Monday, March 7, 2011

The Caretakers (1963)


There is a moment in Hall Bartlett’s The Caretakers (1963) when a group therapy session breaks out into violence. Conditioned as we are to the conventions of all the movies ever made about mental illness, we think there’s going to be a terrible struggle of some kind; perhaps one of the patients will be severely hurt, or killed. Then the camera pulls back, and we realize that what we are actually watching is a recorded session playing on a TV set. An audience of nurses-in-training is alarmed by what they see on the screen. “Wow,” one of them exclaims. “So, that’s the new deal in group therapy!”

Robert Stack comes forward, talks to the nurses and explains to them that this sort of thing comes with the job. Sometimes patients act irrationally. Sometimes they step out of line. But the Stack character has a vision: “Every patient in this hospital is a human being, entitled to respect and dignity. They need us. We are the caretakers of their hope—of their future.” His vision sounds remarkably idealistic in a hospital where doctors prefer to be the caretakers of the patients’ disintegration.

This is the kind of scene that could have propelled a strong narrative in a better film, but serves a lesser purpose in this one. The Caretakers feels like a wasted opportunity. It features a splendid cast, and it was directed by one of America’s most underrated filmmakers, but the movie is ultimately compromised by a story that goes nowhere. Bartlett directed the film at the height of a bizarre renaissance of “mental illness” pictures that were ensnaring the movie industry in the 1960’s. John Huston’s Freud (1962) came out a year earlier, and Samuel Fuller would make Shock Corridor (1965) two years later. Those two films have both held up remarkably well today—Huston’s film, with its fascinating deconstruction of the unconscious mind; Fuller’s film, with its melodramatic murder mystery fueled by a psychological frenzy. The Caretakers looks rather dated compared to those films, perhaps because its own concepts about mental illness now strike us as awfully contrived in the age of Obamacare.

For starters, the movie’s message about “respect towards patients,” while touching, sounds incredibly irrelevant in light of the real issue at hand. The film believes that patients in a Canterbury mental hospital can only benefit from respect and dignity. Isn’t there a bit more to it than that? Why is there never any mention in the film of drug therapy? Is it true that nurses are taught martial arts as a defense mechanism against patients? When President Kennedy saw The Caretakers in 1963 (just months before he was assassinated), he was allegedly so moved by the film’s "message" that he then proceeded to screen it before Congress, thus persuading them to pass one of his many New Frontier health-care bills. How Kennedy could possibly find such inspiration in the film is hard to determine. By this logic, there’s no reason why President Eisenhower shouldn’t have seen Hall Bartlett’s previous big production, Zero Hour! (1957), and then have walked out convinced that there might be something morally wrong about serving grilled halibut on airplanes.

Bartlett and his co-writers, Henry F. Greenberg and Jerry Paris, adapted the film from a book by Dariel Telfer. Based on the story’s attempts to look relevant to the psychological troubles of the times, I can sort of see why the director might have been as attracted to the story as he was. I think Bartlett wanted to prove, after Zero Hour!, that he was more than just a director of crowd-pleasing disaster flicks about crashing airplanes. He was desperate to be taken seriously as an independent and intellectual artist working within the studio system, and saw his chance in a film about mental illness. There’s no real reason why Bartlett should have been ashamed of his feat, either; the film netted him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director, and it also netted legendary cameraman Lucien Ballard an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography. As a matter of fact, Bartlett’s direction and Ballard’s photography (plus, a wicked musical score by Elmer Bernstein) are the best things about the film. The problem is that when you compare the film to some of the films Bartlett made afterwards, not to mention some of the films Lucien Ballard photographed both before and afterwards (Kubrick’s The Killing and Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, respectively), their achievement with The Caretakers looks fairly marginal.


The Caretakers takes a noticeably strong stance on the issue of mental illness, and tries to sell us on its argument by establishing a pair of archetypal doctors at war with each other’s worldviews: Dr. McCloud (Robert Stack), the all-knowing hero who wants to bring the staff closer to its patients; and the villainess, Ms. Terry (Joan Crawford), a Nurse Ratched type who believes in “the intelligent use of force” and intensely disapproves of McCloud’s liberal methods. Both characters have different ways of pitching their methods to the nurses in training; McCloud shows them videos of his “Borderline” group therapy sessions, while Ms. Terry literally teaches Judo to the nurses in the middle of an immense gymnasium (giving Joan Crawford a chance to show off her slender good looks in a fighting outfit, even at her old age). The strongest scenes in The Caretakers involve the arguments between McCloud and Terry, and we’re disappointed that they don’t carry the weight of the film more often.

What hurts The Caretakers, I think, is the starkly split narrative. Bartlett shows us so many perspectives of the goings-on inside and outside the Canterbury hospital—the doctors, the nurses, the patients, the visitors—that the film finally has no focus. There is no heart. It seems a serious mistake to attempt to make a main character out of Lorna (Polly Bergen), who enters the film dragged to the hospital after suffering a horrifying nervous breakdown inside a movie theater; she is no less insane than the rest of the patients in the women’s ward, and, as a protagonist, she is maddeningly unreliable. Nor is there anything too terribly intriguing about the rest of the patients, which include: Connie (Sharon Hugueny), who is childlike and dreams of being “free like a daisy!”; Irene (Ellen Corby), a lonely old woman who cradles a toy doll; Ana (Ana Maria Lynch), who tends to a pet parakeet; and Edna (Barbara Barrie), who is mute. Only the slutty Miriam (Janis Paige) arouses our interest. Not only does she call Lorna a bitch at one point, but she’s also fond of sexually teasing McCloud; when she charges at him, “I think your lousy hospital’s a phony, and you’re the biggest phony of them all!”, we delight in her audacity.

Bartlett is even less successful with the other supporting characters, particularly with the nurses. A subplot involving Nurse Cathy (Susan Oliver) and her Rod Serling-lookalike boyfriend is boring and pointless. The chubby Nurse Bracken (Constance Ford) is basically Ms. Terry’s right-hand bitch; she turns up so faithfully whenever there’s a scene that calls for the patients to be slapped or abused. As for the hospital’s head warden, Harrington (Herbert Marshall), he doesn’t do much in the film aside from watch McCloud and Ms. Terry argue about how to treat their patients—he’s like a divorce counselor that lets the squabbling couple do all the heavy-lifting for him. Interestingly, when Marshall did his scenes for the film, he had to sit behind a desk so that the camera only saw him from the waist up, as he had been walking around with a wooden leg at the time.

Joan Crawford’s performance as Ms. Terry is one of the film’s more enjoyable aspects. Crawford has a great scene in which she listens to another one of McCloud’s lectures about humanity and then remarks, “Have you finished, Doctor? Splendid speech! Very well prepared!” I learn from Crawford’s biographers, Lawrence J. Quirk and William Schoell, that she had agreed to do the film because the role was an age-appropriate part; she had just finished What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) for Robert Aldrich, and had wanted to work with Hall Bartlett because she admired his previous films. Because she was also on the Pepsi board of directors at the time (in the wake of the death of her then-husband, Albert Steele), it’s no coincidence that a Pepsi vendor appears during a picnic sequence in the film—Bartlett had included it at Crawford’s request. She would converse endlessly with the director about her character. Bartlett had cut out a “cheapened” scene in which Ms. Terry herself is interned in the hospital after being dumped by a lover. The actress allegedly responded, “Every woman who’s rejected by the man she loves looks cheap.” And Crawford made it no secret what she thought of her fellow cast members. She thought Janis Paige was “well-cast”, but didn’t like Polly Bergen, perhaps resenting her for starring in a number of Pepsi commercials (on the big screen, she had played Gregory Peck's wife in Cape Fear a year earlier). She reportedly had lustful feelings for Robert Stack. There’s no accounting for tastes.

Despite its faults, The Caretakers is very much a Hall Bartlett film. The pet parakeet that is kept in a cage throughout the story represents the film’s portrayal of what it means to be interned and locked up. When the parakeet is finally set free and is ordered to “fly, you little bastard, fly!”, it is both a moment of catharsis and a moment of strange foresight; the very famous film that Bartlett would go on to make a decade later would place yet another emphasis on the freedom of flying (and with a bird as the main protagonist, no less). The notion of “bastards” is another aspect that echoes through the chambers of The Caretakers and throughout Bartlett’s other work. Dr. McCloud confesses that he became a mental illness doctor after watching his father descend into suicidal madness at a young age, and the provocative Marion, who acts like a whore throughout the film, finally breaks down at the end in a monologue during which she reminisces about being taunted as a “little bastard” all her life: “The happiest day of my life was when somebody called me MARION!” Again, “bastards” factor strongly in Bartlett’s work—from young Joey watching his parents fall out of love in Zero Hour! to Anthony Quinn’s "bastards" tirade in The Children of Sanchez (1978). It’s one of Bartlett’s favorite themes: a parentless child who attempts to face the world on his own, without the aid of a father.

The Caretakers can best be remembered as a destructive turning point in Bartlett’s career—a movie where so many neat things were going on, but nothing ever quite coalesced into a satisfyingly finished film. The film’s failure led to a ten-year period of hell during which, in Bartlett’s own words, he “couldn’t make a right move” and during which “the fear was on me that I would never make a picture again.” Fortunately, Bartlett’s failure in 1963 led him exactly ten years later, in 1973, to the artistic highpoint of his career—when he would finally make his masterpiece, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. In a manner of speaking, the lessons learned from the failure of The Caretakers were the ultimate caretakers for Bartlett’s hope. Yes, and for his future, too.

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