With the help of false accounts by his stripper girlfriend (Constance Towers), reporter Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) finds himself willingly committed. The plan: solve a murder only the inmates can provide clues to and collect his Pulitzer Prize.
Quickly, Barrett begins gathering clues to find out, “Who killed Sloan in the kitchen?” His three chief witnesses: Stuart, a Korean War veteran who imagines himself as a Confederate Civil War general; Trent, a Negro student who believes himself to be a member of the KKK; and Boden, former physicist involved with the Manhattan Project who now has the brain of a child.
Their personality traits really don’t have much to do with the case itself, but to writer-director-producer Samuel Fuller, the hot issues of war, racism and The Bomb are ripe for exploration. These creations give Fuller, never shy to controversial issues, all the excuse he needs to exploit them and not dance around them like Hollywood at the time often would.
And then there’s Barrett, scratched, bruised and shocked from what he is subjected to down those long corridors filled with unmarked doorways. Barrett is consumed not just by the “sickness” in the hospital (though that physically and mentally breaks him), but by his obsession to succeed, to be the top in his profession. Viewing Shock Corridor as that, it’s one of the more powerful works on how one’s work can devour oneself.
But it goes deeper. It’s apparent that the murder investigation is not solely what drives Shock Corridor. The film isn’t really about whether Barrett will nail the story and secure his place in journalism as the next Nellie Bly. It’s about how long you can last in an alien environment without becoming manufactured as one of them, be it in the realm of war, journalism or sanity. How long could you stay in an insane asylum without turning crazy? Probably about as long as you could stand in a furnace without being burned.
The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera (55:06): This excellent 1996 documentary, presented by The British Film Institute and The Independent Film Channel, is divided into three sections, which devote their time to Samuel Fuller’s life and career as a reporter, a solider and a filmmaker. Fuller is interviewed by Tim Robbins, while other interviewees include Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino (who constantly impersonates Fuller).
Also included with this Criterion Collection Blu-ray is 28-page booklet with an essay titled “Lindywood Confidential” by critic and poet Robert Polito and excerpts from Fuller’s autobiography.