Directed by Samuel Fuller
This was my first Samuel Fuller. I am familiar that he has a rather great reputation as a filmmaker and have heard his film the Big Red One be called a seminal war film and a must see. I bought this Criterion DVD years ago. About 4 to be exact, and it just set in my ever growing collection.
This thread made me decide to throw it on and I’m sad to admit that I wasn’t impressed.
The film has interesting ideas behind it. The plot is very unique, the insane characters are vibrant in personality, especially a black man that goes on racist KKK rants with a hood made of a pillow case on, the humor mostly works, and it has a very well done fight scene when compared to its contemporary counterparts.
The issue here is that it never congeals. The protagonist John’s descent into madness feels haphazardly thrown in. There’s no build up to it and it just feels awkward. Artificial. As soon as he arrives in the mental hospital, he begins hallucinating. It’s very strange.
In fact, I would say that’s why a lot of the film doesn’t work for me. Too much of it relies on assumptions that only happen because they serve the plot. Certain dialogue heavy scenes feel horribly strange and insincere, such as when the lead girl talks to a police officer and nothing she says really alludes to incest but the cop instinctively knows and accepts that they should try institutionalization, or the conversation with the doctor where it goes as follows:
Doctor: “You know who I am?”
John: “Do you know who you are?”
Internal monologue by John: “Now ask me if I hear voices”
Doctor: Do you hear voices?
Its all very sloppy and off putting to me and keeps me from getting invested in anything because it never feels absurd or straight forward enough. Virtually almost every conversation is like this and it makes it hard to care about the characters.
Had John’s madness been more gradual, it would’ve been more potent. But with it beginning in an abrupt, forced manner, it robs the film of any emotional power. It feels like nothing changes and nothing matters.
It’s also thematically problematic, beginning and ending with a biblical quote about “Whomever God wants to destroy, he will first drive mad.” Okay, but why would God want to destroy John? His hubris? His doing this for glory? Sure, but he’s still TRYING TO SOLVE A MURDER. Why not punish the murder?
If you’re really interested in it, go for it. But I don’t recommend this film.