Journalist Johnny Barrett fakes madness in order to investigate a murder which has occurred in a mental hospital. One of three inmates can identify the killer, but they only have moments of lucidity. And Barretts sanity is strained by life inside the asy
Writer-producer-director Sam Fuller’s pulp masterpiece reduces its whodunit angle to a mantra – ‘who killed Sloan in the kitchen’ – and concentrates instead on institutionalised insanity.
From the first, the hero’s carefully faked madness shades into the real thing – he has his stripper girlfriend pose as his sister, for whom he has incestuous, fetishist desires, but instantly loses focus on who she actually is, and becomes tormented by her dream image.
The enclosed world of the literally insane asylum is depicted in grand guignol terms: with Johnny constantly woken up by a too-friendly, bearded, massive opera singer who is just a more subtle sexual threat than the harpies who swoop upon him (in an incredible sequence) in ‘the nympho ward’.
The potential witnesses all represent tabloid headline versions of America’s ills: Stuart, a one-time brainwashed turncoat who went over to ‘the commies in Korea’ because his dirt-poor parents fed him ‘bigotry for breakfast and prejudice for supper’, imagines that he’s a Dixie-playing Confederate General; Trent, cracked by persecution after being the only black student at a Southern university, thinks he’s the leader of the Ku Klux Klan and whips other inmates up into a lynching frenzy; and Boden has gone mad working on moon rockets and nuclear weapons and mostly acts like a child.
In a unique suspense sequence, Boden has a spell of sanity but a temporarily mute Johnny, shattered by shock treatment, is unable to ask the question which will solve the case.
Stark, harsh and black and white, with bravura freak-outs.
Compelling and unrelenting, this is a murder mystery that works as a psychological drama and vice versa.