Shock Corridor is a great example of the indie writer/director Sam Fuller’s ability to make films with a social subtext that weren’t overwhelmed by worthiness. Not being a studio movie it’s got no famous names in it, and isn’t shot in colour (apart from a few drop-ins). Instead Fuller and DP Stanley Cortez (who was instrumental in making The Night of the Hunter so memorably sinister) opt for a breezy film noir style of harsh lighting that’s quick to set up, effective and cheap – together they turned the film out in ten days. It also looks great in the Criterion Blu-ray I watched.
A look at the plot tells us where Fuller’s real interest lay. It follows an investigative reporter into a mental asylum, posing as an inmate, to track down a killer. Ambitious Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) is hoping that this story is going to be the one that will win him the Pulitzer Prize.
A reporter hopes to find a murderer and that’s a Pulitzer-winning story? It does not make any sense, and since Fuller was himself an ex-reporter, he knows it. But then we’re not here for the plot.
Knowing how to load on the lurid to keep audiences with him, Fuller introduces Johnny’s girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers). She’s a stripper, but to make Johnny’s madness convincing she’s going to pose as his sister and claim that he’s been having an incestuous relationship with her. No, that doesn’t bear much scrutiny either.
Johnny has been schooled in the right things to say (he’s a hair fetish, supposedly) by Dr Fong (Philip Ahn), a man with portraits of both Jung and Freud on his wall. The doc’s bona fides established, Johnny soon finds himself inside the asylum.
It’s a gentle regime at first. But the hydrotherapy and dance therapy give way to shock treatments and Johnny surreptitiously starts to interview three witnesses to the murder: Stuart (James Best), Trent (Hari Rhodes) and Boden (Gene Evans). In against-the-clock style he’s inching his way towards the identity of the killer while the treatments nibble away at his mind.
“Whom god wishes to destroy he first makes mad” runs the quote attributed to Euripides bookending the movie. Stuart, Trent and Boden are all mad. The first is a Korean War veteran who believes he’s fighting the Civil War, the second is a black man full of white supremacist “hate speech” (as we’d call it today) who thinks he’s a member of the Ku Klux Klan, the third is a nuclear and NASA scientist who now fills his days with childish drawings.
Somewhat schematically, it’s America that’s driven these three men mad – war, racism and impending nuclear catastrophe – and Fuller goes to town with these three characters, loading them up with lurid rantings and giving them plenty of screen time parcelled out in long takes. Rhodes in particular really gets his teeth into his unsettling role as the black man who hates black men. Tough stuff in 1963.
There are women. A ward full of “nymphos”, where Johnny accidentally finds himself at one point and is set upon by a ravening gaggle of attractive harpies who mostly look like they’re trying out as stand-ins for Elizabeth Taylor. It’s either an eyeroll or another instance of Fuller’s pitch for the lurid, take your pick.
This is not an exposé of an inhumane system. In fact the inmates are looked after fairly well. It’s not a warm-up for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where the insane people were the ones running the asylum. Here the insane are properly, melodramatically bonkers rather than the sedated-to-a-shuffle unfortunates you tend to meet in later films.
As Johnny advances towards the truth, and Cathy worries about his mental health, the pace remains brisk, the lighting stark and Peter Breck gets to show he’s a better actor than his career stats (TV work, mostly) suggest.
I won’t ruin the enjoyment by divulging the ending. Suffice to say that the movie itself eventually goes grandly and gloriously off its chump amid a mass breakout of scenery chewing. It’s all madly entertaining but Fuller has also delivered a swingeing social critique in plain sight and got away with it. He’d follow up the following year with The Naked Kiss, more lurid, socially attuned melodrama, with Constance Towers back as his star, playing a call girl who decides to become a teacher of disabled kids. Of course.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021