Great Moments in Cinema: Shock Corridor
Every now and then there comes a moment or a sequence in a film that is so shocking and so transgressive that it manages to stand apart from everything that came before or after, and establishes itself as something completely unforgettable. Often , these are moments that become ingrained in the mind of the viewer, thanks in large part to how outrageous they are. Such is the case with the sequence that is the subject of today’s column, a completely subversive sequence that appears about halfway through what is one of the all time great B-movies.
In director Sam Fuller’s sleazy masterpiece Shock Corridor (1963), an ambitious journalist named Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) sets out to win a Pulitzer Prize by solving a murder that was committed in a mental asylum, and witnessed by three of the inmates who are too insane to provide any useful information to the police. With the help of a conniving psychiatrist and his reluctant girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers), Johnny goes undercover as an inmate, posing as a man who has incestuous feelings for his sister. While there, he interrogates each of the witnesses one by one, slowly getting closer to the truth. Unfortunately, the stress of posing as an insane person is starting to take its toll on Johnny, and his mind is rapidly starting to crack under the pressure. Now he not only has to break the story, but he must also try to maintain his sanity.
Fuller’s film is a grimy, exploitative, and mostly unpleasant affair, but it also happens to be a great bit of pulpy fun. It is a darkly comedic romp that delights in its sleaziness, while remaining totally compelling and wholly entertaining throughout. The film features over the top performances from a game cast of incredible character actors including James Best (The Dukes of Hazzard), Gene Evans (Gunsmoke), and Larry Tucker (Blast of Silence), all of whom spend the entire movie chewing the scenery as Barrett’s fellow inmates. However, it is Hari Rhodes who delivers the most shocking performance of the film as Trent, an African American college student who was one of the first to integrate a segregated Southern University, and one of the three witnesses to the unsolved murder. Trent cracked under the pressure and started to believe that he was actually the Grand Wizard of Ku Klux Klan. Basically, he feels like the inspiration for that Chapelle’s Show skit about the blind black guy who joins the KKK. Anyway, Trent was committed to the asylum, and now he spends his days there promoting white nationalism while trying to stir up race riots.
About halfway through the film, Johnny tracks down Trent, who is introduced walking through the halls carrying a sign that has a rather disturbing racial epithet written on it (I’m not going to type it here, because I’m not Quentin Tarantino, but I’m pretty sure you can figure out what it is). Johnny stops Trent, and they strike up a conversation. Soon, Trent is going on and on about white power, and how we need to separate the races. His tirade is interrupted when he spots another African American inmate, and Trent incites the rest of the inmates to lynch the poor unsuspecting man before he can do something terrible like marry Trent’s daughter (hey, don’t blame me, that’s just racist logic). In no time flat, Johnny and Trent are wrestled to the ground, placed in strait-jackets, and tossed in a dark room. Trent falls asleep, and when he wakes up, he has a moment of clarity. His sanity briefly returns, and he tells Johnny the story of what drove him mad. Johnny asks Trent if he knows who committed the murder, but Trent is too focused on the details of his past to answer. Desperate for the answer, Johnny demands to know who committed the murder, but before Trent can reveal the culprit, his insanity returns and it’s right back to ranting and raving about white power and the evils of miscegenation.
This sequence is great precisely because it is so shocking, but also because of how powerful and progressive it is. It may seem like something that was simply included to astonish and upset audiences, but it nevertheless serves as a powerful condemnation of racism in America. It was incredibly brave of Fuller to use his sleazy little exploitation film to comment on race relations in the United States. Keep in mind that Shock Corridor was released in 1963, during the height of the Civil Rights movement, and the stance this film was taking was incredibly subversive but also very forward thinking for the time. Trent is not meant to serve as a joke, though the whole sequence is darkly comedic in the way only the best satire can be. No, Trent is a tragic figure who has been broken by an ugly and irrational hatred that persists to this day. He is the ultimate comment on the evils of racism and intolerance, and how they can serve to make people grow to hate even themselves. It’s a far cry from the majority of whitewashed Hollywood films from that era, and when looked at alongside something like Night of the Living Dead (1968) it becomes obvious that genre films were far ahead of the more mainstream stuff when it came to the idea of racial equality.
While Shock Corridor may not be a great movie (though I would argue that it totally is), it is at the very least a powerful and entertaining piece of genre filmmaking that manages to sneak a profound and subversive message into its sordid, exploitative, storyline. Fuller is confronting racism head on with this movie, and he is doing so with a scene that feels totally gratuitous, yet completely necessary at the same time. The sequence lives up to the film’s title in that it shocks the audience, but it does so with a purpose, and that is what makes it a great moment in cinema.