“This long corridor is the magic highway to the Pulitzer Prize” – Johnny Barrett
Being a jack of all trades, producer, director, screenwriter extraordinaire Sam Fuller also had a stint as a journalist. Therein lies his obvious stake in Shock Corridor, a film that looks frightening on paper, and is even more eye-opening in execution. True, this is not an altogether realistic film, but that’s what makes it such a stirring portrayal. It dives into the darkened recesses of a sanitarium showing us things we don’t want to believe. They probably weren’t all true, but there’s still that shred of doubt. We’ve seen enough One Flew of the Cuckoo’s Nest and read enough horror stories to know better. Fuller plays off that fear which intrigues us as much as it alarms.
Investigative journalist Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) can see it now. If he infiltrates a mental institution he can dig up the truth on a murder case that occurred behind closed doors and was quickly hushed up. Such a piece of detective work could earn him the Pulitzer Prize easily, and the tantalizing prospect is too good to resist. His girlfriend played by Constance Towers pleads with him to back out, because she wants no part of the plan.
But he teams up with his editor Swannee and Psychiatrist Dr. Fong to cook up a backstory the people in charge will buy. Barrett gets coached in how to act and respond to every question. It’s a potential long shot, but just like that, they buy his sordid story of obsession with his sister thanks to a performance by Cathy. He’s in.
Behind the pearly gates, there are brawls galore and noisy neighbors riddled with all sorts of neurosis, quirks, and ticks. There are the good cop and bad cop who help care for the patients and keep them at bay. Johnny even begins to have hallucinations of his girlfriend drifting through his dreams. He gets introduced to hydrotherapy, dance therapy, and even faces a traumatizing experience at the hands of women in the female ward.
All the while, he is sniffing around for any information on the man named Sloan who was killed with a knife by a man in white pants. He makes his rounds questioning three different witnesses and amid their idiosyncrasies, they give him bits and pieces of fact. However, their own mental capabilities are clouded by traumatic war experiences, racist ramblings, and fear of impending nuclear war.
The boisterous, tumultuous chaos of the ward does almost become maddening, even to the viewer. Johnny has a few angry outbursts of his own as the strain of the facility gets to him more and more every day. Electric shock therapy among the other treatments leaves him mixed-up, confused, and overtly paranoid. He’s hardly the man we met in that office so many days ago and even if he got the scoop he was looking for, at what cost? Shock Corridor has a thunderously disconcerting ending worthy of a Fuller production.
From casting Philip Ahn as a knowledgeable psychiatrist to the absurdity of an African-American obsessed with the KKK and Pro-White sentiment, Fuller once again does a lot on the racial front. He manages to represents Asians in a positive light and the character of Wilkes points to the still inherently twisted nature of southern white supremacists, even after the advent of such legislation as Brown v. Board. Thus, once more he gives us a sensationalized story with a surprising amount of depth to it. No doubt he had a soft spot for journalism since that’s what he made his living off of at one time. But Shock Corridor implies that there is such a thing as crossing the line. It’s the utter extreme, but it’s cautionary nonetheless.