Mad About Movies

Scorsese, Shutter Island, and the cinematic shadow world of mental illness
by Rob Nelson  posted February 19, 2010
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If Val Lewton had been a happier man, a more confident man, he probably wouldn’t have been so drawn to the darkness, the shadow world, and he wouldn’t have wanted to take us with him.
—Martin Scorsese, narrating Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows (2007), written and directed by Kent Jones

Martin Scorsese the maestro, yes, the hyper-obsessive film historian and devoted preservationist, the narrative and stylistic reconfigurer of all he’s seen and heard at the movies—i.e., our resident curator of The Movies. But, give or take his status as a happy or confident man, is Scorsese not also, and just as impressively, the American cinema’s most insistent surveyor of that “shadow world” known as mental illness?

For this distinction, Scorsese hardly needed to have directed Shutter Island, his first movie to fully institutionalize this condition—or, if you prefer, his first to wrestle with the psychoanalytic and insane asylum subgenres, within which Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor is but the most obvious entry. In '76, Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle would surely have been committed if, as Pauline Kael memorably observed, New York City hadn’t been crazier than him. Raging Bull’s Jake La Motta could’ve been a contender for the title of most violent prisoner on Shutter Island if he hadn’t simply been doing his job. Indeed, all Scorsese’s villains and most of his heroes, Christ included, are cracked; some are just lucky enough to avoid the consequences. (In place of a padded cell, and for the privilege of being Howard Hughes, The Aviator’s protagonist has, uh, a private screening room.)

So what the new film merely reasserts, if with a wallop, is that character in Scorsese’s films almost always trumps genre as a governing force, and precisely for the character’s instability. The rule certainly holds for the auteur’s nonfiction, as both American Boy’s speedy Steven Prince and No Direction Home’s wigged-out, proto-punk Bob Dylan circa ‘66 can be seen banging their heads against the walls of biographical documentary, sparring in their respective rings and mirroring La Motta’s dressing-room plea to “gimme a stage where this bull here can rage.” Even The Departed, the Scorsese movie with the least subjectivity (and, accordingly, the most commercial success), foregrounds a nut job (Jack Nicholson) vying for complete control. “I don’t want to be a product of my environment,” declares Nicholson’s mob boss Frank Costello (or should one say Nicholson?) in the film’s first words. "I want my environment to be a product of me.”

Shutter Island is nothing if not a product of Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), the “mental hospital” investigator who, like journalist Johnny Barrett in Shock Corridor, comes to resemble a patient. That Daniels may not be right in the head is signaled early by a violent vomiting episode and, of all things, an ordinary Band-Aid above his furrowed brow. Drawing, as always, on our memories of other movies, Scorsese toys with the fine line between sanity and insanity, and between authority figures and their charges, by casting Ted Levine and John Carroll Lynch—a.k.a. Buffalo Bill and the Zodiac—as Ashecliffe Hospital’s warden and his deputy. (Meanwhile, a key inmate is played by Elias Koteas, who supplied the voice of Val Lewton in The Man in the Shadows.)

But Shutter Island—unlike Scorsese’s Cape Fear—isn’t principally an exercise in cleverly telegraphed allusion or even in horror. Indeed, acting more Kubrickian than ever, the director (who also co-produced the film) uses the promise of horror—of another Cape Fear, really—to subvert expectations as thoroughly as did The Shining, wherein Kubrick offered nothing terribly supernatural besides the twin horrors of parenthood and writer’s block. So while Shutter Island’s official sources, some screened for its cast and crew, include Shock Corridor and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the deeper ones—still within B-movie noir and German Expressionism—include Lewton’s Bedlam (1946) and G.W. Pabst’s pioneering Secrets of a Soul (1926).


Subtitled “A Psychoanalytic Film” and made with the understanding, if not the support, of Sigmund Freud, Secrets of a Soul bridges the cinematic gap between expressionism and surrealism, its violent dream sequences predating those of Un chien andalou by three years. It starts on the image of a razor being sharpened—just like Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and The Big Shave (1967), as it happens (but let’s not make too much of that). In the midst of shaving, a man known as “The Husband” (Werner Krauss) gets a deep-seated inkling that he may wish to use his blade on the missus (Ruth Weyher), and not only to trim the hair on her neck.

Shutter Island’s own intimations of spousal-slaughter fantasy may not stem directly from Secrets of a Soul. But its spiral staircase—albeit functioning like Vertigo’s and credited by Scorsese to the one in The Red Shoes—surely does. Sprouting out of the ground like some psychedelic mushroom, a bell tower wrapped in steps gives Pabst’s hallucinating protagonist, like Daniels, the momentary illusion of reaching a steep realization. But, in deference to the movie’s prescribing doctor, what the Husband needs first is couch time.

Befitting its place in history, Secrets resolves cleanly through the interpretation of dreams after illustrating, as the film’s co-screenwriter Karl Abraham wrote in his pitch to Freud, “repression, the unconscious, the dream, parapraxis, anxiety, et cetera”(!). Ultimately, the Husband’s rage is but a well-marked speed bump en route to breeding.

Twenty years later, with precious little of cine-psychiatric import in between (as though crazy movies require triggering by the madness of war), Bedlam, set in 1760s London, seeks to treat not the patient so much as the institution. The movie’s titular madhouse is very nearly a barnyard, with patients sleeping on straw like animals when not howling in physical or psychic pain. More insane, but in charge, Master George Sims (Boris Karloff) uses Bedlam’s residents as de facto circus freak performers for the royal court’s demented entertainment. (The extent to which Lewton uses them differently for his own audience is, like dreams, open to interpretation.)

Like Vertigo, interestingly, Bedlam (directed by Mark Robson) opens with a fragile man losing his grip on a rooftop gutter. It ends with a title-card reassurance that asylum “reforms were begun in 1773,” and that its hospital has since “led the way to enlightened and sensible treatment of the mentally ill.” (In another two decades, Frederick Wiseman’s lacerating Titicut Follies would verily beg to differ.) Of Bedlam, Scorsese (and/or Jones) says that “more than any other Lewton film, it’s at odds with itself”—i.e., the film is a split personality case, torn between horror and historical drama. Ditto Shutter Island, set in 1954, which is vaguely treated as a rupturing year on account of the A-bomb, HUAC, and TV (not to mention repression, the unconscious, the dream, parapraxis, anxiety...).

But in the end, one has the sense that Shutter Island is not a personal journey with Martin Scorsese through American history or American movies so much as one through his movies and, presumably, his history. More than a “highly developed and fantastical narrative,” in the words of one of its doctors, Shutter Island fills the inimitable Scorsese prescription, being his umpteenth film about the psychic costs incurred by a man who needs or prefers to engage his painful life at a remove.

I’m thinking here of the white-haired gent sitting on a park bench, straining for a glimpse of the woman he has craved for years and cannot have (The Age of Innocence); the bookie peering through thick bifocals at TV images of the playground where he once was king (Casino); the holy man gazing through a telescope at his own lost world (Kundun); the frail and asthmatic young boy surveying the mean streets of Little Italy from his upper-floor bedroom window and visiting the old country via Open City, keeping company with Paisan.

This last character, of course, would grow to become a certifiable cinephiliac, a fiery workaholic who has burned through nearly as many wives as genres; one could play his shrink and suppose that he identifies with U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, a man haunted by faint memories of past lives, of kids he fears he could’ve saved. A decade ago, Bringing Out the Dead suggested that Scorsese, perhaps with help from the Dalai Lama, had come to peace with himself at the expense of his art. Shutter Island all but proves that the director, despite his happy Oscar win, is still drawn to the shadow world. On this bitter earth, his last temptation, thank God, remains ahead. 


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Paramount Pictures
Ben Kingsley, Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese and Mark Ruffalo on the set of Shutter Island
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Rob Nelson is a member of the National Society of Film Critics and an adjunct instructor of film studies at Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

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