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SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963)

"Within this tacky framework lies one of the most savage critiques of American society ever committed to film"
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Director: Samuel Fuller

Starring: Peter Brock, Constance Towers, William Zuckert, James Best, Hari Rhodes, Gene Evans, Larry Tucker, John Mathews

Screenplay: Samuel Fuller

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Synopsis: Johnny Barratt (Peter Brock), a newspaper man, dreams of winning the Pulitzer Prize. He plots with his editor and a psychiatrist to get himself committed to a mental hospital which was the scene of an unsolved murder. Inside, he will ingratiate himself with the three patients who witnessed the crime, from whom the police have got nothing. To carry out his scheme, Johnny needs the help of his stripper-girlfriend, Cathy (Constance Towers), who baulks at helping but is emotionally blackmailed into it. She claims to be Johnny’s sister, and charges that he tried to rape her. Johnny is interviewed by the head of the hospital, Dr Cristo (John Mathews), and convinces him of his mental illness by giving a string of coached answers. Once committed, Johnny locates his witnesses: Stuart (James Best), an ex-soldier who spends his time refighting the Civil War; Trent (Hari Rhodes), a black man who behaves like a white supremist; and Boden (Gene Evans), who worked on the atomic bomb, but now has the mind of a child. Johnny successfully makes friends with the three and begins to get the information he needs from them; but can his own sanity withstand the conditions within the asylum?

Comments: Shock Corridor is crude on almost every level: its dialogue is florid and unreal, its sets are cheap, and its central story is lurid in the extreme. Yet within this tacky framework lies one of the most savage critiques of American society ever committed to film. In his book Cult Movies, critic Danny Peary argues that Shock Corridor is a condemnation of America’s demand for over-achievement, and to a large extent he’s right. Stuart, Trent and Boden, the three witness-patients, are all shown to have cracked under the strain of other people’s expectations. Set against these three is the character of Johnny, who ultimately cracks under his own expectations, which are based upon a high opinion of himself that is utterly unfounded. Johnny starts off by telling us he always wanted to be among the "literary greats". He doesn’t, in fact. He wants the big pay-off, the Pulitzer Prize, and his incarceration in the mental hospital is his short-cut to the top (his attitude is analogous to someone wanting an Olympic medal without becoming an athlete). Having solved the murder, Johnny plans to live on the glory for the rest of his life ("there’ll be a book in this - a play - maybe even a movie"). That he achieves his goal while losing his mind is a fitting punishment for his hubris: we see him last as - as his doctor delicately puts it - "an insane mute with the Pulitzer Prize".

But there is more than just the destruction of Johnny Barratt to Shock Corridor. While putting unpleasant truths in the mouth of the insane is a standard dramatic ploy, few writers or film-makers have ever got away with as much as Sam Fuller does in this movie. It is not just his criticism of America, but rather the specific aspects that he chooses to attack, that makes this film so fascinating - and probably contributed to its outraged dismissal upon its initial release.

Through the three patients, Fuller assaults the country’s bigotry, cruelty and bloody-mindedness. First we see Stuart, whose parents brought him up on a diet of hatred and xenophobia, until he was "ready to defect to anyone". Becoming a communist during the Korean war, Stuart helped to brainwash other Americans until one of them convinced him that America wasn’t all bad. But returning home, Stuart found himself a despised outcast and retreated into insanity, mentally refighting a war in which Americans killed other Americans. 

Boden, too, is a mental casualty of war, whose involvement in the development of the atomic bomb has caused him to retreat to his childhood, where such things were not dreamt of. Through Boden’s lips Fuller dares to criticise the arms race, then at its height. But the most damning attack comes through the character of Trent, the first black-student at an all-white Southern university, mentally crushed by the combined weight of expectation and hatred. Trent has decided that his enemies were right, and so has joined them, passing his time by making KKK hoods out of stolen pillowcases, inciting attacks upon other black inmates, and bellowing racist monologues. By putting standard white supremist propaganda into the mouth of someone who is black, Fuller gives this section of the film a confronting quality that would be absent if the character were white - presumably his "insanity" would then be in the eye of the beholder. In this respect, the beginning of this sequence is particularly cleverly structured: we hear one of Trent’s racist diatribes before we find out that he is black.

One of Fuller’s initial aims in Shock Corridor was to target the treatment of the mentally ill. While this was to some extent put aside, much of the film still concerns practices that can only horrify a modern audience. (For a truly depressing experience, try viewing Shock Corridor in a double bill with 1948's The Snake Pit.)  The incompetance and unprofessionalism of the two psychiatrists, Dr Cristo, who heads the institution, and Dr Wong, who trains Johnny for his role, is chillingly set against the barbarism of the "treatments" for the insane, while psychiatry itself is reduced to the level of colour-by-numbers. Worst of all, the electroshock treatment which Johnny undergoes is explicitly presented as punishment, not therapy: "No more race riots in the corridor," Dr Cristo warns Johnny, smiling broadly all the while. The final straw is the revelation that Sloane, the inmate who was murdered (he was "insane but moral"), had discovered that one of the hospital’s attendants had been taking advantage of the female patients.

The major flaw in Shock Corridor, other than its various technical crudities, is its presentation of the world outside the mental hospital, which is often as grim, painful and downright weird as that inside. The character of Cathy is particularly disturbing. She is clearly intended as the film’s centre of sanity and level-headedness, but we must suffer through her peculiar stage act (a warbled 40s torch song accompanied by a strip routine involving frantic pelvic thrusts), and can only speculate about what looks like her unnatural attachment to her feather boa.

The other "outside" characters (Johnny’s editor, Dr Wong, the police sergeant) seem almost as disturbed as the patients in the hospital. One is left to wonder about Johnny’s final breakdown: when the world is like this, why should living among the insane drive you mad?

Check out all the details of this movie on the IMDB