Tunnel Vision: Indirect Communication and Bold Lighting in SHOCK CORRIDOR
12 October 2014
The film opens with a doctor (Philip Ahn) adjusting his framed diploma, which hangs on a wall in his office. Through the frame’s glass, the audience’s first impression of the doctor is indirect; viewers only see the doctor’s reflection. The shot cuts to Johnny (Peter Breck), the antihero, seated on a coach in the office as the doctor questions him. Although the camera does capture Johnny directly, Johnny is side-lit, meaning half of his face is flooded with light, but the other half is in complete darkness.
The first shots of a film are significant. Typically, they foreshadow plot, reveal background information, and/or capture mood of the film. In Simon Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963), the first few shots of the film communicate to viewers that deceit and secrecy are pivotal elements of the film.
First, meeting a character initially through a reflection often communicates that the character is deceitful and withholding truth(s). The doctor’s appearance is hidden from the audience upon the first meeting; figuratively, he cannot face the audience. Why is that?
Moreover, Johnny is only half lit; half of his face is concealed from the audience. Side lighting is very different than shooting a character through a reflection (the doctor), but, like the doctor, Johnny is not being direct with viewers. Part of him is openly on display, but an equally sized part of him hides in the shadows of the lighting. Again, why is that?
As this opening scene progresses, the audience learns that the doctor is not treating Johnny for the incestuous feelings he claims to have for his sister; the doctor is coaching Johnny to fool other doctors into thinking Johnny is sexual aroused by his sibling. In Shock Corridor, Johnny is a reporter trained to infiltrate a mental asylum, by pretending his is insane, in order to solve a murder which occurred inside the institution.
Therefore, retrospectively, viewers see the doctor indirectly, through the glass, because he is lying. Through a reflection, the audience recognizes the man as a doctor, but cannot clearly see that his questions to Johnny are not authentic, but merely a rehearsed test. And, Johnny is side lit because he is keeping his true self hidden during the doctor’s questions; he shows half of his face, but is lying, thus leaving most of his face, his true identity, hidden and unlit.
This indirectness continues after Johnny enters the asylum, with the mask Trent wears and in the superimpositions of Cathy (Constance Towers) dancing on Johnny’s pillow as he sleeps. Like the doctor’s introduction through the reflection, Cathy’s superimposed dancing is not direct communication. These images of Cathy are Johnny’s manifestations of her, as a stripper, threatening infidelity and defiance. Like the doctor who was not who he appeared to be, Cathy is not who Johnny dreams her to be in the superimposed scenes.
Nevertheless, Johnny blurs the line between reality and fantasy, as well as his own sanity and insanity, justifying a continued use of indirect filming techniques, climaxing in Johnny’s actual mental breakdown, which is shown clearest through a Technicolor, powerful image of rushing water. Figuratively, this powerful rush of water floods the scene as Johnny finally loses his ability to control his own mind. Like the aforementioned techniques, the cut to stock footage of rushing water is another way the film uses and indirectness as a technique.
And so defines Shock Corridor, a film that specializes in indirect communication and experiments in dramatic, bold lighting (particularly around Johnny) to consistently communicate the striking juxtapositions between truth and lies, sane and insane, and right and wrong.
The dramatic and bold lighting used to capture Johnny in his establishing shot continues. As Johnny receives electroshock treatment, his doctor is in complete darkness. This is a rich, valuable use of intense lighting. First, this lighting connects to the film’s juxtaposition between truth and reality. The doctor, literally, is in the dark at this moment; he thinks Johnny is mentally unstable and therefore needs his help, but the doctor has no idea Johnny is lying. Thus, the doctor in this shot, quite literally, is in the dark.
And, this bold lighting also connects to the film’s attempt to juxtapose sanity and insanity. The doctor is completely fooled into believing Johnny is insane, but (at this point in the film) he is not. Therefore, the doctor, the one trained in sanity, acts more insane that the patient because he cannot distinguish insanity from educated pretend. In this shot, the dark is the place of insanity, just as that dark side, insanity, existed in Johnny right from the start, in that doctor’s office, ultimately overtaking him in the film’s conclusion.