Culture  /  TV Review

The All-American Crack-Up in 1960s Hollywood Cinema

Starting in the 1960s, more and more Hollywood films depicted an increasingly violent and alienated American society quickly losing its mind.

There’s a riveting new Criterion Channel series called Hollywood Crack-Up: The Decade American Cinema Lost Its Mind. It’s a category of 1960s films featuring characters spinning out of control, breaking down, going insane. But from a socialist standpoint, the series is most compelling in the way these films expose the context for breakdown, showing the madness built into American social systems and the cultural cruelties that govern ordinary life here.

In the 1960s, more and more filmmakers were recognizing America as a place that seems designed to send its citizens right over the edge. The line-up of films includes cult favorites (Pretty Poison, Targets), interesting experiments by respected directors (Faces, Lilith, Uptight, The Chase), and very obscure but startling low-budget films (Pressure Point, The World’s Greatest Sinner) along with well-known studio productions (The Manchurian Candidate, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Shock Corridor, Seconds, Point Blank).

Several of the films deal literally with mental health crises, but in ways that make them offbeat, thought-provoking social critiques. Samuel Fuller’s wild pulp mind-bender Shock Corridor (1963) centers on an obsessively ambitious reporter named Johnny Barrett who’s convinced he might win the Pulitzer Prize if he feigns mental illness well enough to be institutionalized and then solve a murder that was committed in the asylum.

The callous way he ignores the pleas of his girlfriend, who’s the only one perceiving the psychological danger of being locked up with mentally ill people for months, demonstrates that he’s already a bit unbalanced. And the fact that she works as an exotic dancer, a job she finds demeaning, attests to the precarity of their ordinary lives.

Inside the asylum, we meet various characters whose mental illness is a direct result of the insanity of American life. One patient is a physicist who helped to build the atomic bomb and is so appalled by the government’s use of it that he’s has regressed to the mental state of a six-year-old.

Another is a veteran of the Korean War, who’d been captured by the North Koreans and indoctrinated as a communist. Dishonorably discharged and reviled as a traitor upon his return home to the Deep South, he’s sunk into a delusion that he’s Confederate General J. E. B. Stuart, fighting a perpetual Civil War in the halls of the asylum.

And a third patient had been one of the first black students to integrate a Southern university, and the racist abuse he suffered there has pushed him into psychosis. He believes he’s a white member of the Ku Klux Klan, spouting white nationalist talking points at his fellow inmates. He’s forever stealing pillowcases so he can cut eyeholes in them and wear them as masks, and every time he sees the black man who works as a janitor there, he pursues him down the hall, shouting, “Stop him before he marries my daughter!”