“There is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains an element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.” – Douglas Sirk 

Shockproof (Douglas Sirk, 1949) has always been something of a cult film, and comes rather early in Sirk’s career in America. At just 79 minutes, it’s compact, full of unexpected twists and turns, and moves along like lightning. The film opens with a justly famous wordless sequence, a tracking shot that follows a young woman’s legs as she walks down Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles, enters a department store, buys some fashionable new clothes, then continues to a beauty salon, where she dyes her dark hair platinum blond, and then on to her first appointment with her parole officer in the Bradbury Building, a much-used location for numerous noir films.  

Not a word is spoken until Jenny Marsh (Patricia Knight) meets Griff Marat (Cornel Wilde), a by-the-book parole officer, who spells out the terms of her lifetime parole in no uncertain terms.  Released from prison after serving five years on a murder charge, Jenny’s still in love with the man she took the rap for, Harry Wesson (John Baragrey), a ne’er do well “refined” gambler. While Jenny promises to walk the straight and narrow, within days she is frequenting a bookie joint, where she consults with Monte (Frank Jaquet), a corrupt attorney, who hopes to have her parole illegally transferred to San Francisco, where she can escape the vigilant supervision of Griff. 

But the bookie joint is raided, Jenny is picked up, and Griff threatens to send her back to prison immediately. This threat is underscored by Griff’s brutal treatment of three-time parole violator Joe Wilson (King Donovan), who jumps to his death from the top floor of the Bradbury building rather than return to the penitentiary. Seemingly unmoved by Joe’s death, Griff torments Jenny with photos of women who have wasted away to nothing in prison, but then relents and takes her to dinner at his mother’s house instead, where Mrs. Marat (Esther Minciotti), who is blind, nevertheless immediately senses that Griff is attracted to her.

Griff is not only attracted to her; he soon arranges for Jenny to move into the family house, ostensibly to look after his mother, but also because he’s clearly infatuated with her. Griff’s rocklike exterior is beginning to crumble. Jenny still sneaks away to meet Harry, but she’s also starting to fall for Griff. When the San Francisco transfer comes through, Jenny turns it down, and Griff – by now completely smitten – impulsively proposes marriage. 

Jenny is forbidden under the terms of her parole to marry, but Griff convinces her to fly to Las Vegas for a quickie wedding. This suits Harry perfectly; the illegal union opens up unlimited possibilities for blackmail. But when Harry tries to put on the squeeze, Jenny shoots him; she’s really in love with Griff. Despite his years of service, and love of the law (his motto is “always straight – always right”), Griff can’t bring himself to turn Jenny in, and the film shifts into high gear, as the two lovers go on the run. 

Born Hans Detlef Sierck on April 26, 1897, in Hamburg, Germany, Sirk started as a theatre and film director in Germany, until he was forced to leave his native land in 1937 as the Nazis consolidated their power. Fleeing to America via Holland and France, Sirk and his second wife, Hilde Jary, landed in the United States, and Sirk almost immediately went to work.

His first American film, Hitler’s Madman (1943), an exposé of the brutal Nazi commandant Reinhard Heydrich murdered by members of the Czech resistance, was made for Producer’s Releasing Corporation, arguably the cheapest studio in Hollywood, starring John Carradine as Heydrich, a role he attacked with his customary relish. But the completed film was so impressive that MGM picked it up, along with Sirk, ordered some reshoots, and released it as an MGM film; the only time that ever happened at PRC, the bottom rung of Poverty Row. 

Sirk was thus launched in America, and directed a series of low budget features for various studios, including Summer Storm (1944), A Scandal in Paris (1946), The Strange Woman (co-directed with fellow émigré Edgar G. Ulmer), Lured (1947, with Lucille Ball and Boris Karloff), and Sleep, My Love (1948), before Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia, tapped him to direct the aptly titled Shockproof

Based on a script by director Sam Fuller, with additional material by Helen Deutsch, Shockproof is filled with wild improbabilities, and is a decidedly down-market affair for star Cornel Wilde, who just five years earlier had commanded the US box office with his performance in the superb noir Leave Her To Heaven (John M. Stahl, 1945). Patricia Knight, who has a peculiarly intense screen presence in the film, was married to Wilde this point in her career, though they would divorce in 1951. 

Working at Columbia, Sirk was able to take advantage of a major Hollywood studio’s considerable resources, even for a minor picture, and the film is superbly photographed by Charles Lawton, Jr. with gowns by Jean Louis, a sharp score by George Duning, and a memorably slimy performance by the unjustly forgotten John Baragrey as Harry Wesson. Baragrey worked primarily in early television, and much of his work is lost, but he racked up more than 70 credits in television and film before his death in 1975. 

As for Sirk, Shockproof was just part of the opening act in a brilliant if eccentric career. After moving to Universal International and directing a series of undistinguished program pictures, producer Ross Hunter selected Sirk to direct the Technicolor melodrama Magnificent Obsession (1954), and Sirk went all out to direct a sudsy masterpiece. This was followed by the four films that consolidated Sirk’s reputation: All That Heaven Allows (1955), There’s Always Tomorrow (1955), Written on the Wind (1956) and Imitation of Life (1959). 

It is for these lavish, over the top romantic dramas that Sirk is best remembered today, but one should not overlook his earlier efforts, films that are full of surprises, and possess the same driving intensity that informed his later work. Shockproof is a real gem of film, hard, brutal, and constantly creative, a real testament to what one can do with a small film, if one really commits to the material at hand. 

Shockproof (1949 United States 79 minutes)

Prod Co: Columbia Prod: Earl McEvoy, Helen Deutsch, S. Sylvan Simon Dir: Douglas Sirk Scr: Samuel Fuller, Helen Deutsch Phot: Charles Lawton Jr. Ed: Gene Havlick Prod Des: Carl Anderson Mus: George Duning

Cast: Patricia Knight, Cornel Wilde, John Baragrey, Esther Minciotti, Howard St. John, Russell Collins, King Donovan, Fred F. Sears

About The Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor Emeritus of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, editor of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture for Rutgers University Press, which has to date published more than twenty volumes on various cultural topics. He is the author of more than thirty books on film history, theory, and criticism, as well as more than 100 articles in various academic journals. He is also an active experimental filmmaker, whose works are in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art. His recent video work is collected in the UCLA Film and Television Archive. He has also taught at The New School, Rutgers University, and the University of Amsterdam. His recent books include Synthetic Cinema: The 21st Century Movie Machine (2019), The Films of Terence Fisher: Hammer Horror and Beyond (2017), Black & White Cinema: A Short History (2015); Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access (2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster); and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (2009). Dixon’s second, expanded edition of his classic book A History of Horror (2010) was published in 2023. Dixon's book A Short History of Film (2008, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster) was reprinted six times through 2012. A second, revised edition was published in 2013; a third, revised edition was published in 2018; and a fourth revised edition with a great deal of new material will be published in early 2025. The book is a required text in universities throughout the world. As an experimental filmmaker, his works have been screened at The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Anthology Film Archives, Filmhuis Cavia (Amsterdam), Studio 44 (Stockholm), La lumière collective (Montréal), The BWA Katowice Museum (Poland), The Microscope Gallery, The National Film Theatre (UK), The Jewish Museum, The Millennium Film Workshop, The San Francisco Cinématheque, LA Filmforum (Los Angeles), The New Arts Lab, The Exploding Cinema (London), The Collective for Living Cinema, The Kitchen, The Filmmakers Cinématheque, Film Forum, The Amos Eno Gallery, Sla 307 Art Space, The Gallery of Modern Art, The Rice Museum, The Oberhausen Film Festival, Undercurrent, Experimental Response Cinema and other venues. In addition, Dixon’s films have been screened at numerous film festivals throughout the world, including presentations in London, New York, Toronto, Paris, Berlin, Monterrey (Mexico), Urbino (Italy), Tehran (Iran), Naples (Italy), Athens (Greece), Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rybinski (Russia), Palermo (Italy), Madrid (Spain), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Australia, Qatar, Amsterdam, Vienna, Moscow, Milan, Switzerland, Croatia, Stockholm (Sweden), Havana (Cuba) and elsewhere.

Related Posts