Go on stage, while I’m nearly delirious?
I don’t know what I’m saying or what I’m doing!
— “Vesti la giubba,” Pagliacci, Ruggero Leoncavallo
[CW: mental illness, ableism]
An Icarus myth for the post-Freudian era, Shock Corridor follows Johnny (Peter Breck), a ruthless journalist who goes undercover at a psych ward to solve a murder and write a Pulitzer-winning article, but suffers damage to his own mind in the process. The murder mystery plays out with all the complexity of a videogame fetch quest, but the the film has cult status due to its evocative exploration of the protagonist’s downfall. Exploitation excitement is applied liberally, including how the plot kicks off: Johnny gains admittance to the mental hospital by pretending that he has an overwhelming sexual attraction to his sister– played by his exotic dancer girlfriend Carol (Constance Towers)– which manifests in part as a fetish for long hair.
Once inside, he meets a number of astonishing characters among his fellow patients, who can be roughly separated into two categories. The first category is patient-characters, those with a tragic backstory steeped in social conflict that causes delusions of a false identity; of note is Trent (Hari Rhodes, whose performance blazes), a young black man whose sanity crumpled under the racist backlash of being the first black student at a segregated college, and now believes himself to be a white supremacist and founder of the KKK. The second is patient-caricatures, bit players who crudely cater to the conflation of mental illness with freakishness, such as the predacious pack of nymphomaniacs who assault Johnny, or the catatonic schizophrenics furnishing the ward hallway where much of the action takes place.
Among the inmates of the hospital that Johnny meets is Pagliacci (Larry Tucker), a fat man who is mentally immersed in opera. Pagliacci occupies a space in between these two kinds of inmate. He isn’t a patient-caricature: he has a name, a personality, an ongoing relationship with Johnny. He is more like the patient-characters, those patients whom the audience are shown to be something apart from their mental illness. The veracity of these personal details are open to question, however; Johnny’s voiceover, serving as an objective narrator, gives us information about the patient-characters’ lives before they talk about themselves. Pagliacci is not afforded this confirmation. Similarly, the three patient-characters have lucid moments where they monologue about their personal histories, explicitly detailing how contemporary issues intersected with their personal struggles (a signature of Samuel Fuller films), whereas Pagliacci is never given a monologue that connects him to a macro-level conflict.
The entire film can be read as grotesque, but its most vivid embodiment is Pagliacci. I use this term not as an aesthetic or value judgment on his body, but in reference to the grotesque as an artistic concept, “a hesitation between horror and comedy… often rooted heavily in the physical…the inside becomes the outside, and the outside becomes the inside.” He manifests the grotesque through a presence that speaks to the threat of potential disorder, through his defiance of easy categorization, and through his subversion of expectations set up by the other characters.
Pagliacci delivers the chaos and abnormality that the audience expects from a film set in an asylum. When the audience is still being introduced to the hospital as the movie’s main setting, he starts a melee in the cafeteria. This facet of the character is arguably the one most blatantly symbolized the most by actor Larry Tucker’s body. Pagliacci is not husky or chubby: he is markedly fatter than most film characters, even most people than the “typical” audience member would know in real life. His body differentiates him from the other characters, and likely alienates him from viewers, making him more of a spectacle than a sympathetic character. The patient-characters all have some external display of their psychological conflict– Stuart wears a Civil War-era hat, Trent obsessively makes Klan hoods out of pillowcases, Boden sits on the floor like a child and draws with his crayons– but Pagliacci’s difference is intrinsic to his body, a body unlike any other on the screen. He also has longer hair than any of the other male patients and is the only one with a beard, adding to the physical manifestation of his abnormality. However, his mental state and personal history is hidden behind a veil of music, the external event that brought him to the hospital forever a mystery– the Samuel Fuller School of Psychology teaches us that mental illness is triggered by stressful life events– unlike the other patient-characters, whose histories are richly communicated to the audience.
The fat body is often used as a warning to straight-sized people: this could be you, if you fail to regulate your own body according to social norms. Pagliacci is a portent of Johnny’s loss of control, and the last scene shows a catatonic Johnny who has indeed lost control of his body. But Shock Corridor’s horror is fueled by losing control over one’s brain. Johnny has dangerously neglected to regulate his mind by entering into the world of the mental hospital, and the film tracks the downfall that is due to that choice. Pagliacci also provides foreshadowing for Johnny’s fate through the script: “When we’re asleep, no one can tell a sane man from an insane man.” Late in the film, Johnny’s breakdown begins when he hallucinates an indoor rainstorm. “I like the rain,” Pagliacci comments peacefully, validating his friend’s psychosis. Now that Johnny is also insane, Pagliacci has shifted from the childish kookiness he displays at the beginning of the film to placidity. Johnny screams in fear and agony, causing Pagliacci to chuckle. “That was such a sour note, John. You were way off key.”
Pagliacci conducts himself socially in a way that is markedly different from the other patients. He is the first patient Johnny interacts with, and is the only one to initiate interaction (except for the nymphomaniacs). After Johnny has been shown his room, Pagliacci welcomes him, grabbing his hair and putting his arm around Johnny’s shoulders. He rouses him from sleep several times. His transgression of social boundaries, coupled with his annoying habits and erratic behaviors, fulfill the audience’s expectations of him based on both his size and his insanity. Fat movie characters often act in socially inappropriate ways, tied closely to the idea that fat people are stupid and lack control, while at the same time providing comic relief or plot-driving villainy. This overlaps with how mentally ill people are often portrayed, acting in outlandish ways to signify their lack of control and provide a spectacle for the audience, usually making us fear for the protagonist’s safety. And between comic and horrific lies the grotesque.
Like the patient-characters and Johnny, we are given insight into Pagliacci’s mind. However, unlike the memories of life on the outside shared by the patient-characters or Johnny’s increasingly frantic scheming, Pagliacci’s thoughts are music, specifically “Largo al Factotum” from Giacomo Rossinni’s opera The Barber of Seville (aka “Figaro Figaro Figaro”). This is the song that Pagliacci sings constantly, creating a repetitive, off-key soundtrack that quickly becomes annoying. What is most likely is that the opera references in Shock Corridor are chosen for their recognizability. However, intentional or not, they create an interesting paradox: a character whose mind is apparently looping an aria from a comedy about a clever jack-of-all-trades who helps two people fall in love, but whose namesake is a tragedy about an actor who murders his unfaithful wife. After singing “Largo al Factotum” while he mimes stabbing Johnny, paralleling how Canio stabs his wife and her lover at Pagliacci’s climax, he recites its final line “La commedia è finita!” (Pagliacci is Italian for “clowns,” referring to the main characters’ travelling commedia dell’arte troupe. Canio is the protagonist’s name, the character on whom the image of the sad operatic clown is based.) Once again, Pagliacci is situated between categories.
Pagliacci subverts Johnny’s expectations of his fellow patients. Johnny’s motivation in going undercover at the mental hospital is to solve a murder, and his motivation for solving the murder is to win the Pulitzer Prize as a reward for his stunt. Even in solving the murder, he has no interest in raising concerns about the safety and fair treatment of the hospital patients (in contrast to Nellie Bly’s investigative journalism, presumably a historical inspiration for the film). Johnny treats his fellow patients as means to an end, treating the murder witnesses with empathy and understanding until they have lucid moments of reality. When this seeming miracle occurs, they want to talk about their lives and their trauma, but Johnny only wants to ask them about Sloane’s murder. Even when speaking to the final witness, who reveals that the murderer is an orderly who rapes patients, Johnny can only focus on getting the final piece of information needed to solve the murder. In a sense, the way Johnny treats the patient-characters is a microcosm of the way Fuller treats them, avoiding the temptation to create well-rounded characters who are living with mental illness in favor of human megaphones for his opinions on controversial issues and puzzles for his protagonist to solve. Pagliacci, however, is not a passive font of information waiting for Johnny to open him up. He does confirm that Sloane was killed in the kitchen with a knife, and demonstrates to Johnny that the hospital patients are capable of lucidity (what a revelation). But he reveals these things to Johnny on his own initiative. He pushes himself on Johnny. This serves to both protect the protagonist, such as encouraging him to chew gum to help him fall asleep, and to terrorize him, reminding the audience of the potential danger Johnny is in.
Pagliacci tells Johnny that he “died of a heart attack caused by overweight [sic],” and claims that many people came to his funeral because “they wanted to make sure [he] was dead.” In claiming a fatal heart attack and funeral as part of his history, Pagliacci presents himself as a living dead man, another paradox. This is a small but curious moment in the film, one that unsurprisingly lingered in my mind. Pagliacci subverts the pathologization of his body, a “morbidly obese” body that is prescriptively assigned an early heart attack and death, a fate that he claims but obviously has not come to pass. Perhaps he shares more in common with the other patient-characters than at first glance. Perhaps, in accordance with Shock Corridor’s logic, Pagliacci’s mental illness stems from being told so often that his heart would give out that his mind finally accepted the role of a dead man as the only acceptable way to exist in a culture that assigns fat people an early death, similarly to how Trent’s mind assumed the role of a white supremacist to exist in a culture that maintains racism as the status quo. This moment speaks to a mind uncontrolled by psychiatry, materialized in a physique uncontrolled by medicine.
He then tells Johnny that he killed his wife: “I despite butchery! I didn’t want my wife to die like Sloane, so I gently sang her to sleep.” Obviously Pagliacci is alive, so this statement throws a shadow of doubt over the rest of his words. Is Johnny sleeping next to a murderer? Or is Pagliacci conflating his own history with his namesake’s plot? Disorienting the truth of Shock Corridor also undermines what the audience expects from Pagliacci. Is he the dangerous person we expect from a mentally ill character? Or is he guilty of the crime of passion we expect from the climax of a dramatic opera? Is he the degenerate we expect fat men to be?
The grotesque unsettles us, presents us with something outside our ordinary experience that provokes simultaneous, divergent reactions. The paradoxes in Pagliacci’s identity put us as audience members at this crossroads. Is he the dead man to be pitied, the zany buffoon to be laughed at, or the unstable murderer to be feared? We don’t have one simple reaction to Pagliacci, but all three options are common ways the audience is led to react to fat characters, and none of the possibilities lead to empathy.