I reviewed Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor and Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball for Cine-File Chicago. They screen at Filmfront and Doc Films, respectively, this weekend.
Sam Fuller’s SHOCK CORRIDOR (American Revival)
Filmfront (1740 W. 18th St) – Saturday at 7pm
SHOCK CORRIDOR is a tale of two movies: a murder mystery set in a mental hospital and an exploitation of this location as an extended metaphor for all that is wrong with America circa 1963. In Fuller’s characteristic “yellow journalism” style, he tells the story of John Barrett (Peter Breck), a reporter who feigns insanity in order to be committed to an asylum where a patient was recently murdered. Once inside, he hopes to interrogate the three key witnesses to the murder, mental patients who have not been forthcoming with police. Barrett believes that solving this mystery will lead to a big story and, potentially, a Pulitzer Prize. As Barrett first befriends then interviews the witnesses, Fuller exposes the social ills that drove each of the men insane: anti-communist hysteria, racism and the threat of nuclear annihilation. The closer Barrett gets to the truth, however, the more he risks losing his own sanity. He may eventually get the story he’s after but, after being attacked by “nymphos” in the women’s ward, subjected to electroshock therapy and more, Fuller asks “what price glory?” with a palpable and bitter irony. SHOCK CORRIDOR is full of wild, hallucinatory images befitting its central location including a startling interpolation of 16mm color footage (shot by Fuller himself in Japan and South America) in an otherwise black-and-white film, footage that is used to signify the mental turmoil preceding moments of clarity for some of the patients. But the most memorable image comes in a climactic scene where Barrett imagines a thunderstorm inside the main corridor of the hospital, a scene for which Fuller flooded, and literally ruined, his large hospital set. (By necessity, he shot this sequence last.) The film’s soundtrack also impresses with its intimations of aural hallucination: Fuller abruptly shuts music cues on and off and presents reverb-heavy internalized voice-over to put viewers in the headspace of his mentally disturbed characters. In 1963, SHOCK CORRIDOR may have seemed like nothing more than a ludicrous b-movie but, more than half a century later, unencumbered by the standards of “realism” to which American movies are always held by contemporary viewers, Fuller’s nightmarish vision of America-as-mental hospital looks like the audacious work of art that it is: pulpy and crude but also strangely beautiful and as visceral as a punch in the stomach.(1963, 101 min, Digital Projection) MGS
Milos Forman’s THE FIREMEN’S BALL (Czech Revival)
Doc Films (University of Chicago) – Friday at 9:30pm
Milos Forman (LOVES OF A BLONDE) was the most important director of the Czech New Wave and THE FIREMEN’S BALL, his last Czech film before departing for a successful career in America, just might be his masterpiece. It’s an amazingly subversive black comedy about a fire brigade in a small Czech town holding their annual ball, during which time the members plan on staging their first ever “beauty contest” (whose contestants turn out to be unwilling female ball attendees) and honoring the 86th birthday of their former chairman. Perhaps the definitive Prague Spring movie, THE FIREMEN’S BALL clearly views the fire brigade at its center as a microcosm of Czechoslovakia’s then-Communist government: an inefficient bureaucracy presided over by incompetent old men whose approach to organizing the ball is to essentially make up everything as they go along. It’s unsurprising then that the film was banned “permanently and forever” by the Czech authorities shortly after its premiere. Seen today, THE FIREMEN’S BALL is still uproariously funny as satire, a vital film that should come as a revelation to those who only know its director as a man who wound down his career making generic biopics in Hollywood.
(1967, 73min, 35mm) MGS