Shock Corridor (1963)
Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) is an ambitious reporter preparing to infiltrate an insane asylum so that he can solve the murder of one of its inmates. He has been training under a reputable psychiatrist for months to learn the kinds of believable things to say that will get himself committed. This involves pretending that his stripper girlfriend, Cathy (Constance Towers), is really his sister and that Barrett has developed incestuous fantasies about her. Cathy wants nothing to do with this, thinking (rightly) that Barrett is only in it for the glory and that it's both a creepy and risky scheme.*
Barrett's hard work and bullying pay off and he gets himself thrown in the loony bin, with Cathy reluctantly playing along. Once in the asylum, he goes about making friends with three witnesses to the murder. Each of these inmates is able to suspend his disorder long enough to explain lucidly and exactly what drove him to his current state, only to relapse after giving Barrett one teeny piece of the puzzle.
The first witness is a southerner named Stuart (James Best) who joined the army during the Koren War to escape the bigotry of his upbringing only to get captured and brainwashed by communists. After a dishonorable discharge and public shaming, he became delusional and now thinks he is Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart. Obviously. He goes around singing Dixie rather too emphatically and sweats a lot.
Trent (Hari Rhodes) also saw the murder. His improbable psychosis involves the stealing of pillowcases to dress as a Klansman, preach against integration, and incite violence against black inmates, even though Trent himself is black. He went off the deep-end under the pressure of being the only African American at an all-white southern college and was so traumatized by the experience that now he can only spew white-supremacist hate. Because that happens.
Then there's this guy, Boden (Gene Evans), a prominent nuclear physicist, who has reverted to a childlike state to escape the horror of the atomic age, which he and the science helped bring about. His problem made the most sense to me.
By the time we get to Boden and his important clue, Johnny Barrett has been through a riot, an accidental trip to the Nympho Ward** where he is nearly (literally) devoured, and some gratuitous electro-shock therapy. He starts to think that Cathy truly is his sister and begins pulling away from her when she visits. He's also getting a little wild in the eyes and has begun repeating himself. Eventually, he exposes the murderer in a shocking bit of violence, writes his prize-winning story, then loses his mind. After a spectacular psychotic break involving indoor rain and a waterfall from a completely different film (in color), Johnny Barrett falls into a catatonic state.
Now I'm no psychiatrist, but I'm pretty sure that if a schizophrenic person sneezes on you one day, you don't wake up hearing voices the next. The patients in Shock Corridor read like pages out of an edition of the DSM the Flintstones might have used. Not just for the wildly primitive notions about mental illness, but because the crazy depicted here has only ever worked successfully in cartoons. Same with the treatment. Think you're a rabbit? Repeat after me: "I am Elmer J. Fudd, millionaire. I own a mansion and a yacht." Because that kind of therapy even works on an actual rabbit.
I didn't have huge expectations of subtlety from a Sam Fuller film set in a mental institution, but there isn't one restful moment in Shock Corridor. It's a strain on one's ears, eyes, and credulity. Maybe Fuller was deliberately creating a discomfiting assault on the nerves to situate his audience in a world of madness to expose the insanity of the modern experience, but maybe he just wanted to see how long and how hard a person could roll her eyes in one sitting.
And the screaming. There is a lot of screaming. Someone must have told Sam Fuller that madness is extra loud. This could explain the overwrought, angry banging of the score, which was surely composed in whatever the musical equivalent is of all caps.
Characters, plot, score, and sledgehammering, simplistic social commentary notwithstanding, Stanley Cortez's cinematography is terrific and may make the picture worth seeing.
Don't say I didn't warn you.
* I should mention that the only thing actual reporter Nellie Bly had to do to get herself committed was to go without washing a few days and hang around a boarding house telling people she was afraid of them. This got her the 10 days in an asylum she needed to expose a whole bunch of atrocities.
** You can tell it's the Nympho Ward, because there are rude drawings on the wall and all the ladies walk in circles singing "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" menacingly. It's a good thing they're separated from the men by an unlocked door, or watch out!
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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