Thursday, June 27, 2002


Quite a movie. I've heard a lot, good and bad, about this film, directed by Samuel Fuller; it's not exactly a "classic," but as B-movie surprises go, it ranks fairly high in my book. Danny Peary, in GUIDE FOR THE FILM FANATIC, says that, more than any other movie does, this one "treads the line between art and trash," and that's true. In fact, at times, it's downright sleazy. Peter Breck (who later played Nick on "The Big Valley") plays a reporter who goes undercover at an asylum to solve the murder of an inmate. Rather than trying to get the cooperation of either the police or the asylum staff, he fakes a mental illness with the help of his girlfriend. Here comes the sleazy part: she (a stripper who hangs out with hookers) pretends to be his sister and she has him brought up on charges of attempted incest--if that's not enough, he also pretends to have a fetish for her braided hair!! There are plot holes galore throughout, the biggest one being the strange assumption that living with the insane will inevitably bring on insanity,as though it were passed along like the common cold. A couple of subplots about fellow patients involve some interesting attempts at social commentary. A young man (Hari Rhodes of "Daktari") who was the only black student at a Southern university is a patient, made schizophrenic by the racism he encounters--a theory that has some proponents today. Other inmates include a white man driven nuts by the prejudices instilled in him by his parents (today, he might be branded "dysfunctional"), and a scientist who helped create atomic weapons. The implication seems to be that the social ills of the modern world can drive people insane.

Sometimes, the film feels downright amateurish--bad dialogue, weak plotting, spotty acting, especially Breck's which veers all over the map. But the stark noirish black & white cinematography is stunning, with great use of light and shadow; it turns the liability of cheap sets into an asset (although even here, the photography can go from moody to half-assed in a few seconds flat). Breck's fake hysteria and real hysteria are played exactly the same, and he often winds up shrieking in a bizarrely feminine, almost childlike way that was creepily amusing. I guess I admire him for throwing himself into the strange part with such gusto, but sometimes he feels like a really good community theater actor who is in over his head. The "mystery" plot is silly and quite lazily plotted. It's difficult to wholeheartedly recommend this, but I *did* enjoy it in a kind of guilty pleasure way, and it's certainly a unique viewing experience. The Criterion DVD print is, for the most part, clear and sharp, accenting the movie's best feature: its look.

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