Before mass culture became pop culture, the reigning forms in the public sphere were the tabloid and the picture-show; the headline and the credit sequence were the virtual talismans of some wildly imagined global village. Just as journalists searched for stories with the lure of a good photoplay, Hollywood cribbed plots from the papers and focused more than a few films on the activities in the newsroom itself. Film Forum’s Newspaper Picture series spans the early 30s, when the figure of the reporter appeared frequently as the archetypal street-smart wiseacre, through the mid-70s, when Watergate heralded the pinnacle of the powers of the press, ironically occurring just as the snap-crackle-pop of the daily news was being converted into the delirious onslaught of 24-hour infotainment.
Early on though, the movie set and the newsroom weren’t so much sparring partners as confreres, and no figure exemplifies this quite as well as director Samuel Fuller, who started his career as a young boy selling newspapers on the street, and through pure moxy talked his way into being a crime reporter by the time he was 17.
Years before Jack Kerouac had any such inkling, Fuller slummed it across the American heartland, freelancing his way from New York to California and back again, covering KKK rallies, prisoner executions, and the San Francisco Strike Riots, and having run-ins with Al Capone, Dorothy Parker and Charles Lindbergh, all before his 21st birthday. America was Fuller’s obsession, and he told its stories from the point of view of its pickpockets and prostitutes and policemen; it was inevitable that he’d end up in the movie business. (And, perhaps, inevitable that his peculiarly cynical liberalism would eventually get him banished, if only temporarily.)
Two films Fuller was involved with will be double-featured today tonight at Film Forum: Phil Karlson’s Scandal Sheet, based on his novel The Dark Page, and Shock Corridor, which he wrote and directed.
Scandal Sheet concerns journalist Steve McCleary (John Derek), who is assigned by his mentor to cover an unsolved murder—the twist is that the mentor, newspaper editor Mark Chapman (Broderick Crawford) is actually the murderer, and he uses McCleary’s investigation to try to cover his tracks. Lean almost to a fault, Scandal Sheet moves quickly from point to point, while allowing a requisite amount of sleaze and bad vibes to permeate the atmosphere, with its stark b&w lighting. Scandal Sheet is the tale of a bad mentor, and the crushed ideals of a protege, and thus is a salient example of a sub-genre of film noir, which also sheds light on the genre as a whole; it exudes a distrust of authority and charisma and a skepticism regarding relationships that involve an unequal share of power.
Shock Corridor was possibly Fuller’s greatest film, a delirious dissection of America’s psychic wounds. The story has journalist Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck), hell-bent on a Pulitzer, faking insanity in order to be committed to a mental institution where a mysterious murder has taken place. What Barrett discovers in the loony-bin is a microcosm of the more generalized insanity of the US: a World War II vet who was brainwashed by the Japanese and, in order to suppress the shame of his traitorousness, has convinced himself he is a Confederate soldier in the Civil War; a nuclear scientist who, after helping to invent the atomic bomb, has regressed to infantilism; and finally, an African American who, after being used as a guinea pig during integration, has convinced himself that he’s a grand wizard in the KKK.
The film is shot through with brutally direct lighting and bare-bones set design; the blank white walls of the mental institution push Corridor’s aesthetic into the realm of skid-row cinema povera. (This staging of characters against what for all intents and purposes is the lack of a set would find echoes within the avant-garde, from Hollis Frampton’s Critical Mass through various work by Yvonne Rainer up to Emily Wardill’s recent Game Keepers Without Game.) The performances go for broke; hysterical histrionics reign. Literary references are packed into the film with awkward impatience; in the first scene alone the impressively learned stripper (Constance Towers) tells the hero, “I’m fed up playing Greek chorus to your rehearsed nightmare,” “Mark Twain didn’t psychoanalyze Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer, Dickens didn’t put Oliver Twist on the couch,” “Don’t be Moses leading your lunatics to the Pulitzer Prize,” and, to top things off, “Hamlet was made for Freud, not you!” It was Fuller’s genius to ring from this brazenly over-the-top material not only insight, but pathos as well. In fact, the labyrinth that Shock Corridor led the viewer through turned out to be prophetic; the film initially distances you with its proto-camp aesthetic, draws you in through intellectual ingenuity, and finally hits you with an emotional punch. This sort of game has been much imitated, and elaborated upon, since. But it’s probable that nothing beats the original.