Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) is a newspaper journalist with only one ambition: to win the Pulitzer Prize. To achieve this, he has hatched a plan to infiltrate a mental aslyum where an unsolved murder has taken place, witnessed only by three of the inmates. Barrett poses as an inmate, and his stripper girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) pretends to be his sister and claims Barrett has tried to sexually assault her. The ruse works, and Barrett is admitted, but the overwhelming environment of the hospital begins to chip away at his own sanity, with tragic results.
Director Samuel Fuller wrote the script for this outrageous tale of one man's road to ruin, a downfall of his own devising. The film is shot by Stanley Cortez with deep shadows and off kilter angles, all drawing out a sense of foreboding in the story, so that you're in no way surprised at the state Barrett ends up in. His girlfriend knows right away what will happen, and doesn't see that his sanity is much of an exchange for a Pulitzer, but Barrett is so determined and pig-headed that he refuses to entertain the notion that his actions are dangerous.
Of course, it doesn't say much for the state of mental hospitals that a sane man can go in and be driven mad by the conditions there, and we never see any of the patients get better. They all have their own quirks, from the extras and bit part players to the more important characters, because if they all sat about staring into space then the drama wouldn't be as exciting as it is. The first friend Barrett makes is Pagliacci, an enormously fat man who sings opera (badly) and keeps him awake at night.
However, it's three other patients who Barrett is interested in, the three who witnessed the murder and are not able to talk. First is Stuart (James Best), who believes himself to be a Confederate soldier in the Civil War, then Trent (Hari Rhodes), a black man who thinks he's the head of the Ku Klux Klan, and flies into a rage when he catches sight of another black man, yelling, "Get him before he marries my sister!". Lastly there is Dr Boden, a nuclear scientist who now has the mind of a child.
Shock Corridor is not simply a lurid melodrama, though, it keeps one eye on social commentary. Each of the three witnesses has been driven mad by the prejudice, hatred and danger of society, in an indictment of America that favours head shaking rather than the finger pointing. Stuart was a soldier in Korea, captured by the Communists and brainwashed by them; when he returned home, he was hounded into insanity by his fellow citizens. Trent was the only black student in his university, and suffered a breakdown from the virulent racism he experienced. Boden's view of the Cold War, where mass destruction is just one push of a button away, is what sent him into the security of madness.
Just when you think the film will be bogged down in messages, it surprises you with another audacious scene. Barrett has dreams of Cathy performing for him on his bed as he sleeps, and his sexual tension is brought to a head when he is attacked by a dozen crazed "nymphos" when he walks through the wrong door. The patients have colour visions that look suspiciously like footage from Fuller's holidays, and there is at least one classic image: Barrett seeing a thunderstorm in the main corridor as lunacy finally takes its toll on him. By the time the murderer is revealed, it hardly matters, as Barrett's degeneration is so compelling. Mind you, if he'd asked Boden first, then perhaps he wouldn't have needed all the shock treatment. Nevertheless, Shock Corridor is a unforgettable movie that remains one of Fuller's most entertaining. Music by Paul Dunlap.
Pioneering independent director, best known for his tough 60s thrillers. Fuller began his career in Hollywood in the mid-1930s, and after a spell in the army and many frustrated years as a writer, directed his first film in 1949, the Western I Shot Jesse James. Fuller's third film, The Steel Helmet, was the first movie to deal with the Korean war and was a huge success. Other films Fuller made in the 50s include Pickup on South Street, House of Bamboo and Run of the Arrow.
The 1960s saw Fuller deliver dark, ground-breaking thrillers like Underworld USA, Shock Corridor and the infamous The Naked Kiss, which divided critics with their mix of melodrama and brutal realism. Fuller subsequently found it hard to find employment in Hollywood and largely worked as an actor throughout the 70s. The 1980 war movie The Big Red One was something of a comeback, but his next film, the anti-racist White Dog caused yet more controversy, and it has rarely been seen in its intended form. Fuller's final feature was the 1989 crime drama Street of No Return, although he worked in TV until the mid-90s. Died in 1997 aged 86.