United States, 1963
Directed by Samuel Fuller
With Peter Breck (Johnny Barrett), Constance Towers (Cathy), Gene Evans (Boden), James Best (Stuart), Hari Rhodes (Trent)
Here is a tale of an ambition going wrong: yearning for a Pulitzer Prize, Johnny Barrett, staff reporter in a daily newspaper, reckons he has discovered a breathtaking case of great investigative journalism: solving a homicide case that took place in a mental hospital by getting locked in the institution and pretending to be insane in order to question the three patients who witnessed the murder. It is about killing two birds with one stone: describing from the life inside a madhouse and finding a killer who eluded the police. In fact he is going to experience the most upsetting and painful moments, including shock therapy, and battle with his own weaknesses. He eventually gets what he wished – but it becomes a Pyrrhic victory that cruelly illustrates the statement by Euripides quoted along the titles both at the beginning and at the end: “Whom God wishes to destroy He makes him mad”.
This seems the story of a nation going mad, metaphorically. Director Samuel Fuller has made careful and caustic choices with the characters. The three madmen involved have lost their bearings because of personal problems that put them into the grip of violent developments suggesting the American democracy is not that strong and safe. Stuart lives in the delusion of being a famous general of the Confederate Army but he was a poor guy kicked out by his family and taken in the army; he served in the Korean conflict and chose to stay with the Communist armies before changing his mind; this has made him an outcast. Trent was one the first African Americans to enter high schools in the Deep South thanks to the desegregation movement but he failed to deal with high expectations and fierce hatred; he collapsed and was sent to the institution where he stirs a hell of troubles since he believes he is a Ku Klux Klan leader. Boden is assessed as having the same mental age of a 6-year old and indeed spends the day drawing funny stuff and playing hide-and-seek; yet years before he was a leading scientist in the atomic field and in missile development, holding key responsibilities.
Cold war, military power, inequality, and racism have also taken their toll on the minds. Shot at the time the nation was under the spell of the Kennedy White House, likened to a new Camelot in a land becoming remarkably wealthier and more advanced, the film bluntly highlights the fault lines of the United States. The thankless polemics and mistaken beliefs of a society seemingly free but framed by damning traditions and the temptations of a superpower leave obvious scars in the mind of the men caught in the system. In a disturbing but inspiring way, insanity is painted here not so much as a trauma but like a chance to survive, by shutting the offending reality out – Boden suggests as much. Sensing the loss of their self-respect inside the community, these men have walk through the mirror.
This sense of self-respect also plays an intimate role in Barrett’s adventure. His girlfriend Cathy, who was opposed to his idea, is a reluctant and critical help, and makes a living in a strip joint, annoys him from the start because of her common sense and her job. The vision of her barely clothed body offered to everybody is a torture to him while the excess his ambition displays seems to him just fine. For her part Cathy is increasingly unable to back him as her pragmatism commands her to do what she can to survive (another fault line showing the embarrassment of riches is not for anyone) and to have respect for the persons and their health, a sentiment Barrett has gladly dropped, at his own risk.
This is a remarkably scathing vision of a reporter’s ego coming from a former journalist, who reportedly cheated on his age to get a job. In his wider critical approach of a world dominated by males, Fuller gives a lower-middle class woman the voice of the best judgment and ironically questions the value of intellectual authority – after all the shrinks were easy to dupe while Barrett is a perfect example of the investigative mind erring on the wrong side. A world away from Camelot, the America he films is a nation struggling to face its demons and to show self-respect; political fantasy of any stripe, from militarism to the rule of the best and the brightest, is just masquerading while ambition is a red herring. The suffering that matters is around the corner, still waiting for help.
This vision of America as a madhouse (to quote the perceptive opinion of Martin Scorsese) finds his visual symbol in the corridor of the mental hospital’s section Barrett is assigned to. Fellow patients stroll all day in this place, locked in their own folly under the watch of a few male nurses. It is where Barrett gets the interviews he needs for his piece and also where he has his first and shocking hallucination. It features in the first and last images of “Shock Corridor”. It is shot under all possible angles by a roving camera. At first glance, it is the stern passageway from the outside world to the inside madness at first sight; at the end, it just feels like the appalling revelation of what is really shaping and shaking the individual and collective state of mind, the terrible conclusion of a take-no-prisoners and no-holds-barred work.