Shock Corridor (1963)

"Shock Corridor" is a messy picture. One that rarely shies away from its insanity or poignancy. It's the kind of film that would predate works like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and reaffirms the obsession that Hollywood had with the insane asylum.
When a patient is murdered in a mental hospital and the murderer is not captured, an ambitious and egotistical journalist, Johnny (Peter Breck) decides that he's going to singlehandedly blow the cover off the case. He wants to win himself the Pulitzer Prize...hubris is his nemesis.
Johnny has a girlfriend named Cathy (Constance Towers) who works as a stripper. She wants him to stay away from the mental hospital, she's afraid of what it will do to him.
Johnny has been coached by a psychologist to fool the shrinks that will lock him away. This is the story: Cathy will pose as Johnny's sister and file a complaint against him that he has made inappropriate advances towards her, that he threatened to kill her if she ever married.
When the police come to take him in, Johnny plays indignant, enjoying pulling the wool over so many smart men's eyes.
The movie has a great deal of voice over narration to it. What is clever and distracting about this is how the voice over echoes, as if bounding down the hall of a mental hospital.
For the first part of the movie, Johnny is getting used to fooling the doctors and assistants. Not everyone believes his incestuous story, but he tries his best to fit in with the other "loonies": a man who sings opera during the night and reminisces about killing his wife, a black man who thinks he's part of the KKK, a doctor who worked on the H-bomb, and a man who thinks he's an officer in the Civil War.
"Shock Corridor" presents insanity in a not-so-great light. It is given its full due as a disease but there isn't much honesty to how the film shows us the crazy people. Their sanity isn't always present. It comes and goes in waves, triggered by conversations or sleepiness. Johnny has to count on these patches of sanity to question the three witnesses to the murder, all of them patients.
"Shock Corridor" is very similar to "Seconds" in the paranoia that begins to creep over the screen. It's not quite as haunting as a film like "The Lost Weekend" but it certainly does its best.
The true drama of the picture is not whether Johnny will find out who the murderer is, it's the battle between himself and Cathy. As the mental hospital starts to change Johnny, Cathy becomes very outraged of the idea of Johnny's newspaper allowing him to be kept there.
What makes the film slightly cringe-worthy is the symphony of insanity. There are many screaming fights, many scenes that dissolve into sheer, sloppy hyper-drama. It would seem that the writer and director, Samuel Fuller, thought that crazy people were best imitated by yelling your head off. It does work in some instances, but we are reminded of how the viewfinder through which mentally challenged people are seen has changed over the years.
The faults of "Shock Corridor", how it portrays the hospitals, can be forgiven because of the year it was made. The advances that we have now weren't made then, thus their ignorance (for lack of a better word) can be ignored.
Yet "Shock Corridor" is kind of melodramatic for all its intensity. It's a well orchestrated film and one that makes you engaged, but it is a far cry from great.

Score: ★★★

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