How Shutter Island invokes the spirit of Sam Fuller and Shock Corridor - Martin Scorsese interview
With Shutter Island Martin Scorsese channels the spirit of Sam Fuller. Alistair Harkness asks him if he likes walking with ghosts
‘Sam Fuller and Shock Corridor can only be conjured as a mantra!’ barks Martin Scorsese, pointing his finger purposefully at yours truly. ‘Shock Corridor is a classic work of art! It’s unique; it comes from the unique experience of being Sam Fuller.’ The diminutive demigod of modern American moviemaking is setting The List straight on the late, great pulp auteur’s influence on his new film Shutter Island. Why? Because we’ve tentatively suggested that this trippy, technicoloured psychological horror freak-out is something of a homage to Fuller’s lurid 1963 cult favourite.
Admittedly, it’s an obvious comparison to make, especially since Shutter Island – which takes place in 1954 in a mist-shrouded fortress for the criminally insane – finds Scorsese regular Leonardo DiCaprio playing a WWII veteran turned frazzled detective investigating the mysterious disappearance of a patient. The plot and Scorsese’s vividly over-the-top visuals can’t help but echo Shock Corridor’s pugnacious, primitive, tabloid-style tale about a self-serving journalist going nuts in the nuthouse as he commits himself to an asylum to investigate a murder – and nor can the wilfully blunt political subtexts that use the isolated halls of an asylum as a metaphor for the insanity of America in both movies.
‘Yes, there’s always that aspect of Shock Corridor hovering around the picture,’ concedes Scorsese, ‘but never specifically. I didn’t even screen it.’ Reeling off a list of films he did watch in preparation – Otto Preminger’s 1944 detective film Laura; Jacques Tourneur’s noir classic Out of the Past (1947) – it becomes clear that Scorsese’s attempt to downplay comparisons with Fuller may well be out of respect for the life he led.
By the time Fuller, a first generation Polish-Jewish immigrant, got round to establishing himself as one of America’s most iconoclastic filmmakers, he’d already acquired more worldly experience than most people could ever hope to attain in several lifetimes. A journalist in his teens, a crime reporter in his 20s, a combat soldier in his 30s, he was on Omaha beach on 6 June 1944 and was present at the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Falkenau, experiences he later ploughed into his hard-edge genre films The Steel Helmet (1951) and his butchered masterwork, The Big Red One (1980).
Traces of these films are certainly present in the backstory of DiCaprio’s character, who is haunted by the horrific scenes he witnessed as one of the first American soldiers through the gates of the Dachau concentration camp. But that’s also the fundamental difference implicit in Scorsese’s reluctance to be likened to Fuller. He knows that while his experience of life came mostly through movies (‘I had asthma, I couldn’t go anywhere,’ he chuckles while going off on a tangent to explain his love of Westerns), Fuller’s was firsthand.
Still, that doesn’t negate their shared passion for the moving image. Fuller once likened movies to a battlefield – ‘Love, hate, action, death – in one word, emotion!’ – and Scorsese insists it was the emotion inherent in Shutter Island that first hooked him. As for Shock Corridor, even if Scorsese didn’t screen it for reference, that’s probably because he didn’t need to. ‘It’s in us,’ he says wistfully. ‘It’s in me, anyway, so in a way I could conjure support just by saying the name “Shock Corridor” as I was going to shoot.’
Shutter Island is on general release from Fri 12 Mar.