All of the men want me, Johnny. But I want you. And you – you want the Pulitzer Prize.
A film that is almost 50 years old, Shock Corridor is as shocking and relevant today than most films made a year ago. Samuel Fuller, the in your face storyteller, this time gives us the tale of Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck), a journalist, who goes undercover in a mental hospital to get to the bottom of an unsolved murder. Instead of interviewing people the normal way, he decides with his boss at the newspaper that he needs to literally be committed in the asylum itself to solve the story and win that Pulitzer Prize he knows he will get when the news breaks.
His girlfriend Cathy (the radiant Constance Towers) doesn’t want him to go through with it because she is worried he’ll become crazy like those around him. Like it’s some sort of disease, which seems to be very dumb of her, but as the film progresses, she’s not sure if he’s fully acting or has gone over the edge and into full blow insanity. He of course convinces her to pretend to be his sister, who has supposedly tried to sexually assault her, and convince the doctor to commit him. Johnny has the story in his head and knows all the questions he will be asked and he’s happy when he does get committed. The first part of his journey has been completed
Somehow Fuller juggle multiple films within one tight 101 minute package, which gives every audience something to love within its running time. Looking for a straight up genre picture? You’ve got it, because Fuller knows how to produce a ripping yarn on the screen. An exploitation picture? Being a film in 1963, this was showcasing the mental health industry, the newspaper industry, the government’s fight against communism, war and various other exploitative topics are shown in their seedy glory. Fuller doesn’t pull any punches and I thank him for it.
The descent into madness is wonderfully crafted by Fuller, and luckily for him he had a versatile actor in Peter Breck to showcase it. Even at the very beginning, Johnny starts to dream of Cathy, in full striptease mode, dancing around his head and telling him she’s so alone and she might just have to bed another man. This is pure pulp goodness from Fuller, who had made some fantastic film noir before (Pickup On South Street, House of Bamboo and The Crimson Kimono), just combines the murder mystery aspect of a good noir but throws in his history as a true crime journalist and makes this amalgamation of a film that is just a wonder to behold still to this day.
I haven’t even gotten into the inmates he is living with, and all are amazing in their portrayals as men who have been broken down and can’t come up from the darkness of their insanity. The three witnesses Johnny is looking to talk to about the death of Sloan are Swanee Swanson (Bill Zuckert) who believes he is a general in the Civil War, Trent (Hari Rhodes) a black man who was the first student of color in a desegregated college and ultimately loses his mind and thinks he’s a part of the KKK and dons the white hood (in an iconic scene of hatred) and Boden (played by Fuller regular Gene Evans) is a Nobel Prize winner and helped with the atomic bomb but now just draws and tries to keep away the voices of the government out of his head. All are fantastic pieces of the puzzle and Johnny, trying to get the information from each man, is equal parts comedic and sad, which shows how Fuller likes to play with the emotions of the audience.
Criterion has re-released this film, in their first 20 DVDs released, and given it a total makeover. New artwork replaces the old hideous box art, now with fantastic Daniel Clowes (of Ghost World and Eightball fame) and just revitalizes the package in general. Everything from the inside of the box to the disc itself is adorned with Clowes’ wonderful indie comic style, and he showcases a few vital tidbits from the film. The Blu-ray itself doesn’t have a ton of extras like most of Criterion’s releases, but the two featurettes are a wonderful treasure trove of information and a film lover’s delight. We get a 30 minute video interview with Constance Towers, conducted by Charles Dennis, which sheds some light on her career and her loving working relationships with both Fuller and John Ford. The other is Adam Simon’s 1996 documentary The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera, nearly an hour long, which is headed by Tim Robbins and also has Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino geeking out about Samuel Fuller’s career and his affect on them. One of those filmmakers is not in the Criterion Collection. Yet.
Samuel Fuller was always a trailblazer, busting his way through what Hollywood was ‘supposed’ to be and instead dashing that vision and giving the audience an inside look at the darker side of life and the American Dream. Shock Corridor is an unflinching account of one man’s path to the Pulitzer and the way to that prize might be the end of his mind. And like most people out there, they’ll do anything for a bit of glory. Even if it means that they ruin everything around them, including themselves.