Samuel Fuller was the opposite of a shrinking violet. This former newspaperman and World War II veteran approached cinema with big, meaty hands, throttling it into submission. He cast his lot with the losers, the maladjusted, the outcasts. In 1963, Fuller, then in his early fifties, looked around at the country he’d fought for and saw a nuthouse. The crudely brilliant Shock Corridor was the result.
Of course, the U.S. of A. would soon slide even further down the shock corridor: the film was released a month and a half before JFK’s skull decorated Dealey Plaza, and RFK and MLK would follow. But in the early ’60s, the spectres of racism, red-baiting, and the Bomb rattled their chains in the attic of America. So in this surreal film noir, the three witnesses to a murder in a looneybin’s kitchen stand for the country’s ills. Investigative reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck, who occasionally resembles a young Alec Baldwin) gets himself committed to that same mental hospital, passing off his stripper girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) as his sister and feigning incestuous obsession with her braids. Once inside, Johnny seeks out the witnesses, waiting for them to pop into moments of lucidity so he can pose the question: “Who killed Sloan in the kitchen?” This becomes a kind of mantra, by which Johnny hopes to impose sense on his experience and forestall his own manic cartwheel down the corridor.
For the uninitiated, a Fuller film takes a little getting used to. He tended to bang out dialogue as if it were front-page headlines: “You’re on a hopped-up lunatic stage. Get off it! Don’t be Moses leading your lunatics to the Pulitzer Prize!” In Fuller, everything is heightened in this rat-a-tat hard-boiled style. If there’s a true villain in Shock Corridor, it’s sex: “Nymphos!”, Johnny’s inner monologue announces in horror when he stumbles into a room full of grasping, horny female inmates, who overwhelm him and leave his face ripped up. Cathy is seen a few times at the dive where she plies her trade, the camera keeping a baffled distance from the stage. After enough time in the nuthouse, Johnny recoils from Cathy’s on-the-mouth kiss — not because it might blow his cover, as we first think, but because he’s starting to believe the cover story that she really is his sister. But then, Fuller might also be commenting on the American hypocrisy about sex and sexual allure. An attendant comments that he wouldn’t mind being assaulted by nymphos, and the clientele at Cathy’s dive might agree with him. And Johnny’s whole invented neurosis revolves around his jealousy of his sister being with other men. Madonna/whore. Nympho/sister, stripper/sister.
Then there are the three witnesses (I’m tempted to type “the three wise men”). James Best, as a southern boy whose parents branded anti-Commie bigotry into him, thinks he’s a Confederate general; Hari Rhodes as Trent, one of the few African-Americans permitted to attend an integrated school, went crazy under the pressure and recast himself mentally as a white redneck racist; Gene Evans as Dr. Boden responded to the insanity of nuclear development by regressing into a doodling child. Each man gets a lengthy monologue detailing his shame and anguish, as if his fever broke for a few minutes and he were able to look at himself with sane eyes; each conversation puts a piece of the puzzle in place. All Johnny has to do is do something with the information, and that’s becoming more difficult than he’d bargained for.
Shock Corridor is where Fuller can play and experiment, using his own color vacation footage to illustrate the witnesses’ stories, indulging in all manners of stylized nuttiness. An average audience will tolerate a certain amount of madness if there’s still a visible spine of rationality underneath: the murder mystery and Johnny’s attempts to get to the bottom of it. As the movie proceeds, the mystery recedes into the distance and a more troubling emphasis comes into focus — Johnny’s own struggles with reality (not to mention an inopportune loss of speech). Cathy is outraged at Johnny’s scheme to put himself through all this for journalistic glory, and terrified that the experience might derange him for real; but the suspicion arises that Johnny has belonged there right from the start — or at least as much as the other inmates do.
This is a bellowing classic with dirt under its fingernails, deploying its lunatics for a discomfiting “We’re all mad here” message. Looking at Fuller’s biography, one could never question his cred as a patriot. To him, that meant telling the truth above all; he’d seen firsthand, at Falkenau, the demonic power of lies. There he’d also seen madness, and knew whereof he spoke. Shock Corridor is a towering pulp achievement.