Roman Polanski blew down the doors by galvanizing psycho-sexual fervor with heated religious fire-and-brimstone when he asked us to pray for Rosemary’s Baby, but his three earlier films carve out a cavern of their own in the film world. They each build on one another, gnawing and preying into Polanski’s particular and peculiar form of bellowing salacious night-sweats. His debut, Knife in the Water, is a casual work that reveals itself a formalist’s dream, a monomaniacal machination of Deep Focus emptiness and harsh angle-populated mise-en-scene that finds in its very visual bones the piercing acuteness of his class parable. His follow-up, Cul-de-sac, maintains this carefully delineated limbo-like location-work and adds its own doses of jangled nerves, introducing a particularly controversial and transgressive dose of blackened humor to Polanski’s already darkly playful attitude toward human sexuality.
It wasn’t until Polanski’s third film, and his English language debut, that he siphoned all of the raw edges of his filmmaking into a laser-like screech into the night. Not coincidentally, the film he produced also happened to be his first work of outright horror, Repulsion. Now, most of Polanski’s works are blackly humorous horrors in some fashion, but he reserved his special interests for taking the genre to task directly and without outside influence. Chinatown, still probably his best film, saw his other love for diluted-expressionist noir grown to full form, but he would never again make a film as primal and pure in its visual burst of trauma as Repulsion. It is simply one of the most disruptive English language films ever made, and that Polanski saw fit to shake things up so ruthlessly this early in his quest to play with the big boys is nothing short of exasperating.
Like almost all of Polanski’s most unfettered films, Repulsion stakes its claim on one location, a location of the mind. Endlessly repressed and on the edge of sanity, Carol Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve in an agasp enigma of a performance, one of the bravest ever for an actress in an English film), is sent home one day from work for acting out of sort. Her sister Helen is away on vacation and the men in her life, all of whom she has a tentative relationship with, approach her with the patronizing eye of someone improving a project, and not someone interested in love. Alone, pitied, and lost to her own mind, Ledoux finds solace in freedom, until freedom finds a victim in her.
Polanski gives unto this film like he had never before, transfixing his camera on Deneuve with a sigh and a tear or two as her world crumbles down around her. Of course, being that this is Polanski, he can’t but take part in the destruction, playing her like a piano and breaking every string he can. It’s a careful, contained work that is matched in its formal precision only by its slightly looser aesthetic of canted angle and intentionally grubby mise-en-scene that would speak to future maestros of low-key grime like George A. Romero for his Repulsion quoting work Night of the Living Dead three years later. Polanski has a particularly delicious time with framing devices like mirrors to separate and cut through Deneuve as an image. Outbursts into outright horror, such as a sequence where ghoulish arms grasp out at Deneuve from every direction like fragments of her mind, lash out into the night, but the film is a much more holistic brew of simmering tension and frightening ellipsis.
Polanski doesn’t rest on the laurels of theme – he’s a filmmaker’s filmmaker, always using craft and directorial voice to massage out the complications bubbling underneath. Knife in the Water and Cul-de-sac used dividing lines and sharp lateral movement to segment off class levels and humans against one another, but if they are mostly known in terms of class, they also had eyes for gender study as well. Repulsion, although not as nuanced as his later Rosemary’s Baby, has a slightly more passionate, un-embellished nature about its analysis of a woman’s mind, cut off from the public world and written off as of lesser import. The film’s internal-rendered-external aesthetic captures with bone-chilling fluency and directness the long-suffering seclusion of women into the private sphere, the locking away of Carol and all those like her into the quiet reaches of non-public society. She becomes lost in her own mind because there was nowhere outward to look.
An electro-tinged bolt of pure power, Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor channeled noirish B-movie prowess like a bolt of the good stuff right into the heart of an un-listening world. It’s a Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together out of equal parts muckraking j’accuse and boisterous midnight film buoyancy, all shocked into vitality with elemental fear and direct, brutally elegant filmmaking that knows not an ounce of sentimentalism. It’s directing on the edge of its mind, jagged and feral and with the buzz-saw efficiency of the rock ‘n’ roll in its infancy at the time of the film’s release.
Fuller’s film has something to say, and it sure does know how to get around to saying it without anyone or anything getting in its way. Cruel and cutting, the film spools out with the hard metallic edge and brutal single-minded approach of a speeding bullet to the nerve of America’s core. Peter Breck stars as a stubborn, zealous reporter in a desperate, unending quest for fame and success. Willing to do anything to win his Pulitzer Prize, he takes to the muckrake biz and has himself admitted to a mental health facility (although Fuller sees through the niceties and posits that superficially progressive names only hide the shocked and rattled oppression occurring within such facilities). A murder occurred recently in the facility, and Breck’s character suspects hell to pay for the facility itself. Once in however, little separates him from the rough edges of the facility, and its all-domineering weight crushing down on him.
The film was important at its time for the torn-and-frayed fierceness with which it unambiguously took the mental health industry to task, specifically targeting their penal policies that favored shock treatment and other such mechanisms to reform through pain rather than caring and love. Admittedly, the film undeniably essentializes its subject matter, presenting the patients of the hospital sympathetically but like a series of ghoulish outsiders or experiments gone wrong, and the ethics of this fried-up brand of horror casting is questionable to say the least. Yet the film, sharing not a little of Breck’s agitation, wins over in the end. The primordial filmmaking, noirish and grittily realistic in equal measure, and as bent-up and lurching as it is ready to explode, carries its subject along like a rush of blood to the head.
It’s fitting that the film is mad, for it’s a work about madness. Not the madness of mental asylum patients, but the madness of a system that bumps them up against torturous methods of persecution under the name of help, the madness of a society who doesn’t much care about those inmates or this institution in the first place, and the madness of a reporter who would go to any length to solve a murder mystery, even sacrifice his own health, and do so not because he wants to help anyone or because he cares about justice, but because he wants to be famous. This sort of material could have, and by most filmmakers probably would have, been given to sleepily respectable prestige pic production. But when you hear the idea, doesn’t it just beckon for something a little more ravaged?
Certainly, it seemed like that to Fuller, elsewhere prone to these sorts of left-of-center variations on genre pics that superficially recreated their norms but in reality imbued them with a vigor and delusional straightforwardness that feels forever fresh. There’s an obvious silliness to this material that may turn off audiences. It’s an easy response to call Fuller’s work archaic, obsolete and even loony, and an understandable one. But it is harder still to latch onto Fuller’s heated vision and comprehend his hysterics in terms of the undeniable potency and life-blood he shoots into the stagnant corpse of early ’60s American cinema. Yes, Shock Corridor is not a nuanced film, but it also doesn’t especially beckon for nuance in the first place. This is fire-and-brimstone filmmaking, ablaze and beastly and always ready for a fight. The fragmentary cutting, graininess, superimposed art-house stripteases all about blunt human motion, and hypnotically charged color-inserts of geographic decay, depicting the world’s mind on its final legs, all ball together and fly at us from Fuller’s hand only to knock us square in the senses. It doesn’t for a second approach courtesy, and if it plays with fire, it’s ready to burn. Just so long as it can send the world to hell with it, for in Fuller’s vision, it’s already heading there anyway.