Saturday, August 14, 2010

Motion Studies: “Witness number 2: Trent”


Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) has some thrilling cuts. Chief among these cuts is a shot of Johnny Barret (Peter Breck) sitting on a bench in the corridor of the mental hospital he has committed himself to in order to pin the murderer of a patient in the kitchen. A catatonic man sits beside him, his arm forever raised in a half-salute to some invisible war commander. But in this shot, only his rigid hand is visible, outstretched as if pointing Johnny towards the culprit. Johnny looks to where the man points. Then there is the cut. A burst of horns accompany a sign that reads: “Integration and Democracy don’t mix. Go home, Nigger.”
            The sign is lowered to reveal the calm and convinced face of a young black man, Trent. He was the second witness to the murder, as Johnny’s voice over tells us. Naturally, it is shocking to see a black man holding this sign. But the visual curiosity undercuts the shock for the next few seconds. Trent’s black face is held in a dead-center profile, like the introduction to most other characters in this loony ensemble. His profile reminds us of a courageous portrait of a civil rights demonstrator, marching calmly against the tide of animosity. Except that Trent is marching against a gray background of white patients whose minds have long deserted them, wandering in and out on either side of the frame. A strip of white that lights the corridor recedes in to the background above Trent’s head. His dark face is an absolute contrast to this scene. It would be a moving image if we did not know that his sign read; “Go home, Nigger.”
            The cut is a great fact of film, a form of motion in itself. But what follows that cut must always sustain itself; live up to the cut, so to speak. What follows the cut to Trent’s sign in Shock Corridor could have been better if the music had not blared immediately and if Johnny had kept his voice-over introduction for later. Should Fuller have introduced the sick irony of the shot—the racist sign being held by a black man—after the stunning profile of Trent? Perhaps that would have sustained the shot better, adding a major element of surprise after the more subtle visual surprise. These are ways of arranging motion that directors must think of, but of course, they also have to think of the logical completion of the shot. The shot of Trent ends with him approaching Johnny. The camera has by now backed up some distance, and two orderlies come to either side of Trent to make sure he won’t act out. But the most interesting part of the end is the thing that doesn’t move at all and has stopped having any relevance on the direction of the scene. It is the catatonic soldier, still saluting, though he may as well be pointing the finger at every lunatic of the American experience trudging down this corridor.