Samuel Fuller was apparently a bit of an oddball. His specialty seems to have been fringe movies, well away from the mainstream. That in itself is of course reason enough to take an interest in him. It also qualifies him for the List where the editors are suckers for anything different. I would take that sort of recommendation with some skepticism.
Fuller apparently wrote the script for “Shock Corridor” back in the forties for Fritz Lang, but ended up directing and producing it himself much later. This allowed him to make the movie exactly as he wanted it with no punches pulled and that is exactly what he did. Seriously.
The idea is that a newspaper man, Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) is letting himself be committed to a mental hospital, faking an illness, in order to solve a murder mystery. He does indeed solve the case, but in the process, he loses his mind and becomes an inmate himself.
This story is not terribly deep and frankly the movie does not delve very much into it. In fact it is often easy to forget that this is the overarching story. Instead Fuller sends us full throttle into the world of the insane and seems to enjoy himself immensely doing it.
We get a very fat and obnoxious opera singer, a young man, Stuart (James Best) who is convinced he is a Confederate officer, but in reality was brainwashed into becoming a communist during the Korean war and a bunch of nymphomaniac women who attack men on sight. There is Trent (Hari Rhodes), who was one of the first black student to be allowed into a segregated university, but is now a raving racist against black people and is working on his KKK outfit whereas Boden (Gene Evans) is a Nobel prize winning nuclear physicist who has regressed back to a 6 year old mentality.
Even people on the outside are odd. Peter’s boss is a cold fish, and his coach is a weird Chinese phycologist. Not to mention Peters girlfriend, Cathy (Constance Towers), the moral heart of the movie, who is an exotic dancer that spends half the movie in a skimpy outfit.
It is seriously weird but also fascinating stuff. All these people are not just random people, but built up with lots of details. While the movie is in grimy black and white with lots of grey and shadows, the minds of the crazy people are in colors. Vivid and bright as representing a very different world than the prison that holds them, mentally and physically.
Peter’s own decent into madness is probably less believable until you consider how crazy it is to want to go under cover as he does and how determined he is to go through with it. He was not normal to begin with and then being treated as a crazy person, well, I suppose it gets to you.
I would have loved the movie to have ended about 10 minutes early, a classic Hollywood problem. There is a glorious moment where it is finally clear that Peter Barrett has completely lost his mind, which would have served as a perfect ending. From then on the movie does not offer us any more and it just feels stretched and unnecessary. Still I enjoyed this crazy movie more, a lot more actually, than I thought I would. Mainly, I think, because it is so completely far out. An acquired taste, I suppose.