, rather than conferring potency, symbolically transfers impotence, since the power is that of a now meaningless deferral), their relationship to each other and to Johnny degenerates into that of parents bickering over the fate of an already lost son, until their symbolic occupancy of a “real” world outside the asylum is itself put into question.

The dramatic confrontation between Swanee and Cathy on the stage of the strip joint, where hearts, mirrors and naked light bulb suggest a makeshift storefront boudoir, half-public, half-private, is sandwiched between two shots of Johnny tossing and turning in bed in the throes of perhaps this very nightmare. But then cut back to Cathy (sans Swanee, who’s left). Cathy’s long lovely legs slowly cross the stage (c.f. later listless leggy cross-over to talk to Swanee on the phone after Johnny begins to believe she’s really his sister). Cathy sits down, cries. Dissolve over giant crying woman to small figures of Wilkes and Johnny walking down corridor (c.f. Tinkerbell Cathy superimposed over close-ups of Johnny’s sleeping face in earlier nightmare sequence). Who projects, dreams, subjectifies, objectifies who? Time and space are fragmented until no place, no relationship can be anchored clearly in projection or “reality”. Images emerge not from a void but from a world of other images, tying up to earlier, later scenes, cutting from symbolic space to symbolic space, linking up to other spaces, accumulating, modifying, destroying its own parameters. Each image, space, angle insists upon its cut-off, its charged castration, until synthesis is at once immediate and impossible. The ‘outside world’ is no less metaphoric than the corridor. The only location footage is hallucinations (Japan, Mato Grosso, Iguazu Falls). The larger context is inside the walls. In what mental alley do Cathy and Swanee move?

Meanwhile, back at the insane asylum, ye olde Hollywood Oedipal minuet undergoes some far more convoluted transformations in three utterly disparate yet consecutive playoffs. Act 1: the opera. Pagliacci’s midnight replay of I Pagliacci casts Johnny as the first in a long line of victims. Next comes Pagliacci himself (died during this aria from overweight), Sloan (butcher knife very similar to the imaginary one with which Pagliacci stabs Johnny) and Pagliacci’s wife (hating butchery, he didn’t want her to die like Sloan, so he sang her to death).

Pagliacci has no place in Johnny’s script; not only do his name and his opera uneasily foreshadow Johnny’s fate (the “act” that becomes real), but his own script keeps changing and reversing. If later in Johnny’s madness it is the subject of the sentence/act that changes (Cathy killed Sloan? Cristo killed Sloan? I killed Sloan?) here it is the object, and in an atmosphere replete with confused primal scene fantasies of unclear sexual violence (“a knife is a messy weapon”). The three witnesses under the table who saw Sloan’s murder were in pretty classic voyeuristic primal scene stations themselves. Since Johnny has killed himself into Sloan’s story it is not strange that he should assume his position under the knife face down on the bed in the darkness surrounded by three sleeping “witnesses”. Pagliacci has no place in the nice symmetry of Johnny’s trinity of witnesses. Indeed, his first entrance disrupts Johnny’s easy numeration of the key threesome, and here, before Johnny has even begun to work on his game plan. Pagliacci, unsolicited, throws out the fateful name. At the sudden invocation of Sloan’s name, music, the operatic measure of Pagliacci’s madness, heralds the suspense motif of Johnny’s obsession as Johnny, rising to the bait, rises in the frame. Pagliacci’s commedia has no sooner ended than Johnny’s begins.

Throughout the film Pagliacci acts as a kind of reversal principle, his hand on Johnny’s shoulder often forcing a change of camera angle, a recognition of intersubjectivity. He is Johnny’s audience, not the audience of Johnny’s “act” or of his “story” but of Johnny’s relationship to his new context, for Pagliacci alone lives in the context of the corridor, not as shock but as intersubjective theatrical space. Pagliacci’s massive acceptance encompasses all – from the trickling beginning of Johnny’s hallucinations (“I like the rain”) to its screaming end (“Such a sour note Johnny”). It is he who will usher in the audience to Johnny’s final dramatic confrontation with Wilkes. And in the final tunneling pan down the corridor, the camera will continue past Stuart, Trent, Boden, Johnny to stop at Pagliacci, sitting like some vaguely appeased household god in his familiar niche while the new inmate continues down the “street”.

Act 11: from opera to soap opera. Scene: Dr. Cristo’s office. Johnny’s second appearance in the film, after the first scene rehearsal of his incest act, is the permiere in Menkin’s office. Beginning as pure parody, amply supported by Menkin’s floating semi-moronic moon face and Johnny’s appreciate voice-over commentary (“Look at the way his eyes lit up. He’s got me talking. He’s a happy little rascal”), with low “corridor” music as ambiguous counterpoint, the violent albeit gratifying climax (the neat little oblong boxes of the good doctor’s office and the good doctor’s smug mind beg outrage); the screams of “Cathy! Cathy!” over Cathy’s anxious face, veer toward more ominous developments.

But Cristo is different. As sexually and socially “disinterested” as Menkin is voyeuristically interested, he is very much the professional. In an earlier version of the script Cristo admits to Johnny that his adolescent dream was to “write sensational stories, unmask the murderer and marry the editor’s daughter”. Johnny and Cristo do indeed understand each other. Cristo follows the script as Johnny (or Dr. Fong) wrote it, hilariously on cue: “Now’s the time to ask me about voices – do you hear voices?” His task, like Johnny’s, involves only recognition, and represents a codified form of repetition compulsion, not of action but of reaction, based on finding the subject or referent of another’s “guilty” act, to borrow Cristo’s lingo. No dialogue is possible: only a ritual repetition of an already established system of individual guilt.

The psychiatrist par excellence, nothing is to be read in Cristo’s impossible mask of a face. When Johnny confronts him twice in the corridor later with the truth about his assignment, reaction shots of Cristo from the same time and space are used in both scenes to disorienting effect, and indeed Cristo is “transcendent” by nature and function. Seen one “form of dementia praecox incident to the age of puberty” seen ‘em all.

At the same time the scene is extremely funny, although it’s difficult to figure out to what extent Johnny shares the humor he vehicles. When he answers Cristo’s query “Who am I” first in voice-over by one of the encapsulated bio-datas he carries around in his head ending in “hobby: golf” and then by the perversely reasonable reply: “Don’t you know?” he cinches his victory. For his answer supposes either parity – identity-questionee can become identity-questioner – or insanity, and there’s little doubt as to which Cristo will choose. Johnny is obviously enjoying his role. As long as he is acting, the voice-over can supply a “true self” based on knowledge, intention and role denied his “mad” self and positing an audience (of those who know or will know the “truth”) attentive only to the original script (unlike Pagliacci who has a disturbing tendency not to expect “displays of insanity” and might not be satisfied with Johnny’s reply to his repeated question “What are you doing in here with Mr. Barrett?”)

But the high point of the scene is definitely the beautifully delivered and wildly connective flight of Oedipal TV fancy. The man of moral imperative who talks to Johnny every time he turns on the TV rings more than one bell. Cristo’s “Could this man be your father?” has the delicious double backfire of the absurd reductivity of patent psychoanalysis and the unconscious analysis of the workings of TV and, more revealingly, of the use of voice-over on TV documentaries (shades of Johnny’s voice-over mastery of this very scene). If Johnny can ask “besides, what’s he doing on TV? He’s dead.” We can ask what Johnny’s doing narrating a movie – he can’t talk. He’s a catatonic schizophrenic. How far does it go, Johnny’s story?

ACT 111: cinematic shock. “I am impotent. And I like it.” Obsessive attachment to a dead-end process is not inclusive to an Oedipal complex, as Johnny’s behaviour so perfectly demonstrates. But the directly sexual implications of frustrated desire, usually disguised and displaced in Hollywood film, is here thrust forward in a short, rapid succession of images that say more verbally and visually than any syntax can order. From the bald acceptance of impotence to vigorous revolt against imposed castration (disembodied heads sticking up out of canvas shrouds): Johnny to Wilkes, “Confidentially, Mr. Wilkes, do you really think all this nerve-calming treatment’s going to help me forget how much I want her in my arms?”

Not that these three scenes constitute a privileged nexus of burgeoning meaning. The Oedipal resonance of these scenes by no means orders, dominates or articulates the links between them: one scene, image, word, follows another and, doing so, creates structures. But these diachronic structures cannot destroy, only enrich, the synchronic ones. Cathy’s long legs, from the strip to the rehearsal, create a continuum which cannot separate itself from the thick-shod feet of Swanee or Boden, patently visible, hiding under the bench as Johnny’s unlaced sneakers pass and pause in feigned obliviousness, or even Stuart’s evocation of the white pants of Sloan’s murderer, transmuted into white fence then stone wall then Stonewall Jackson.

Yet Fuller’s film is by no means a vortex of whirling associative images, any more than madness is unstructured chaos. Nor is Shock Corridor a cuckoo’s nest of “bad” repressive institutional structures vs. privileged free-wheeling anarchic acts of personal expression. Structures, no matter how baldly stated, are complexly lived. All invasive, they amalgamate, infiltrate all experience in multiple form and shape, inextricable from the functioning of the individual. If Fuller is an anarchist, he is far closer to Bunuel’s analytical dissection of social and psychic realities to the fascination of their incongruous workings-out than to the proponents of a mythically free, untrammeled individualism. Both explore the complex and often inextricable nexus between subjective fantasy, intersubective exchanges and larger social structures, not hierarchically layered, but through condensations, displacements and juxtapositions less akin to the caprices of dream narrative than to the manifest contradictions of dream logic.

The arbitrarily ripped-out-of-context synchronic sequence of Cathy in her stripper’s costume is a case in point. (Costume is surely as valid a context-destroyer as “theme” for the aspiring critic, academic sanctions hopefully abandoned). A French critic might dub Cathy’s strip “The Dance of the Floating Signifier”, cut off from the rest of the film both by its stand-out perfection as a strip and by the absence of a surrogate audience. The continuity of Cathy-cum-character and Cathy-cum-stripper, played on in the gradual “stripping” of the feather boa to reveal her face, initially prolonged by the electronically disembodied voice breathing “Johnny, Johnny” which seeps in and out of the soundtrack (directing her song of frustration both to the undifferentiated johns of the invisible audience and to the absent Johnny Barrett), and operative as long as the camera maintains its privileged intimate position, undergoes untold convolutions as the camera pulls back (and stays there) until the audience is no longer reading her face but watching her act, the final dolly-in intensifying not resolving the tension. The double resonance of Cathy’s act, as direct expression of personal desire and as scripted “number” designed to play out the fantasies of others is thus mirrored in the audience’s mind as a conflict between identification and voyeurism. However Cathy is no film noir heroine, the thin line between lie and truth forever consigned to mystery by death. If script and emotion are inextricably fused in the naked vulnerability of her face in the police station or in Cristo’s office, it is from congruency, not confusion, of the two. Cathy is one of a long line of Fuller heroines acting out someone else’s script, through ambivalence and fear (I Shot Jesse James, Verboten), misplaced loyalty (Pickup on South Street, Baron of Arizona), or sacrificial love (House of Bamboo, Underworld U.S.A., China Gates). (Curiously, the heroines of Fuller’s last two films, Shark and Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Strasse, do resemble the femmes fatales of film noir.)

But the tension between voyeurism and identification (long shot and close-up), aroused in the audience by Cathy’s strip, reappears, as Cathy does, in Johnny’s dream, by the super-imposition of a small Cathy (roughly the size she appears in long shot) over a close-up of Johnny, redefining, in the process, the audience’s already problematic identification with and distance from Johnny.

No confusion between script and emotion enters into Cathy’s appearance in Johnny’s dream however. It’s unmistakably her body and her voice, it’s even her logic, but the text is all Johnny’s. Or perhaps the fusion of stripper and one-man woman which Cathy can accomplish by using one to fuel the other, becomes a confusion in Johnny’s mind’s eye born of conflicting desires. (Who can distinguish the sadistic from the masochistic in “I’ll just have to find another Johnny” where the hooker term “John” is transformed into an endearment/threat). The very blatancy of the image of a tiny, scantily clad Cathy twinklingly appearing on Johnny’s pillow out of some porn fairy tale or metaphor-gone-mad trumpets the one piece of ammunition Cathy has never used (although it’s been used against her) and which Johnny apparently never faced: short of raping “feeble-minded” women or being raped by them, there are certain basic needs mental institutions are equipped not to satisfy (or in Johnny’s fictional case, set up expressly to frustrate). There are, of course, men, and Johnny’s sexual repression enters not a little into his relationship with them, particularly in the case of the solicitous Pagliacci and the chosen confidante Wilkes. But Johnny’s sexual problems don’t start in the mental institution. Cristo’s probably right, they probably are incident to the age of puberty: “Ever since my voice changed I’ve wanted to be in the company of the newspaper greats.” “All of the men want me. But I want you. And you want the Pulitzer Prize.” This displaced chain of desire (starting as it does with others’ desire for Cathy), is nowhere so apparent as when the now reclining Cathy whispers in his ear, tickling it with her feathers, a review of her act, or rather a voluptuously charged account of surrender to her charms by a reporter on Johnny’s paper. Dream displacement? (but if so, why the cut to extreme close-up of Johnny’s face just at the moment the text begins?) or dream about displacement, about alienation of desire, always writing someone else’s story, living someone else’s life, embracing someone else’s dream?

The obsessional drags into the cage of his narcissism the objects in which his question repercusses in the multiplied alibi of mortal figures and, mastering their high-flying acrobatics, directs the ambiguous homage toward the box where he himself has his place, that of the master who cannot see himself. (Lacan) [1]

The double failure of the subjective function in Johnny’s dream (the alienation of Cathy’s subjectivity and the alienation of Johnny’s desire for her), the complex system of projection of both self and other, is but the obverse of Johnny’s simplistic faith in himself as hero of his own movie, as subjective structuring consciousness to be immediately objectified, sold and immortalized as a “story”. For the waking Johnny, unlike Cathy, does not know he can be seen outside and through the prefabricated context of his act.

But this is no Sophoclean tragedy of a flawed hero (the framing quote is Euripedes, no practitioner of the moral flaw syndrome). Johnny’s obsessions have allowed him to survive in society, if not in its microcosm, which is more than one can say for most of the cast of characters. Cathy has her own obsessive need to escape her class (in the hope of escaping her exploitation), dreams of winning the prize of bourgeois normality to be bestowed upon one who has struggled nobly in less than noble circumstances. (Kelly in Naked Kiss could provide her with some eye-openers about that particular prize and that particular class). In all Fuller’s films, part of a character’s inability to completely read his place in his context implies less a moral flaw than an ability to act in it: heroically, if he has understood history enough to live in it (Park Row, Forty Guns, Pickup On South Street, Naked Kiss, China Gate); problematically, if his personal obsessions mesh with larger historical obsessions (Baron of Arizona, Run of the Arrow, Merrill’s Marauders); wastefully, if history sees fit to exploit his obsessions for an act it will not officially recognize (Underworld U.S.A., I Shot Jesse James). The Euripedes quote states all too clearly what history has in store for the upwardly-mobile investigative reporter in 1963.

Cette vie est un hôpital où chaque malade est possédé du désir de changer de lit. (Baudelaire, Any Where Out of The World)

Pagliacci: “Someone’s been sleeping in my bed” said the Papa Bear, “Come on, get up. Go to your own bed.”

For the Cuckooites who loudly proclaim the second coming of an unquestioned heroic single-consciousness structure replete with villain that even John Ford left behind in the fifties, Shock Corridor offers no starchy-white incarnation of repression. Swanee, either ruminantly stuffing his face or emphatically exclaiming over someone else’s point as the unsuspected existence of an alternative eventually implodes in his brain? Dr. Fong, Swanee’s old army buddy from psychological warfare, his racial otherness mirrored in the slanted inscription of his conferred legitimacy? Lloyd, framed by bars of steel and shadow into the image of persecution in Johnny’s light-slashed mind’s eye, hating the black image of his white-hooded history or perhaps, as Wilkes suggest, only frustrated in his desire to help people? Wilkes, who’s there to make sure that Johnny doesn’t forget himself, taking sexual advantage of female patients or perhaps the nymphos did get too much for him? The old Hegelian master/slave dialectic’s there all right, and firmly entrenched, but how displaced, partial or unconscious a character’s momentary assumption of any place within it.

Some, caught in the no-man’s land of lower-echelon bureaucracy, have to act out the contradictions of their intermediary positions (Lloyd, behind bars or outside them?, alternately bullying and encouraging Johnny; Menkin, ritually washing his hands to establish an otherness belied by his vicarious relish; Wilkes, the amiable rapist/murderer). Others, higher on the totem pole, function smoothly, encased in a professionalism which structures their praxis and absorbs their desire in a language of mastery at the service of “truth”, a readjustment of the social balance (social reform in the case of blatant inequities vide Swanee’s coal miner analogy: “If he went into a coal mine you would expect him to pick up a little coal dust”) or individual guilt and repression (find the name of the disease or find the name of the murderer.) Like Bob Ford in I Shot Jesse James or Reavis in Baron of Arizona, Johnny, caught in the self-impelled thrust of upward mobility, is alienated from the proletarian energy and solidarity which structures the world of many Fuller films (Underworld U.S.A., Crimson Kimono, Pickup on South Street, Naked Kiss), briefly possible in his dialogues with the witnesses but cut off by his obsessional fixation on his “story”, as he is alienated from the bloodless professional seekers-after-truth. Worse, he does not understand the distinctions implicit in his own Fong-written dialogue, between those whose language is derived from “objective” structures of repression and those left with the subjectivity of experience. The line is absolute: to be able to use the word “fetishist” is to not be one.

Repression operates not to efface but to isolate: the patient carries a text he cannot read (“Don’t you dare strike me. I’m pregnant”), a text cut off from all others; his actions can but articulate its style and his “patterns of symptoms in a disease” is always “familiar”. But Menkin’s nutshell diagnosis of Johnny’s breakdown is itself broken down phonetically in Cathy’s laborious steno translation, and Cristo’s sum-up comes out of a profound darkness. Identity, function, test results (Johnny’s alternately revered and reviled high IQ), and name fuse until the logic of obsession is shared by all: “The last reporter we had here was Ben Franklin and he gave us nothing but trouble.” And other languages are born that do connect: “This baptizes a new organisation, the Ku Klux. – Sounds good. – No. Ku Klux Klan. Sounds more mysterious, more menacing, more alliterative. Ku Klux Klan. Say it. – Ku Klux Klan. – KKK. – KKK. – It’ll catch on quick.” Nor is displacement of the subjective function only to be found within asylum walls: “So I told Mr. Ford, the only way for a stripper to strip is for me to take off all my clothes.

And what of the writing on the walls? Long before Godard, Fuller understood the play of various languages all struggling for utterance – counterpointing, layering, affirming and belying each other. “Thought grabbing onto thought and pulling” to quote Rimbaud. Furious sexual energy transmuted into the inanity of a frenetically scrawled “I love coffee/I love tea/I love the boys/And the boys love me” (in response to Johnny’s wildly inadequate reaction to the circling nymphos: “Hello girls”?), the childish drawings that capture only in absence the sexuality that spawned them, the crudely drawn sequined hearts on the curtains of the strip joint, the cut-out photographs in the dressing room (including one of John Ford and of Fuller himself), the bust of Beethoven shadowing the Swanee/Cathy/Fong huddle, the bars of music and labeled Nijinsky in dance therapy, the clown above Pagliacci’s bed, Trent’s sign to himself: “Go Home Nigger,” Stuart’s map of a battle lost a hundred years ago – so many images divorced from so many contexts, creating less a new context than a denial of closure.

Even Cristo, who comes closest to the mastery of a language of closure, succeeding where Johnny has failed in equating subject and predicate “Johnny is a catatonic schizophrenic” in dumb show (“Johnny raise your hand”), does not will the only process through which he can function. Cristo disconnects his eyes from the nervously drumming fingers which refuse to stop and takes refuge in the old “Braids” script, throwing sharp questions about sharp objects at Cathy, desperately stabbing at the true/false multiple-choice answers. At the first sign of resistance, in a typical psychiatric ploy, he accuses Cathy of negatively defining his own linguistic practice: “I wasn’t prepared for this…- Inquisition? – No! – But you thought of the word, didn’t you?”, cinching his victory with a sadistic coup de grace: “Was he jealous of the way you revealed your body to other men?” When she breaks down he pats her hand in a gesture wonderfully full of all his conflicting responses to her: part relief, part paternalism, part copping a feel. Cristo is protected by a concept of one-way transference that acts like Colgate’s invisible shield to enclose the other in endless subjectivity while denying all subjective infiltration of his own discourse (Johnny to Cristo: “Level me off and I’ll share all my dreams with you.”)

Johnny, in assuming the task of delivering the text the witnesses carry unaware, assumes the psychiatrist’s function. But since the witnesses carry someone else’s text, their discourse can’t be structured symptomatically. Johnny’s first instinct (having just been initiated into his role in the asylum script by a belligerent Lloyd: “This is your place from now on, Brisbane. – Yes sir. – Just behave yourself. – Yes sir. Yes sir.”), is to scramble to the top of the totem pole in Stuart’s script: “A lieutenant general never sirs a major general.” But it doesn’t work, because Jeb Stuart doesn’t know who killed Sloan, his knowledge ends at the civil war. Perhaps therapy, the more discreet power structure of the bourgeoisie, is the answer. Johnny, setting up, orchestrating and choreographing like the model/director/psychiatrist/snake charmer he is, draws Stuart out of his autistic corner into the arms of the pretty dance therapist to the tune of Dixie.

But what Johnny doesn’t realize is that he’s in a movie. Pagliacci tries to tell him, to alert him to the intersubjective matrix in which he’s always lived but which he can no longer ignore, being in an asylum where he can’t leave the frame (c.f. the first scene where Johnny, confronted with Cathy’s resistance, twice crosses over toward the foreground to leave the frame). Thus, although Johnny creates that magical moment of Stuart’s awakening to the world, he cannot see his own place in the world, he assumes his invisibility as camera-eye. Johnny doesn’t know he can be seen suspended in the moment when Stuart enters the frame to effortlessly replace him in the dance instructor’s arms, between the distorted totality of fantasy and the percussive disjunction of chain-reactive intersubjectivity (brilliantly counterpointed visually and audially in the full-frame slow electronic awakening of Stuart and the increasingly fragmented, frenetic energy it releases.)

Abandoning his role as superior officer for that of water boy/midwife, Johnny eagerly leaps into the wrong breach, confronting a totally unsuspected off-space. Nymphos! To quote Johnny’s instant voice-over assessment of the situation, while one tune of displaced desire replaces another (from “I Wish I Was in the Land of Cotton” to “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”). Musical place, the insane asylum (after this scene cut to Stuart whistling Dixie). It suddenly becomes impossible for Johnny not to feel all eyes upon him, to know he has come centre stage of others’ desire and objectification of him.

What is perhaps most chilling in the nympho scene is that no one sees it but the spectator. The first prolonged violent ending (in Menkin’s office) closes on Cathy’s face. The first threat of Johnny-directed violence (Lloyd) is structured through Johnny’s perception of it. But here no one witnesses the incredibly long process of tearing women off Johnny. The close-up insert of his hand twisting the door knob (the moment when his voice-over first becomes spokesman for non-functioning impotence: “What’s the matter with this door? Why won’t it open?”) distances, fragments his panic. His subjective experience as directly implied by the camera revolves less around fear of the women than the desperate need to carve a linear space to the other side of the room (madly decorated and labeled ‘My Bill’) through the circular encroachments of the “girls”. (“We’ll flank McClellan’s forces. Then we hit Antitem and hit ‘em hard.”) But microcosms permit no escape. Johnny is raped. End of innocence. From this point on Johnny can no longer believe he’s on top of things – or people.

Once he is raped, Johnny can no longer maintain his subject/object relationship to others. This becomes immediately apparent in the post-rape scene with Stuart. In the presence of Johnny dialogue becomes possible, and it is Stuart’s need to reconstruct for Johnny the logic of his own memory-images that brings him back to sanity. Stuart’s highly emotional account of his desertion, conversion, reconversion and persecution (James Best’s performance magnificently teetering between agonizingly acquired homespun homily and terrifying lucidity: “I’d have defected to any enemy. You see my brains was cabbage”) not only rhymes the film’s surreal logic (“Why should I write to my father? He can’t read.”) to the logic of history (“sharecroppin’ on the man’s land” to Korea), but for the first time places Johnny squarely in someone else’s story: “The newspaper reporters they kept houndin’ me, houndin’ me, houndin’ me, and houndin’ me, houndin’ me and houndin’ me…Do you think they’ll let me out of this place now that I’m all right?” To which Johnny, painfully (he too carries his scars), possesses only one reply: “Did you see the man that killed Sloan in the kitchen?”, not surprisingly plunging Stuart back into another wonderment at absurdity (“I was under a table with two other men. What was I doing under a table?”) and then into madness. The inflected rhythm of these questions/absurdities scans the whole film, punctuated at other moments by liturgies and screams of anguish: “Another train and another and another and another.” “Someone do something about my head. My head.” “Trent shut up. Trent shut up.” “I can’t see his face. I can’t see his face.” “I don’t want to play any more with you. I don’t want to play any more with you.” “He’s mine.” “That’s not me. That’s not me.” “Burn that freedom bus. Burn those freedom riders.” But the violence Johnny does to Stuart in denying dialogue is a violence to himself. The information gotten from Stuart at the cost of his at least momentary sanity becomes a dead-end monologue delivered to Cathy repeatedly like a broken record of meaningless data.

Once Johnny begins to share in the subjective experience of the witnesses (obviously and symbolically the experience of America), the language of definition (of a disease of a murderer) becomes increasingly disconnected, dysfunctional, and Johnny’s clinging to it more and more obsessional. Furthermore, as Johnny goes from Stuart to Trent to Boden, their experience not only begins to present increasingly negative aspects of the upwardly-mobile American dream. Stuart had never tried to leave his class, not even realizing the possibility existed, only to finally experience what he was missing in a form that made it forever impossible (“They [the communists] called me mister…made me feel important.”) Trent failed in his attempt – the cards were too stacked against him, the price for success too high. Boden made it to the top, gaining an even bigger prize than Johnny dreams of, only to quit in disgust.

After his encounter with Trent, Johnny exults: “I’m sitting right on top of the story” only to immediately prove, fighting off Cathy’s kiss in horrified disgust, that whatever story is exploding under him has little to do with Sloan. ‘The childlike Mississippi riverboat make-believe ‘shared’ by Trent and Johnny, with its sound effects and magic inclusion of Nyle Morrow (carefully balancing his way along an imaginary boat from the foreground to the background, ships that pass in the night), echoes the earlier suspended moment when Stuart leaves his corner. Similarly the dance therapy-rape sequence is mirrored in the subsequent brilliantly edited escalation out of enclosed fantasy into intersubjectivity, ensuing violence and prolonged ending. This time Johnny can have no illusion of control (the rapidly growing circle of incited inmates dominated by Trent’s monstrous soapbox-mounted transformation cannot be held together by Johnny’s mediatory back-and-forth registering of cause and effect: once the circle breaks Johnny is caught undifferentiated in the centre of a maelstrom he can no longer observe), he certainly has not gotten there “firstest with the mostest”.

However, in his now almost accepted impotence, Johnny can follow the rhythmic logic of violence, can structure (up to a point) the audience’s reaction to the race riot as he couldn’t to the rape, particularly since he’s no longer the victim. The almost Hitchcockian guilty inclusion of Johnny in Stuart’s story and the dimly-felt sexual logic of the rape, which falsely promise, as so often in Fuller, a satisfying readable contrast, gives way to a larger context in which the question of individual guilt, of who killed Sloan in the kitchen or the insensitivity of newspaper reporters, pales. From this point on Johnny is as capable as the audience of reading the film text and even of his place in it, that text becoming, as it does, so legibly historic. But then what? Johnny’s question no longer has magic powers to repossess fleetingly lucid souls: the logic of Trent’s reading of history sends him back into the hole, not Johnny. Johnny’s denial of dialogue can but echo a larger denial. What difference, to Johnny or Trent, if one recognizes the faces of the persecutors beneath their masks? Or perhaps his question reinforces the displacement of terror; the need to know who rather than what lies behind the hood: “I can’t see his face. I can’t see his face!” Almost as if Stuart’s failure to see the murderer’s face had infiltrated Trent’s consciousness through Johnny’s obsession. Or do all, living in the same world, share the same nightmare?

Johnny’s savage “Trent shut up. Trent shut up!” is but a vain attempt to silence history. But history not only repeats itself, it boomerangs to shut up Johnny. Admittedly, as Marty Rubin points out in his Fuller interview [2] , Fuller concurring, all the witnesses are the opposite of what they used to be (black as leader of the KKK, genius scientist turned six-year-old, deserter-cum-celebrated soldier), and Johnny’s muteness flips another coin: “The voluble man loses his voice” to take it from the horse’s mouth. But if the set-up is the same, it is not necessarily central. Stuart’s Jeb Stuart persona is of little interest and aside from the abstract idea, interacts rarely with his lucid self. The power of Trent’s KKK leader overrides the contemplative rationality of his saner self. Boden as a child pales before the nervous assuredness of the nuclear scientist. But the images of Stuart’s lost eyes shadowed by his giant cowboy-confederate hat, of Trent’s taut hate-filled face and clenched fist, of Boden shaking in snickering childish laughter under the bench, far outweigh the neat symmetry of opposition. (This is not to deny that in many ways the mirror-image structure of the film reflects America’s perception of its own identity through the negation of what it is not). The tragedy, and tragedy there is, is not in the reversal, but in all it leaves out at either end.

Unlike Stuart’s and Trent’s returns to sanity, Boden’s is vehicled by no incoherent images or dream – the world literally calls him back. Johnny’s apparent mastery over Boden, always far below him both mentally (the mind of a six-year-old) and physically (Boden lower in the frame, usually on the floor), allowing Johnny to play the plum part (“Imagine me, your Johnny, giving therapeutic treatments to Dr. Boden”), is startlingly reversed as Boden, dominating the frame (low angle) reveals a mastery of language and of intersubjectivity based on experience of the futility of dead-end power struggles. Boden understands his impotence – he willed it: “So I quit life,” Johnny’s cue back into speech.

Boden not only answers the who of Sloan’s murder, he supplies the unsolicited why: Sloan discovered that Wilkes was taking sexual advantage of feeble-minded women and Wilkes killed him. The secret stands revealed – juicy enough, from a newspaper standpoint, but, to quote Stendhal’s heroes’ first reaction to sex, is that it? The “story” is so like what one expects from a newspaper that the headline almost forms itself: RAPIST ATTENDANT SLAYS MENTAL PATIENT. And suddenly the rest of the layout leaps into linotype: “I I CAN’T LIVE WITH A TWO WEEK NOTICE” SAYS FAMED NOBEL SCIENTIST “MY BRAINS WAS CABBAGE” ADMITS RED TURNCOAT.

But Shock Corridor is not about the difference between the Daily News and the New York Times, Cathy notwithstanding. Boden’s bitter indictment of global insanity is neither a wider phrasing of Johnny’s stuttering voice-over impotence, nor a “big issue” beside which Johnny’s problems assume their rightful proportion, not the larger social breakdown of which Johnny is a resultant bi-product. The rape seems to cut the film neatly in half: (1) sexual and personal tensions, what Johnny’s can’t see, and (2) political and social questions, what Johnny can no longer avoid seeing. But Boden’s sexual explanation of Sloan’s murder, inserted without break into a discussion of world politics and human survival, while he produces an image of Johnny and confronts him with it (“I only draw what I see”) compresses all the tensions of the film with a force that Johnny’s violent explosion and the excruciatingly long, empty, flat shot of his removal from the frame (the already receding figure grabbing a bench half-way down the hall and dragging it all the way off in a desperate attempt to hold on while an infant Boden sobs in the foreground) can neither contain nor expend. As Greg Ford has stated, it is the most violent subjective/objective opposition in the film. The highly-charged close-ups of Boden and Johnny, of which the scene consists, reveal the first in a subjectivity exercised through consciousness of the world around him and his place (or refusal of a place) within it, a consciousness side enough to connect Sloan’s murder to that world and open enough to “read” Johnny’s face, and the other, caught in an obsessive monologue which for him has become the world until it speaks him. But neither subjective vision can structure the film. The last long objective shot defines the space of the audience” a slowly emptying frame of reference.

Johnny overcomes the paralysis of the word only to be driven mad by his own image, a madness phrased as its displacement: “You’re crazy. That’s not me.” There are five stretched-out violent scenes in Shock Corridor: Johnny attacking Menkin, nymphos attacking Johnny, the race riot, Johnny attacking Boden and Johnny attacking Wilkes. Full circle from script-forwarding assault to script-wrapping assault, via race riots, rape and insanity.

A galvanized Johnny leaps over a floor-rowing patient in the corridor and upon Wilkes in hydro, getting in a few belt-line blows before he is shoved into the watery lap of another inmate. The great confrontation between reporter and criminal continues at the scene of the crime (unlike the claustrophobic spaces of the rest of the film, the kitchen, locus of off-screen primal scenes, turns out to be vast, open and very much a kitchen), with an additional attendant, whose attempt to interfere only reinforces his superfluity (he keeps getting very literally and very forcefully thrown out of the fight but never of the frame), and ends in Johnny’s bizarre attempt at tabula rasa, using Wilkes as sponge. But Johnny is not denied his audience. Back in the corridor the inmates, led by Pagliacci, form a ring around Johnny just before he scores the kayo.

It’s very tempting to see Wilkes as Johnny’s former brash self, taking advantage of the inmates for his own sexually displaced needs. Wilkes’ cock-of-the-walk admission that the nymphos got too much for him mirrors Johnny’s early voice-over confidence in duplicity. Wilkes rapes: Johnny is raped. But despite Trent, Shock Corridor is no symmetrical hall of mirrors where each becomes his Other. “I killed Sloan” carries no more subjective meaning for Johnny than does “Cristo killed Sloan”. The only time that sentence links up is when Johnny, trying out half the cast, hits on a tentative “Wilkes killed him?”, producing instant dialogue (“Who told you I killed Sloan”) of which he understands not a word, being at the moment totally insane. Johnny has no place in the equation “X killed Sloan”, no subjective tie-in. There are no images connected to Sloan or his murder, or, for that matter, to Johnny’s life outside his master plan. (What are his hobbies?) All we know about Sloan, via Boden, is that “for an insane man he had morals” (A statement applicable to more than one Fuller character). All we know about Johnny, via Swanee, is that “he has been conditioned for a whole year to ride that horse”, crazy horse, that is. Sloan seems to exist only to have been murdered, Johnny only to discover whodunit, to prefix someone else’s name to someone else’s act.

Once Johnny’s identity as star of a heroic Hollywood movie, recognized and identified with as such by a soon-to-materialize audience, goes down under the nymphos, there’s nothing left. Even paranoia (evoked by Lloyd’s and Pagliacci’s promisingly menacing entrances) doesn’t work, is too rationally founded in a history where he plays too peripheral a role to put his personal stamp on the story that writes him.

Early in the film there’s a very short shot of two inmates in part of the corridor (not as a corridor, as flat wall). Johnny has just begun to exult in his admission to the asylum (“I made it, I’m in!”) Immediately after the shot he’ll step slightly into the corridor and set himself up for ironic counterpoint with “This long corridor is the magic highway to the Pulitzer Prize”, followed by “the” perspective shot of the corridor (sans pot of gold). But the quick insert of the two men against the wall although enough like a p.o.v. shot to create tension, is unlike it enough to cause eye-rubbing in any audience. It’s too flat, too banal to create any more specific meaning that its objective being-there, unconnected to any subjective to consequential linearity.

As much as any other, this shot measures the distance between the film text and Johnny’s reading of it. But it is not a readable distance: it destroys all ways in which the audience can play psychiatrist to Johnny. Wilkes walks down the corridor, leafing through some papers, cut off from all narrative development. Not Wilkes the Villain or Wilkes the Other but plain old Wilkes, usurping the place of the hero not in the narrative but in his right to transcend the narrative, to unexplainedly occupy the frame. Cathy sits in the mirrored dressing-room, lost in thought. A totally mismatched shot suddenly shifts angle, lighting, for a few disorienting seconds. Johnny lies in bed in the grips of a nightmare. Cut to insert shot of Johnny from a somewhat different, but not different enough, angle.

A Korean War deserter who thinks he’s fighting the Civil War is transported by rhyme and baked apples from Shiloh to Tokyo. Disconnected colour squeezed cinemascope images of a giant Buddah, a great turning wheel, a toy train, a real train between whose wheels Mr. Fuji constantly appears. A black who wears the white hood of the KKK dreams, again in colour and squeezed cinemascope, an initiation rite where “a brown boy not a black boy” has his legs scraped with the teeth of a piranha “to turn his blood to white blood”, as a black-hooded figure dances. Johnny looks down the corridor past his shadow three times: first to a full corridor, then to an empty, rain-filled corridor where he suddenly materializes, hammers at doors, is traversed by lightning, seen in close-up, long shot, horizontally, vertically, from above, from below, in the avalanche, writhing, screaming; images of the three witnesses and Wilkes flash in succession, then the screen is engulfed in squeezed cinemascope colour waterfalls [3] , and finally back to the first corridor shot. Three witnesses: three colour sequences, but one is Johnny’s and only partially in colour, one is a series of memories and one is a dream. Boden doesn’t see images, he draws them.

How does one “read” these images? No examination of the phallic or womb images in Stuart’s memories explains these particular locales. No polishing of the mirror inversions in Trent’s dream clarify the specificity of the condensations, nor his insistence that the dream is in colour (as opposed to black and white?) No elemental metaphor or inside/outside dialectic encompasses the narrative of Johnny’s hallucination. Images of displacement, of the shock to the American mind of the larger context of the world. Displacement too of the usual means of discovery of that changing context: war (images of peacetime Japan not wartorn Korea). Images from another movie (location shots for House of Bamboo) in another process (cinemascope and colour), which can only enter the film through distortion (but whose?) as the exterior world can only enter the microcosm as distortion [4] .

In a way, the three hallucination scenes are three kinds of movies, involving three kinds of audience identification. The very fragmentation and irrelevance (to the trauma and to each other) of the images in Stuart’s memory force him, in the necessary presence of Johnny, to reconstruct the lost logic of his life. Trent’s dream, of a linear ritualized (not exactly invisibly edited but documentarily narrative) allows him, through condensation, to compress the absurd logic of his imposed schizophrenia (either/or, black/white) into images of integration and voice-over of alienation. Johnny’s movie-within-a-movie allows him to see himself as hero of his own disaster.

But these “films” are less important in themselves than in their impact. Like Bunuel’s use of the Champs Elysees footage in La Mort en Ce Jardin (one of his microcosm films), the exterior footage breaks the enclosure of the microcosm. The cut-off between black-and-white and colour, set and location, insists on the links yet to be made, never to be completed. There is no synthesis, unless a walk down a dead-end street can be said to synthesize the linear trailblazing of the search-for-truth and the circular stasis of the microcosm. Abstraction in Fuller implies a reduction which announces itself and a compression which insists on its complexity.

Disconnected, fragmented images of violence, solipsism, exploitation, discussions of racism, bigotry, war, atomic apocalypse and local murders – how better to describe a TV news broadcast in 1963 – or Shock Corridor. But what TV homogenises, deadens, disconnects radically and connects trivially, Fuller electrifies, forcing his audience to confront the impossible juxtaposition of absolutes, of consciousness that impossible juxtaposition of absolutes, of consciousness that cannot, yet do, share the same frame, and the multiplicity of absent syntaxes which could articulate their coexistence and their consecutivity.

End Notes:

[1] Jacques Lacan, “Fonction et champ de la parole et du langage” in Écrits Vol. 1 (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1966), p. 186. Translation by the author.
[2] Marty Rubin, The Director’s Event (New York: Atheneum, 1970), p. 169.
[3] Water eddies in strange undercurrents throughout Johnny’s story, from hydro to “I’ll get the water, general” to “My Bonnie lies over the ocean” to the riverboat ride to the thunderstorm and falls of the hallucination and back to the hydro.
[4] In many ways, the interpolated footage in Shock Corridor forms a kind of mid-point between the documentary-as-history footage in Verboten and the home-move-as-fantasy footage in Naked Kiss.

Originally published in Framework no. 19, (January, 1982)
Republished with permission from the estate of Ronnie Scheib.

About the Author

Ronnie Scheib

About the Author

Ronnie Scheib

Ronnie Scheib (1944-2015) was a film critic who wrote for Film Comment, Framework, American Film, 24 Images, Variety and Chicago Reader. She also wrote dialogue for Warner Bros cartoons.View all posts by Ronnie Scheib →