Monday, 12 November 2007
In Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor, Johnny Barrett is a brilliant journalist who feigns sexual perversion to get committed to a lunatic asylum where a murder has been committed, which he wants to solve and win the Pulitzer Prize.
Once inside the mental home, Barrett ingratiates himself with the three witnesses to the crime – an operatic uxoricide; a black Klansman; and a genius nuclear physicist who has regressed to childhood to escape the guilt over his catastrophic discoveries – and cracks the case but only at the expense of cracking up himself.
The film begins and ends with the famous quote from Euripides – ‘whom God wishes to destroy, He first makes mad’ – and Fuller seems well versed in Greek tragedy.
Johnny Barrett is like Oedipus, a man with a brilliant intellect, supremely confident of himself and his mental powers, trying to track down a murderer, to uncover the truth of a horrible crime, only to succumb to insanity and ruin.
Barrett like Oedipus fails to realise the dangers inherent in the obsessive pursuit and acquisition of knowledge; is oblivious to the limits of self-knowledge (know thyself/gnothi seauton does not mean acquire self-mastery but know the limitations of human nature); and aspires to the truth not for its own sake, or for the love of enquiry, but to subdue the truth and satisfy his ego.
Christopher Rocco and Bernard Knox say that, in the figure of Oedipus, Sophocles is satirising Periclean/imperial Athens – Oedipus tyrannos as Athens tyrannos – and warning of the perils for individuals and cities in love with power:
‘Oedipus embodies the splendor and power of Athens: his attempt to assert dominion over nature and his unquenchable drive for human mastery; his forcefulness of purpose, his impatience, decisiveness, and daring, bordering on recklessness; his intoxication with his own accomplishments, his liberation from the constraints of all traditional pieties; his restlessness, innovation, and ingenuity; his designs that are swift alike in conception and execution, all recall the “fierce creative energy, the uncompromising logic, the initiative and daring which brought Athens to the pinnacle of worldly power.”’
Not only do Oedipus’ attributes recall Athens, but they also recall America, and Fuller, too, in Shock Corridor is interested in unveiling America tyrannos and showing us a hubristic society, prone to self-destruction and insanity.