Opera Meets Film: How Samuel Fuller’s ‘Shock Corridor’ Expresses POV Through Rossini’s ‘Largo al Factotum’

By David Salazar

“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a section or a film in its entirety, highlighting the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment features Samuel Fuller’s “Shock Corridor.”

Journalist Johnny Barrett enters a psychiatric facility intent on discovering the mystery behind a murder and thus win himself the Pulitzer Prize. Unfortunately, his pursuit will cost him a great deal more than he anticipated – his sanity.

This is the premise on which Samuel Fuller’s masterwork “Shock Corridor” is built and everything in the film is employed toward creating an unstable and subversive world within the psychiatric ward.

One of the major early scenes to put us in this world of unease and imbalance takes place when Barrett does his best to fall asleep. As he dreams of his beloved girlfriend singing to him in his sleep, suddenly, we start to hear a male voice cutting into the dream, drowning out the sounds of the erotic dream Barrett was enjoying. The voice grows and grows and we recognize the opening lines of “Largo al Factotum” sung on simple “La’s.”

The opening lines get repeated again and again in this fashion until Barrett awakens to find out that the nightmarish and irritating voice is coming from Pagliacci, another patient in the ward who has a caricature of the iconic Caruso picture in the Leoncavallo opera stamped behind his bed.

After a series of single shots reveal the other patients deep in their sleep. It emphasizes how used to this racket they already are. A two-shot between Barrett and Pagliacci puts the power into the hands of the latter, who towers over his prone friend. He continues singing the same phrase over and over, grabbing Barrett, turning him over, and then plunging an imaginary knife into his back (in an act mirroring the murder that took place at the facility).

He goes on like this when suddenly, the orchestral accompaniment to the aria suddenly pops into the soundscape of the film. And then Fuller pulls off his most fascinating feat with this passage. The music cuts out, Pagliacci remains silent; we get other closeups of snoring patients, and the music returns with Pagliacci’s out-of-tune singing rambling on and on out of the control. He sings a phrase several bars ahead of the accompaniment and cutting it off. Then the music stops and he says – “La Commedia e finita.” Then he rambles on about his death, his funeral, Sloan’s murder, etc.

The film navigates a slippery slope in portraying the character’s mental illness through the musical interlude – the singing disjointed, off-pitch, and with the emergence of the musical accompaniment, completely out of time. The editing also suggests that the orchestral accompaniment is coming directly from Pagliacci’s point-of-view – he is the one hearing it, which furthers the sense of distortion when he rushes through it a few bars ahead.

For anyone listening to this passage, the effect is one of complete disorientation and irritation, placing us firmly in Barrett’s perspective as he tries to get a handle on his fellow patient and attempt to get information on him. It ultimately represents one of Fuller’s techniques at expressing the film’s increasingly experimental and off-putting nature as Barrett slowly but surely loses a grasp of his own mind.


Opera Meets Film