Back in 2010, I noted Shutter Island as my favourite film of the year. I stand by this. Now, influences are funny – they can sometimes border on remake, they can sometimes be subtle hints within one film which has been carried over to another. The influence here rests in protaganist John (Peter Breck), a journalist desperate to win a Pulitzer prize. He is so desperate, he commits himself into an asylum, in the hope of finding out who killed Sloane, by pretending to be mad. We see him practice the answers he needs to give to get in – his voiceover explains his understanding of psychology and how he aims to use this to get into the asylum – and he succeeds … but sometimes the most difficult thing in getting into an asylum is how you get out…
Colour or No Colour, that is the question…
Made in 1960, colour-films were common-place. We all know that Psycho was chosen by Hitchcock to be made in black and white to create a old, B-Movie atmosphere and, it seems, this is the same purpose with Shock Corridor. This is why it becomes a shock when colour manages to sprinkle itelf within the film – when John’s dreams are visualised, they are in colour. In the entire film, it is only two sequences. The cinematic-experience as you begin watching something you think you understand – oh, its a black-and-white thriller about who killed Sloane – shifting to a strange, unsettling territory – you question whether it was in colour? or is John going mad? etc. The use of a Maguffin too is Hitchcockian unto itself.
In one haunting sequence, I found it terrifying to see John breaking down and to see him begin believing the lies he set-up to get into the asylum. At one point we hear his narration as he loses his ability to talk – the terror which he can’t explain. What you initially believed was a film you are entertained by becomes more significant – what if such a thing happened to me? Terrifying.
The question is raised as to where Johnnys madness is from. Thematically, I believe Fuller indicates how it was greed and self-importance (in winning the Pulitzer prize) that destroyed him – the idea that through choosing to go into an asylum for his own gain is verging on madness. His girlfriend (Constance Towers) does not agree with this ‘plan’, but he goes against her. Against that, there is a clear difference between the Johnny we know before shock-treatment and the Johnny we see afterwards.
I think it was Mark Kermode who mentioned one particular sequence as Johnny enters a room full of crazy women and he mutters to himself “my god, Nymphos” (Nymphomanics – women obsessed with sex…) before being attacked in a more zombie-flesh-eating fashion, rather than sex-obsessed women fashion. It may be sequences like this that is a little dated and shows a lack of understanding towards madness and the sympathy and support neccessary for people with any type of mental condition.
As previously mentioned, the macguffin in the ‘killing of Sloane’ is core to the film – but it is Johnnys descent into madness that we realise is the real story. You are forced to ask if he can be helped.
It is a great film that pushes farther than thriller territory – whereby you are forced to consider the wider implications and, perhaps, your own mental state. Much like Johnny – can you trust your own mind? The film finishes with a huge fight as Johnny fights who he believes is the killer of Sloane – the fight is huge and breaks everything in shot (seriously, at one point the fight spills into the kitchen and you are looking at every item knowing that, at some point, it will be knocked over). What is stranger, is how all the patients stand back and ignore the fight – there is no connection between what is going on in their lives and the fight happening next to them. Maybe even a minor point as people damage themselves (physically in this case, but mentally is the point) whilst no-one will react until its too late.
There is an influence clearly from Shock Corridor to One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest as in both films the protagonist commits themselves and both films explores the morality behind these institutions. I think, in closing, if you like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Shutter Island than it is neccessary for you to watch Shock Corridor - because this same situation presents a talking point about your mind and how much control you have over your mind. It could be merely one choice you make that separates you from the patients we observe in these institutions.