This one felt weird. Not because of the subject matter itself, and not because it took an experimental approach – quite the opposite, in fact, it was a lower-budget film that stuck so close to earlier conventions it felt like a throwback. But about midway through it went in some different funky directions and felt almost like the director had shoehorned a couple different short documentaries into this piece to fill things out – and made it work.
It starts out in a very film noir style. Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) is an ambitious journalist looking for The Story That Will Make Him Big. He hears about an unsolved murder in a psychiatric hospital, and comes up with a scheme to Play Mad so he can get committed, leaving him free to investigate the murder, crack the case, and write a Pulitzer-worthy article. He enlists a psychiatrist, Dr. Fong (Philip Ahn), to coach him in how to sell his case, and enlists his very reluctant girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers) to play his sister and file a police complaint accusing him of attempted incest. Cathy still sells her case, and so does Johnny, and in short order he is committed to the very psych ward where the murder took place. Spurred on by his Pulitzer dreams, Barrett easily keeps up his act, even when coping with unexpected and baffling hurdles like a roommate who sings opera all night (Larry Tucker) or getting attacked by a ward full of nymphomaniacs.
He also seeks out and bonds with the three witnesses to the murder in question – and this is where the film gets really interesting. The three witnesses are Stuart (James Best), who thinks he’s Confederate Army General Jeb Stuart; Trent (Hari Rhodes), a young black man who thinks he’s in the Ku Klux Klan; and Boden (Gene Evans), a former scientist who has regressed to the mental and emotional age of a kindergartener. In each case, Barrett first tries drawing them into more general conversation, to kind of bring them “back to reality” a bit so he can then ask them about the murder.
And while that did feel facile – Stuart and Trent’s “breakthroughs” seemed awfully convenient – the roots of all three men’s madness became a fascinating window on the anxieties of the 60s. Stuart had been brainwashed into working for the Communists during the Korean War, and was in turn ordered to brainwash another American POW – but was in turn “deprogrammed” by that prisoner, sent home by the Soviets and reviled as a traitor, which triggered his delusions. Trent, meanwhile, had been one of a handful of students sent to desegregate a college in Mississippi and cracked under the relentless pressure. Boden’s own madness seemed strangely deliberate – he had been pivotal to the development of nuclear weapons, and was so horror-struck and guilt-ridden by his contributions that he regressed to a childlike state.
There’s also the usual noir-ish melodramatic stuff going on – Barrett trying to hold on to his own sanity while playing mad, Cathy wringing her hands outside and fretting about her sweetheart’s safety, and the actual murder mystery itself. But compared to the scenes with Stuart, Trent, and Boden, the rest of the film almost feels secondary. The three witnesses’ stories even briefly use color footage to represent their own flashbacks and recollections, while the rest of the film is in moody black and white.
This approach made for a serious shift in my response about midway through – before we met any of the witnesses, I was getting ready to write this film off as a B-movie noir throwback, but now I see it as a scrappy indie filmmaker’s Comment On The Times.