When Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor opened at New York's RKO Palace in 1963ˇthe marquee adorned with a blowup of Peter Breck's screaming face captioned by year's most daring filmˇit seemed like the noisiest movie ever made, a protracted cinematic howl punctuated by smashed furniture, striptease music, and hallucinatory lightning bolts. Every element was designed to unsettle, from the portentously lit mental-hospital setting to the dialogue overflowing with melodramatic outcries, extreme political statements, and bizarre non sequiturs (like the three-hundred-pound opera-singing lunatic who interjects, "I despise butchery!"). Plausibility wasn't even a consideration; the movie's effect was to make the world itself seem highly implausible. But what at first glance looked like deliberate tabloid unreality came to seem like a considered analogy for levels of brutalization essentially beyond words. For all the manic verbosity of its dialogue, Shock Corridor functioned like a primeval silent movie, another Caligari, its images more insidiously powerful than the tissue of story logic that ostensibly connected them.
From a distance, Fuller (1911˝97) was the most eccentric figure imaginable, a cigar-chomping individualist whose films registered as impassioned manifestos for an inscrutable political philosophy, violent allegories that managed to simultaneously incarnate pulp culture and undermine it. There was no telling what move he would make or how you would feel about it; watching one of his films for the first time always induced a mood of wariness. He practiced an aesthetic of ambush, in the spirit of his celebrated remark that for a war movie to be truly realistic, there ought to be snipers occasionally firing at the audience.
Forty Guns (1957), for exampleˇone of his two or three masterpieces, and sadly unavailable on video or DVDˇturned the western epic into a kind of grotesque comedy, yet it was clear that Fuller wasn't kidding. I can't recall another cowboy picture where a spurned middle-aged lover hangs himself or where the hero, when the bad guy uses the heroine as a human shield, shoots the woman in order to get at his opponent. In Fuller's original screenplay Barbara Stanwyck was to be killed in this climactic scene; more cautious marketing-department heads prevailed to make her wound minor, but visually the shock effect is undiminished.
The mysterious perversities of Fuller's storytelling deflected any easy reading. By comparison with the more or less transparent messages of so many Hollywood movies of the period, whether liberal or conservative in thrust, the purport of Fuller's politically charged films could scarcely be verbalized. You were left with gestures and situations that refused to go away: a bald woman beating a pimp with a handbag (The Naked Kiss ); a Confederate soldier joining up with the Sioux in order to continue his war against the United States (Run of the Arrow ); a Nazi-educated German teenager being forced to look at footage of concentration camps (Verboten! ); a gangster overcome by scarcely concealed homosexual longing for the undercover cop who's infiltrated his gang (House of Bamboo ).