Shock Corridor: Samuel Fuller’s Emotioally Raw Baroque Melodrama

Samuel Fuller wrote and directed Shock Corridor, an emotional raw and powerful baroque melodrama, about a journalist who intentionally commits himself to mental hospital in order to solve a murder committed within the institution.

Journalist Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) thinks that the quickest way to a Pulitzer Prize is to uncover the unsolved murder at a mental asylum. To that extent, he convinces a psychiatrist to coach him to appear insane.  It involves relating imaginary accounts of incest with his “sister,” impersonated by his exotic-dancer girlfriend (Constance Towers).

Against her wishes, Cathy is talked into assisting him by filing a police complaint. His performance during the investigation convinces the authorities to lock him up in the institution where the murder occurred. Pursuing his investigation, he is disturbed by the behavior of fellow inmates, the murder’s witnesses, all driven insane by the stresses of war, bigotry, or fear of nuclear annihilation.

Stuart, the son of a Southern sharecropper who was taught bigotry and hatred as a child, became cynical and angry. He was captured in the Korean War and brainwashed into becoming a Communist. Stuart’s captors pronounced him insane and he was returned to the US in a prisoner exchange, after which he was dishonorably discharged, publicly reviled as a traitor. Stuart now imagines himself to be Confederate States of America General J.E.B. Stuart.

Trent was one of the first black students to integrate a segregated Southern university. He now imagines himself a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and stirs up the patients with white nationalist dogma.

Boden was an atomic scientist scarred by the knowledge of the devastating power of intercontinental ballistic missiles. He has regressed to the mentality of a six-year-old child.

After a hospital riot, Barrett is straitjacketed and subjected to shock treatment. Holing that his girlfriend is his sister, he rejects her visits. He experiences other symptoms of mental breakdown while learning the killer’s identity.

In the end, he violently extracts confession from him in front of witnesses, and writes his story. But his mind is critically damaged, and he has to stay in the hospital. Cathy breaks down crying when the doctor tells her that Barrett is now a “catatonic schizophrenic.”

I am grateful to the great critic Andrew Sarris, who introduced me to this film in the 1970s, describing it as “an allegory of America in its hallucinatory view of history which can only be perceived beneath a surface of plot intrigue.

Peter Breck … Johnny Barrett
Constance Towers … Cathy
Gene Evans … Boden
James Best … Stuart
Hari Rhodes … Trent
Larry Tucker … Pagliacci
Paul Dubov … Dr. Menkin

Cultural Status:

In 1996, Shock Corridor was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Intertextuality (references to the film):

Scorsese’s 2010 film Shutter Island was influenced by this film.

In The Naked Kiss (1964), Fuller’s subsequent film, also starring Towers, the movie theater near the bus station is playing Shock Corridor.

In Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003), the main character is watching Shock Corridor at the beginning of the film.