It’s rare to find films of a certain age that take an honest look at mental illness, racism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other psychiatric issues with sympathy, and fewer still that take a deft approach to the subject. Anything that predated 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest generally treated those with these illnesses as villains or obstacles, portrayed asylums as bedlams that protected society from vagrants rather than places where one could ever hope to become well again, and if the protagonist was unwell of mind, such sickness was something that could be overcome with machismo or the love of a good woman, not through medical practice or therapy. Not so in the case of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (released 1963, one year after the publication of Cuckoo’s Nest, although Fuller had been shopping the original screenplay around since the 1940s), in which mental patients are presented as objects not of derision but as people deserving empathy, not as evil madmen but as victims of society who were pushed to the psychic breaking point and beyond.
Reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) has spent the past year training with Dr. Fong (Philip Ahn) in order to accurately portray an incestuous fetishist and be committed to a local mental hospital. His goal: to earn a Pulitzer by solving the murder of a patient who was killed by meeting the three witnesses, also patients there. His editor Swanson (Bill Zuckert) is behind this plan, but his exotic dancer girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) objects, worried that Barrett’s time among the madmen will break him psychologically as well. She eventually relents and poses as Barrett’s sister in order to have him “involuntarily” committed. Once inside, Barrett must maintain his cover under the observation of Dr. Menkin (Paul Dubov) and kindly orderly Wilkes (Chuck Roberson). He is placed in a room with a patient known only as Pagliacci (Larry Tucker), whose operatic exultations occur day and night, and he sets to work making contact with the three witnesses: Stuart (James Best), Trent (Hari Rhodes), and Boden (Gene Evans).
Each man has been institutionalized after their psyches were fractured by manifestations of America’s social and political failings, representing the dark underside of the American dream. Stuart was the son of a poor, abusive, racist father. When Stuart was captured while serving in Korea, he came around to their way of thinking easily, as they showed him the first kindness he had ever experienced in his life. When he was returned to the U.S. as part of a prisoner exchanged, he was denounced as a traitor and treated as a pariah; despite being brainwashed, his countrymen had no sympathy for him and instead debased and abused him. As a result, he has retreated into a delusion wherein he is Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, still fighting the war.
Trent was the first black student in a segregated university in the American South, who suffered such harassment and hatred at the hands of his classmates that his mind has broken. He is introduced as a thief of pillowcases, and we quickly learn what that means: he steals these from other patients and cuts holes in them to create a makeshift Klan hood. Trent no longer sees himself as he is but as white, and he stirs up the other patients in the ward by shouting racist, white nationalist invective, including inciting violence against other black patients. Finally, Boden was an atomic scientist who, upon realizing the earth-shattering power of the atom bomb and that he had contributed to the scientific “progress” that gave mankind the ability to wipe itself from the face of the earth, broke down and regressed to the mentality of a child. Once a talented artist, he now spends his days wandering the titular corridor, where patients are allowed to congregate and socialize, drawing crude renderings of his peers.
Barrett’s time on the inside begins to have a profound effect on him. As his own mental state begins to deteriorate, the film becomes a race against time to get to the truth before Barrett’s faculties diminish beyond the breaking point.
When looking at the release date and the subject matter, one couldn’t be blamed for jumping to the conclusion that the film would be heavy-handed or unsympathetic, but not so. And even if one knew the film was sympathetic, it would likewise be easy to assume that it would be have the moralistic and paternalistic “eye” prevalent in propaganda of the time, but that is not the case here either. Instead, the tone is like the film overall: a mixture of documentarian distance and character study, which echoes the (color video, in contrast to the B&W film that makes up the plot of the movie) documentary inserts of Japan in Stuart’s psychic break and the indigenous dances and rituals that constitute Trent’s breakdown. Although there are some dated moments, most notably the attack on Barrett by a ward full of glassy-eyed women identified only as “nymphos,” they are few and far between, and do not detract from the film’s overall thesis: mental illness may be “invisible” in ways that physical illness isn’t, but it can be no less debilitating or life-altering, and the key to healing is sympathy, not criticism. Sadly, over half a century later, this is a lesson that still needs to be reiterated, but it renders the film no less potent now than it was in its day.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond