Dir. Samuel Fuller. Starring Peter Breck, Constance Towers, James Best
Here’s the movie equivalent of finding a worm in your apple, and a good apple too. There’s a story edged with lightning to work with here: a journalist (Breck) with a little too much ambition and much too much confidence decides to have himself admitted to a psychiatric ward where there was a mysterious murder. Pretending to be an insane person (he has his girlfriend pose as his sister who fears his incestuous ways), he will gather information and compile it all for a killer story that he’s sure will win him the Pulitzer. Fuller’s opinion of Barrett, and specifically Barrett’s ultimate fate, is made clear with a card he places before the movie begins and then again at the end with a common quote: who God wishes to destroy, he first makes mad. It’s an appealing little phrase, one so old and with such a convoluted history that it’s been attributed to several prominent writers, and Fuller leans into it for the story. There is no doubt that Barrett’s plan will fail, in the end, not because it is impossible but because Fuller’s thesis is that surrounding oneself with insane people makes one insane.
As a fable about ’60s America, consumed with its suicidal anti-communist ideology and its self-defeating racism and its heartlessness to those outside a ruling class, Shock Corridor is extremely strong. The story turns from Barrett and Cathy (Towers), an exploitation flick where he dreams about how sexy she is while she worries endlessly about what he’s doing to himself and what the consequences will be, to a series of vignettes about the three witnesses to the murder. The vignettes range from frighteningly hilarious to surprisingly moving. The movie doesn’t have a clue what it’s doing with Towers when she’s wearing more than her underwear, which just goes to show that even socially conscious men are as susceptible to Neanderthal philosophy about sex and gender. As a parable, it’s effective enough, except for one thing: it chose the wrong setting. Shock Corridor wants very much to label the United States of the 1960s a madhouse for all of us Yanks, but it’s too clever by half. Mental illness, even from the vaguely terrifying perspective that people had on it in that time, just doesn’t work the way this movie portrays it, and by misrepresenting an issue as sensitive as mental illness as fodder for a plot device, Fuller cuts off his drama at the knees. In small doses, the presumably hidden sanity of some characters can be a powerful strike. Pagliacci (Larry Tucker), an enormously fat patient who rumbles a tain of opera at any opportunity, wakes Barrett up one night and shoves the better part of a pack of gum in his mouth. It’ll make you tired, he says, “and when we’re asleep nobody can tell a sane man from an insane man.” The buildup in that scene, an interminable and annoying dose of volume, gives way so suddenly to that bon mot that it takes your breath away.
There are likewise technical elements to the movie which are really strong. Fuller is not wedded to any particular dogma with his camera, for one thing; wherever he wants to point it or place it, it will go. For that reason, we find ourselves looking down at characters from above without interference, looking down at characters from above with the interdiction of a horde of nymphomaniacs, staring up at people suddenly, engaging in extreme close-ups. Cathy is superimposed in her stripper getup on top of Barrett’s head or shoulders at different points, which is not necessarily new technology but which does give us a good sense of what Barrett thinks about when his mind’s at rest. I even liked a strange, disorienting sequence in which Barrett enters the hallway he’s accustomed to cruising in search of information, but finds it totally flooded due to a tremendous downpour which he fights through and splashes in. I more than liked little flashes of archive film, some of it even in color, which pop onto the screen when characters who were previously insane recover themselves for a few precious moments. There’s nothing shy about the way this movie is made; in many ways it is as bold as the plot itself, and while not all of it works (Peter Breck’s narration is criminally bad), one appreciates the home run swing.
Each of the three witnesses to the murder, we are told, was sane at one point. Stuart (Best), Trent (Hari Rhodes), and Boden (Gene Evans) are all formerly useful Americans who have been diminished to the status of madmen in an asylum because the world drove them to insanity. What this means is that each one is, in moments of solitude and especially after significant exertions. For example, Barrett manages to get through to Trent after Trent has led an assault on a black man in the ward, having donned his ceremonial hood for the Ku Klux Klan. (In one of the movie’s most sardonic moments, one orderly tells another that Trent’s pillowcase is gone again. You know what that pillow case means, he says; it’s one of those great moments where we’re pretty sure what it means even if we don’t want to be.) Trent, naturally, is an African-American, one of the trailblazing college students who fought segregation and segregationists by entering a previously all-white university; his illness is the result of the abuse that was ceaselessly heaped on him. Once he and Barrett, who joined into his race riot in an attempt to make nice, are in their straitjackets, then Trent begins to recollect calmly and sadly what happened to him. This is how it works with the other two men who witnessed the murder, too. Barrett will get to know them, and after some loud escapade the men will reveal something about themselves, much to Barrett’s chagrin, at the expense of telling him what he needs to know about “who murdered Sloan in the kitchen.”
This works best with Stuart, mostly because we don’t know that we’re going to have to repeat this little game the first time we run into him. He also has a story which seems extra sympathetic because he isn’t standing in for an entire race, as Trent is made to do, or standing in for an entire type of person, as Boden must. Stuart is white trash from the Deep South—his special crazy sauce is that he thinks he is J.E.B. Stuart of Confederate cavalry fame—and as we come to realize that he is a sane man trapped in an insane man’s mind, the sadness of his younger life comes through. He seems to have overcome many of the troubles of his upbringing; one of the most moving lines of the entire movie belongs to him describing his father. Barrett tells Stuart, who defected to North Korea during the war, that one of the key pieces of evidence against him was a letter he is supposed to have written to his father. Why would I write a letter to my daddy? he asks. He can’t read! By the time we get to Boden, a brilliant scientist who objected to the rockets he was designing and whose insanity horoscope is that he has the mind of kindergartner, the novelty has worn off and we’re nearly as desperate as Barrett to find out who’s killed Sloan.
The longer the movie goes on, the less control Fuller has over the plot and the more interested he is in sermonizing. Barrett, a little inevitably, begins to have a hard time telling the difference between what he actually believes and the carefully trained facade he practiced for in order to be admitted in the first place. During one visitation, Cathy tries to kiss him, and Barrett is aghast. You’re my sister! he cries, although seeing as th two of them are in the visiting room at the time, it’s hard to realize that he’s having a moment because she’s acting so indiscreetly. In a movie full of people who sit around and stare at walls, there may not be one dumber than Cathy, who has flat abs and a brain like a grilled cheese sandwich. There’s no good reason for her to do most of what she does other than the hope, I guess, that someone will rant and rave and faint and flail over her boyfriend being in a dangerous situation. Towers does not have much to work with; in one scene, for goodness’ sake, she okays giving Barrett electroshock therapy. Watching Barrett get the kind of treatment he absolutely did not bargain for is one thing, but it turns into a running plot device which keeps him weirdly silent for long stretches. Also: how can you possibly concentrate on the movie when all you’re thinking about is that someone who has zero reason to want him to get hurt at this hospital and who has spent the entire movie trying to get him out of there gives permission for him to get several volts through his skull?
The last scene is an especially bad offender. Barrett’s doctor says the words “catatonic schizophrenic,” which literally cannot apply to the patient in front of him, and yet there he is, calling Barrett one of those, whatever those are. Fuller knows he’s got just a killer line for that doctor—”What a tragedy. An insane mute will win the Pulitzer Prize.”—but doesn’t have any idea how he got there. Somehow, and completely offscreen, Barrett managed to make himself well enough to write the article(s) which could win him journalism’s greatest award…but once we see him, he’s staring at a wall and raising his arm out, mindless. “Whom the gods wish to destroy…” shows up again at the end, which would be a gut punch if the pugilist directing this movie didn’t appear to be totally blind.