MACGREGOR CAMERON reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: America in a straightjacket.

WE DELIGHT in the disturbance.

In Monday’s Film Society offering, after some patience with the projection problems, members were treated to another Sam Fuller film, Shock Corridor. Fuller’s film seems stuffed with all those elements that can buoy up an academic’s career for years – from the sense of noir to the barely concealed political stance that Fuller would seem to be putting up for examination. But in much the same way as Peter Breck’s Johnny falls foul of the institution’s examination, all is not what it seems. However before this all goes too far and as one of the insane inmates says in a rare moment of lucidity: “we have too many intellectuals; we need the pistol of common sense.”

The set up seems deceptively easy – a reporter, for his own reasons, enters an asylum to search out a killer. Like Murphy in the Cuckoo’s Nest’s institution he succumbs to the slow descent into darkness. But at the same time one might see parallels between Johnny’s mission and that of Truman Capote writing In Cold Blood, which, possibly still three years from publication, went through a somewhat public writing process. In some sense Fuller seems to be commenting upon the role of the journalist who like Ahab chasing the whale fails to foresee his own doom.

What adds to the timelessness of this film is its ability to delve into the damage that Fuller suggests was the American Dream while still seeking to perceive its humanity. Through each of the characters we see the cost that ‘purity’ of ideal and the fate that befalls each of them seems to be allied with some form of hubris. The soldier who switched sides replays the defeat of the south, the emancipated black youth becomes subservient to a racism of his own making and the nuclear scientist, quoted above, doomed to live an eternal childhood. Cleverly, through the use of colourful inserts of 16mm film, some of their predicaments might seem like escapes, it’s illusory. Like a Greek Chorus they can put together the truth that Johnny seeks. The cost to him for seeking it, however, is to find himself trapped, catatonic within his own twisted construction – no wonder then the film is framed by a saying from Euripides in 425 AD. His nightmare unlike theirs is in terrifying black and white.

One wonders if modern American would learn anything from a re-release of this movie as they also currently find themselves in a battle for truth – despite the cost. And this is one of the questions that it seems to me Fuller leaves the viewer with; what price redemption? In this film we are treated again to the work of Constance Towers, the prostitute Kelly in The Naked Kiss from last week. Here she plays Johnny’s stripper girlfriend, Cathy, who both turns him in and also provides his link to the outside world. As in The Naked Kiss she seems at once powerful and powerless, unable to stop him but equally ultimately unable to save him. She bears witness as we do to the perverseness arising not out of the transgressive but out of the normality of life that hides its face.

As I say we delight in the disturbance, the unveiling of the truly perverse – not out there but next door to us. Fuller’s legacy seems underlined here, both in its simplicity and the attendant sophistication of the readings that each of us may bring to it. I agree, it is a good story and we need no intellectuals to muddy the waters for us.

See also:
» The Naked Kiss
» In Appreciation: Samuel Fuller and François Truffaut