The great Sam Fuller takes us deep into the mouth of madness in this towering thriller from 1963.
Stripping a man of his sanity and a woman of her clothes, Shock Corridor is a film as only Samuel Fuller could make ‘em – revealing, furious and sensationally entertaining. From his days as a 12-year-old copy boy to success as a reporter, from his concentration camp war footage to his work as a filmmaker, Fuller delivered stories with guts and gusto.
Shock Corridor’s plot is as simple as it is scintillating: ambitious reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) is on the trail of one heck of a story, it’s one he believes will nab him the Pulitzer Prize. He’s investigating a murder in a mental hospital and plans to get himself committed so that he can unmask the culprit from the inside – an act of astonishing courage, hubris and stupidity.
With the encouragement of his editor Swanee (William Zuckert) Johnny enlists his reluctant, stripper girlfriend Cathy (the formidable Constance Towers, who would excel again in Fuller’s The Naked Kiss) as an accomplice. Cathy is forced to tell a shocking lie – that she’s Johnny’s sister and the object of his sexual obsession – and eventually she’s required to sign the papers that will commit him.
Once Johnny has been accepted as a patient he tracks down the three witnesses to the stabbing of Sloan: Stuart (James Best), Trent (Hari Rhodes) and Boden (Gene Evans) – quizzing each in turn all whilst maintaining his pretence of madness, joining in their crazed antics to win their trust. Unfortunately, tampering with one’s mind is a dangerous game and Johnny starts to lose his grip on reality, with the surrounding madness infecting him like a disease.
The film’s performances and issues might ring true but the murder-amidst-mania premise and Fuller’s juicy dialogue are pure pulpy melodrama: Cathy describes her profession as, "singing in that sewer with the hot light on my navel"; her striptease is absurd and heartbreakingly melancholy, she sings with soul to passionless moves; and hilarity turns to horror when Johnny is mauled by a roomful of nymphomaniacs.
The hard-boiled filmic finesse belies the fact that Shock Corridor was shot in a mere ten days. It’s one of Fuller’s few films where he had control over the final cut and it shows in its chutzpah. One of the film’s final sequences involved flooding the set, deliberately ruining it and ensuring Fuller wouldn’t be made to shoot an alternative ending.
Though his films often deal in physical violence, Martin Scorsese has described Fuller as a specialist in "violence to the soul". Shock Corridor, for instance, is ferociously socially conscious. Fuller uses the patients’ back-stories to explore particular societal sicknesses and damningly labelled the film, "a metaphor for America": Trent is described as a guinea-pig for integration – he was the only black student on a white campus, treated despicably and left wild with self loathing; Boden is a former nuclear scientist whose consciousness of impending disaster has proved too much for his mind to bear.
Towers recalls how one of Fuller’s tricks to get attention on set would be to fire a gun filled with blanks into the air, and his films inflict similarly brutal shocks. True to his newspaperman roots and as a man who had lived through the horrors of war, in Shock Corridor Fuller digs good and deep – dealing unflinchingly with the cold war, race relations and, of course, the desecration of one man’s mind.