Criterion Collection has reissued Shock Corridor on DVD, upgrading their 1998 release of the film with an excellent new transfer. Their original edition of writer/director Samuel Fuller’s 1963 cult classic was not enhanced for 16:9 widescreen televisions. Even on standard definition DVD, the new version boasts a sharper, more richly detailed transfer and some worthwhile supplemental features.
Shock Corridor remains an unsettling film nearly a half-century after its release. The very simple story concerns a self-aggrandizing journalist named Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) who, in his pursuit of a Pulitzer Prize, checks himself into a mental institution to solve a murder. A patient at the facility was killed, but the police investigation failed to uncover the perpetrator. Barrett has created a backstory to ensure his committal, enlisting the help of his girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers). He claims to have an insatiable sexual attraction to his sister, with Cathy reluctantly filling that role to convince the hospital administration.
Barrett knows the names of several witnesses to the murder. Once firmly established as a patient, he tries to extract vital information about the murder from these witnesses. He is utterly convinced he can crack the case. Cathy, on the other hand, has serious reservations about Barrett’s ability to hold onto his sanity after such a prolonged exposure to mental illness. She continues to help, however, visiting the hospital as Barrett’s “sister.” Eventually she realizes her fears were very justified, as Barrett begins losing his grasp of reality.
Fuller did not write Shock Corridor as a conventional whodunit. The plot, what little there is, moves quite slowly without many twists and turns. Rather than suspense, the desired atmosphere seems to have been surreal unease. Both in the script as well as his direction, Fuller achieved this effect in spades. The various characters Barrett encounters are bizarre. The acting is exceptionally strong throughout, with the supporting cast of patients consistently stealing scenes. Larry Tucker plays the morbidly obese Pagliacci, a man obsessed with the opera of the same name. Tucker alternates perfectly between over the top theatrics and droll understatement. James Best makes an equally strong impression as Stuart, a man convinced he is a Confederate general in the American Civil War. Perhaps most unforgettable is Hari Rhodes as Trent, the first African-American student of a previously Caucasian-only university. Trent now believes he is not only a white man, but also the founder of the Ku Klux Klan.
The further Barrett digs into these patients’ psyche, searching for lucid moments that might yield clues about the unsolved murder, the further he becomes lost in the character he created. Peter Breck does an excellent job of portraying a character-within-a-character, allowing the audience to fully accept Barrett’s gradually disintegrating mentality. There are moments in Shock Corridor that verge on all out camp, simply because the envelope is being pushed so far. But the conviction in Fuller’s presentation is so strong that the film maintains its fever dream spell throughout.
Criterion has included The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera, a nearly hour-long 1996 documentary about Samuel Fuller’s career, as a supplemental feature. This excellent look at the maverick filmmaker’s career benefits from appearances by Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, and other filmmakers. They discuss how Fuller’s films have influenced their own filmmaking careers. Also included is a nearly half-hour interview with Shock Corridor‘s female lead, Constance Towers. She talks at great length about her experiences making the film. Rounding out Criterion’s excellent reissue are the film’s original theatrical trailer and a pair of informative essays printed in the DVD booklet.