Wednesday, March 30, 2011
At this time I would like to ask everybody planning on participating in next week's TOERIFIC discussion on Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973) to please start promoting the event with one of the two banners posted above. It's been awhile since TOERIFIC has hosted a discussion, so the banners may be instrumental in helping bring back former TOERIFIC members -- or, better yet, those joining TOERIFIC for the first time.
The TOERIFIC discussion will begin the morning of Wednsday, April 6, at 9:00 AM, right here at Icebox Movies. Be sure to see Jonathan Livingston Seagull if you haven't already! I promise you that this will be a movie worth talking about once the TOERIFIC discussion begins. You won't forget the experience.
Sunday, March 27, 2011
To say that Roman Polanski’s Frantic (1988) may be the best movie ever made about jet lag is not a back-handed compliment. The film is like a romanticized variation on jet lag in all of its illusions, confusions and nerve-racking coincidences, as the hero attempts to put the pieces together from the moment he enters the picture.
In Repulsion (1965), Catherine Deneuve was asked, “Have you fallen asleep?” In Frantic, the hero’s wife repeatedly asks him, “Do you know where you are?” He does not. As we later shall see, he never really does find out where he is, for this is a film in which the most beautiful city in the world can feel more like a hedge maze, and in which the most innocent of Americans can be reduced to the crankiest and most paranoid of Yankee tourists.
At the time Frantic was made, Polanski told Le Nouvel Observator that his reasons for making the film were geographical. "From the start," he told them, “the idea was to make a film in the city where I live. I wanted to stay at home after being away for two years in Tunisia.” He was talking about the experience of making Pirates (1986), which had been the biggest critical and commercial failure of his career; Polanski wanted to rebuild his ever-so-fragile reputation in the eyes of the public, and sought opportunity in going back to the drawing board and retreating to familiar territory. From Repulsion, he brought back Gerard Brach as a storyteller; from Chinatown (1974), he brought back Robert Towne as a script doctor; from out of nowhere, he brought former semi-professional soccer player Jeff Gross to infuse the screenplay with an accurate awareness of modern life in Paris. But Polanski himself remained the supreme auteur: “I wanted to get rid of everything that was too obviously quaintly Parisian and tried to show the town of today. It was the way I see it and not as Americans might imagine it to be.”
Wasn’t Polanski’s comment an indication that his film was meant to put Americans in his shoes? Everybody already knows about the hardships he suffered in the late 1970s’s, when he was a respected Polish filmmaker who had suddenly found himself lost in translation at the center of a damning Los Angeles legal system. Seen today, Frantic plays sort of like Polanski’s sweet vengeance against the United States; he seems to be asking his audience, “How would you like it?” The film is full of eccentric characters that loom in the background and stare at the hero with a devilish glee, enjoying the heck out of giving him a hard time. The French police howl at his fury. A cackling Jamaican accosts him in the stall of a men’s bathroom. A dog watches him from the front seat of a taxicab, salivating at his curious demeanor.
The hero is Dr. Richard Walker (Harrison Ford). He and his wife, Sondra (Betty Buckley), fly into Paris early in the morning, tired, disoriented and cradling each other. Walker is supposed to go to a luncheon later, but he’d rather not attend; in defiance, he teases his wife, crumples up his speech notes and stuffs them in his mouth. He’s not really here to be a spokesman at a boring medical seminar—he just wants to spend the day with his wife. As Polanski illustrates for us, they’re very much in love. But that love is put to the test when Walker wakes up, looks around, and is dumbfounded when his wife is not there. Nor is she anywhere else in the vicinity of their hotel. She has disappeared.
Harrison Ford’s performance as Richard Walker is one of his absolute best. When you compare it to his other performances in that decade—for Steven Spielberg in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); for Ridley Scott in Blade Runner (1982); for Peter Weir in Witness (1985) and The Mosquito Coast (1986)—it seems pretty much a given that the 1980’s was Ford’s finest hour as an actor. Study the natural discomfort in his facial expressions. Look at how exhausted he is when he runs up flights of stairs. Or when he grows impatient with the heads of American Services, grabs the head Embassy Official (John Mahoney) by the arm and demonstrates the possible conditions of his wife’s kidnapping. “You know what it means to me, ‘he had his arm around her’!??" he rages. "Here, like this! He could have had a gun—like this! Here, pointed right at her! ‘Shut up, smile, walk up the lobby!’ Huh? Like this! Huh?” Ford’s performance is a marvelous demonstration of the fatigues of jet lag, and we’re consistently amazed that the actor is able to make it from one set piece to the next.
Frantic is primarily about Walker’s journey to recover his wife, but Polanski does something peculiar, in that he presents the hero with an object of temptation. This is Michelle (Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner), a club youth who is intercepted by Walker after he discovers her in possession of his wife’s suitcase (“YOU PICKED UP THE WRONG SUITCASE AT THE AIRPORT!”). From this point on, Michelle becomes Walker’s ally, but for an entirely different reason. Walker wants to find his wife. Michelle wants to get back at the thugs who may have stolen her money. But then there’s a scene in which Walker is taken to Michelle’s apartment, and a funny thing happens: Michelle casually takes her top off, her breasts partially exposed, and Walker quickly retreats to her bathroom and shuts the door. We are well aware of the sexual tension between them.
Though Polanski never explicitly acknowledges it, there is temptation for Walker to forget his wife and go for Michelle instead. One reason could be the possibility that Walker’s wife might not have been kidnapped at all but may, instead, have been whisked away by a lover somewhere in Paris. Walker refuses to accept this as truth, although it makes for a helpful alibi after he begins fending off curious bystanders. To get the police off his case, he tells them that Michelle is his mistress. To rescue Michelle when she is beaten by angry thugs, he sneaks into her apartment from the rooftop skylights, slips into her bedroom, strips naked, makes himself visible and then valiantly assaults her tormentors: “Don’t mess with me, man! I am an American, and I AM CRAZY!” Most hilariously, when Walker is stopped by his old colleague, Peter (David Huddleston, aka Jeff Lebowski), at the airport (with Michelle in company), Peter grins at Walker’s “mixed with the bags” excuse—while Edie (Alexandra Stewart), a friend of Sondra’s, sneers that maybe she’ll “see any new faces in HER life.” The scene is a pointed demonstration of the different ways in which males and females react to extramarital affairs, not to mention how they tend to simply regard them without actually acknowledging them.
Another indication of Walker’s sexual dilemma is indicated in the physical appearances of the two actresses. Betty Buckley, who looked ravishing as the gym teacher in Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), is made here to look aged and plain; Polanski is pointing out that a man can love a woman even after her graceless beauty has faded. In contrast, Emmanuelle Seigner is tempting and sexy as the young Michelle, who initially gives Walker a hard time but slowly begins to develop feelings for him, which we sense right away after she plants a sincere kiss on his cheek in an earlier scene. Later, when she and Walker attend an Arab nightclub seeking more clues, Walker dresses in his usual business attire while Michelle dresses in sultry, provocative red. Many Internet jokes have been made about their eventual dance scene, in which Michelle grinds and writhes all over Walker on the dance floor—while Walker is stupefied as to where to put his hands and feet. The most he can manage is a desperate clasping of her into her into his arms at one point. So fatigued is he by his search for his wife that he is almost willing, now, to trade her for another woman.
Polanski has always liked to tell stories in which protagonists are able to solve mysteries through the use of clues that are already in their possession; think of Rosemary’s demonic childbirth pains in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), or even Ewan McGregor’s discovery of his predecessor’s GPS system in the recent The Ghost Writer (2010). The clues in Frantic are the two-mixed up suitcases, one of which carries a miniature Statue of Liberty encasing a “Krypton” device that is being hunted by Arab terrorists. The Krypton is, of course, the film’s McGuffin. Its only purpose in the story is to serve as a plot device driving the action of the film. It does allow for the conception of some tremendously suspenseful sequences, as when Walker finds himself balancing on a rooftop and is flabbergasted when his suitcase bursts open, its contents spilling out to the streets down below. Suspense is milked even further by Ennio Morricone’s groovy score, as well as Polanski’s general ease with this type of material.
But the film would have been just another conventional action thriller had it not been for the core dilemma faced by the hero. Walker doesn’t realize it, but he has to make a choice: Sondra or Michelle. Initially, we think Michelle has no interest in him, but we are wrong: when Walker ventures off to recover his wife at last, Michelle is disappointed that he doesn’t take her with him. “I don’t want your money, Walker,” she says. Of course she doesn’t. She wants to help him. She wants him to find his wife and return to his life of happiness—even if it means sacrificing her own. Polanski allegedly disliked the film’s ending, in which Michelle dies trying to fend off the Arab terrorists who have Sondra in their custody, but I think it has held up well today. Consider how Walker’s attitude towards his situation suddenly changes at the last minute. Even after he has recovered Sondra, he’s still worried about Michelle; he ignores Sondra’s plea to remain at her side, and runs off in a futile attempt to rescue Michelle from the terrorists. It’s like he’s attempting to take both women home with him, and not just one.
Walker’s victory comes with a consequence. He could have had Michelle. He could have ditched his wife and his kids for a fetching young vixen. He chooses his family instead. It is not a decision he will likely ever regret, but he’ll carry the burden of making that decision, always. Michelle’s last words (“Don’t leave me alone”) will be on his mind for the rest of his days. I think this is what Frantic is ultimately about: the choice of love over lust. But I think it also asks something else: can love be found in lust, too?
Submitted to Tom Hyland's Polanski Blogathon.
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Just a friendly reminder to everyone that the TOERIFIC discussion on Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973) begins in two weeks, on the morning of April 6. Of course, the discussion will likely carry on for more than just a day -- therefore, even if you don't manage to see the movie by April 6, you can always join the discussion afterwards. Please promote the discussion with one of the above banners.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull is currently available for rent on Netflix and Blockbuster Online. I think it's available for streaming, too, but don't quote me on that. Get the movie as soon as possible -- we hope to see you at the discussion!
Friday, March 18, 2011
Largely ignored by American audiences in 2003, Francois Dupeyron’s Monsieur Ibrahim can finally be seen for what it really is: a small gem of the highest order, a celebration of life’s discoveries, and one of the great pieces of French cinema to emerge out of the first decade of the 21st century. At a time when the world has just overseen a dynamic revolution in Egypt, what a pleasure it is to be returning to this film, which boasts a sensational, swansong performance from the world’s finest Egyptian actor: Omar Sharif.
Monsieur Ibrahim was one of the first films released in the new century to stress a message of tolerance between Jews and Muslims—it paved the way for masterworks like Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005) that would later address the issue on a much more complicated scale. Dupeyron’s film, set in 1960’s Paris, focuses on the small-scale relationship between a Jewish teenager and a Muslim shopkeeper. The unlikely friendship between them is the heart of the film, and, like so many such friendships in various other films, it begins after one of the main characters commits an act of prejudice, and the other proceeds to show him his mistake.
We are introduced to Moses, aka Momo (Pierre Boulanger), as he looks out from his bedroom window at the downtown life on Blue Road, which crawls daily with rabbis, schoolchildren and prostitutes. Momo looks out longingly at that world: he’s not old enough for it, or so he thinks. The film details Momo’s journey into manhood, which he promptly ticks off after he smashes his toy piggy bank to pieces, thus “breaking” the bonds of his youth. A visit to the buxom, brown-haired Sylvie (Anne Suarez), the kindest of the local hookers, frees him from his virginity—but not, unfortunately, from his dreary existence at home.
Momo’s own daily life, it turns out, is sadly lackluster. He lives at home with a father (Gilbert Melki) who is cruel and unkind, and who never smiles once in the film except for in a fleeting moment, when Momo reminds him that it is his birthday. So boring is life at home that Momo frequently amuses himself by shoplifting from Monsieur Ibrahim (Omar Sharif), who owns a general store across the street. Momo tries to justify his actions in thoughts that are heard in a voiceover: “I don’t care, he’s an Arab… he’s an Arab! Even if he wasn’t, I wouldn’t care.” That’s why he is caught off-guard when he walks into the shop later on, and Ibrahim informs him, “I’m not an Arab, Momo. I’m from the Golden Crescent.” Is Ibrahim a mind reader?
And that’s just one of many cinematic touches swimming in Monsieur Ibrahim, a movie that is deeply in love with the cinema. Consider the sequence in which Momo walks out onto Blue Road one day and joins with a fascinated crowd, as they watch Jean-Luc Godard filming Contempt on the street. It’s a nice touch to Godard, but Dupeyron’s film actually owes a lot more to Francois Truffaut: the character of Momo is heavily influenced by Antoine Doinel from The 400 Blows (1958). But there’s even more cinematic influence in the character of Ibrahim, which is evidenced in his remark to Momo about Brigitte Bardot’s great figure: “Imagine me in a boat with her and my wife. The boat sinks. What do I do? I bet that my wife knows how to swim!” It’s a clever reminder of the love triangle Sharif got himself caught in so many years ago in David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965), and the cheapness of Zhivago even carries over to Ibrahim when he charges Bardot herself (Isabelle Adjani) extra when she strides into his shop asking for a bottle of water. As Momo ashamedly learns, it’s because Ibrahim needs to “make up for all the cans you pinch.” But Ibrahim holds no grudges against the young Jewish boy.
“Listen to me,” he tells Momo. “You owe me nothing. If you have to steal, I’d prefer you do it in my shop.” Ibrahim repeats this to make it clear. It’s a sign that Ibrahim has put his trust in Momo, and it marks the beginning of the friendship between them that builds up the best scenes in the film. The film itself is not just about friendship, but about the problem of the pursuit of happiness, and it offers three solutions: smiles, sex and dance. Neither one can exist without the other. When one doesn’t work, the other makes a fine substitute. Dupeyron suggests that it’s all part of one big cycle.
For instance, Ibrahim observes that Momo doesn’t smile very often. Momo claims, “I can’t afford to… it’s for happy people.” “You’re wrong,” Ibrahim corrects him. “Smiling is what makes you happy.” And as Momo finds out, a lot of doors can be unlocked with a simple smile. Walking around, Momo tries smiling at various people, and sure enough, it works: on his math teacher, on the hookers, and even on the red-headed girl (Lola Naynmark) who hula-hoops under his window. That Ibrahim does a lot of smiling in the film is only natural, since Omar Sharif has always had the most infectious grin in the history of movies—there’s a moment in the film when Ibrahim and Momo have a conversation about braces, and it gives Sharif a chance to show off his famously gap-toothed smile. Pauline Kael once called Sharif “a walking love scene,” and, at 71 (the age he was when the film was made), Sharif proves that he still holds the market in that department.
When smiling doesn’t bring him happiness, however, Momo turns to sex as an alternative. And Momo isn’t the only one: he watches from his window one night and notices that his own father sometimes visits the hookers, one of them being Sylvie. The hookers have a hunch of their own that Brigitte Bardot might have slept her way to the top. Even Ibrahim has a healthy sex life: in a weird bit of grown-up advice, he reminds Momo, “It’s good to start off with professionals—but afterwards, when you complicate things with feelings, then you’ll appreciate novices.” It’s a red flag that even Ibrahim sometimes sleeps with the hookers: “You go, too! At your age!” Momo observes, to which Ibrahim replies, “Heaven is for all of us, not just minors.” (On the DVD commentary track, Omar Sharif tells a bizarre story about losing his own virginity at age 15; he claims that upon walking out of the hotel, he met Glenn Ford and then promptly convinced the bemused actor to autograph a porno movie poster for him.)
And dancing. Momo picks up a habit of dancing from the red-headed girl, whose name is Myriam and who teaches him how to jive—even when there’s no music. Soon Momo finds himself dancing in dark areas, always checking to see if anybody’s watching, always hoping that Myriam will show up sooner or later and dance right with him. Not surprisingly, Ibrahim is a dancer, too; in another helpful bit of advice to Momo, he tells the boy, “When you dance, your heart sings, and then rises to heaven.” In one of the most stunning sequences in the film, Ibrahim and Momo enter a tecche dancing hall and watch a group of Turkish Sufis spinning around and around in white gowns. “It’s like a prayer,” Ibrahim explains. “They lose all their bearings—that burden we call balance. They become like torches. They burn in a blazing fire.”
So, the movie says that smiles, sex and dance all factor into a sort of cycle of happiness. Momo’s habit of smiling at people works on everybody except his father, who looks upon Momo’s smile and then cruelly remarks that his teeth are crooked—thus killing Momo’s smile. In defiance, Momo has sex with various hookers, which works until he learns that his father has been run over by a train—thus killing Momo’s sex drive. When Momo and Ibrahim embark on a road trip to Turkey, Momo, fascinated by the dancing of the Sufis, tries dancing with the local Turkish kids—they are not amused, and their rejection (temporarily) kills Momo’s love of dance. And towards the end of the film, Ibrahim offers yet another alternative to Momo in his pursuits: “Slowness… that’s the key to happiness.” But then Ibrahim, in attempting to "slow" down time by driving up to his old home in the hills, is wounded in a car accident and dies. Thus, in an attempt to “slow” down time and revisit his past, “slowness” winds up killing Ibrahim altogether.
Dupeyron weaves this “cycle of happiness” quite effectively into his screenplay, which he adapted from a book and play by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. On the DVD commentary, Sharif describes Dupeyron as “a very intelligent, very pure and very fresh person… a little provincial, but very cultured.” The good relationship between Sharif and his director is deeply felt in each of the film’s scenes. It’s a miracle that Dupeyron convinced Sharif to be in the movie at all—Sharif had been in semi-retirement from acting at the time, and only jumped back into the profession after Dupeyron’s excellent script fell into his hands. The character of Monsieur Ibrahim is an excellent part for Sharif, who hadn’t had a great part for decades and whose career had gone downhill after the 1960’s (since Monsieur Ibrahim, Sharif’s career has, unfortunately, reverted to its original patchiness—Joe Johnston cast him effectively as a desert sheik in 2004’s Hidalgo, but then Roland Emmerich wasted him as the narrator of 2008’s 10,000 B.C.). Dupeyron recognizes the natural acting talent in Sharif, however, and it’s just one of so many things that has allowed Monsieur Ibrahim to age so gracefully.
Not only that, but the rapport between Sharif and Pierre Boulanger (who has every bit the charisma of a young Jean-Pierre Leaud) makes for some of the most impressive pieces of acting in the last decade of world cinema. Some of their scenes are humorous, as when Momo tries to give Ibrahim helpful hints during his driver’s exam—a reminder of the agonizing aura of a driver’s exam to which any beginning driver (this writer included) can testify. Some of the other scenes between them are more philosophical, such as their conversations about religion. Society would tell them that, being a Jew and a Muslim, they should despise each other, but they don’t—rather, they find comfort in sorting out their religious differences. “What does being Jewish mean to you?” Ibrahim asks. Momo is dumbfounded: “I don’t know… for my dad, it means being depressed all day. For me, it’s why I can’t be different.”
Because Ibrahim is a devout Muslim who lives his life by the Koran, there have been some ridiculous Internet theories about the film’s intentions—one of them being that it’s supposedly about a Muslim trying to corrupt a young Jewish child with Al-Quaeda worldviews. Some of the other theories I’ve read about the film are more plausible—for instance, the implications behind Ibrahim’s fatherly treatment of Momo. There’s a running subplot in the film about Momo’s long-lost older brother, “Paulie”, whom Momo himself has never even met; when Momo asks Ibrahim if he has ever met Paulie, Ibrahim firmly declares, “I prefer you a hundred times.” Momo’s father seems to dislike Ibrahim intensely, but never tells his son why. After Momo’s father is run over by a train, the police come to Ibrahim’s shop to ask questions—Ibrahim then takes them into a backroom so that Momo cannot overhear their conversation with him. When a woman (Isabelle Renauld) claiming to be Momo’s mother shows up at the flat, she reveals, “Moses was my first-child.”
What does all this mean? Was “Paulie” made up? Was Momo’s father, in fact, a stranger to the family? Is Momo, in fact, Monsieur Ibrahim’s illegitimate son?
I don’t know. Dupeyron’s film is as full of mysteries as it is full of pleasures. At the end of the DVD commentary, Omar Sharif spells out his feelings about the film in as direct a way as possible: “I’m glad I did this picture. It gives me a sort of inner happiness, a sort of peace at my age—a peace that I have made a little stagnant—about love between people, as opposed to hatred.” His joy is expressed in his onscreen performance, and it’s a joy that is shared by the writer/director—as well as the rest of the cast and crew. Monsieur Ibrahim is, above all, one of those rare films that looks like it was great fun to make. By the end, I was smiling, but not just because of the film’s good nature: because it’s the kind of film that encourages a smile, and because it believes that movies are still capable of such power.
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
At this time I would like to thank Greg Ferrara and Marilyn Ferdinand for allowing me to briefly revive Toerific (aka The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club) for a film discussion in April 2011. Toerific has been shut down ever since March 2010 (when Marilyn hosted the last discussion: a conversation on 1991's The Rapture), and I was bummed not to have been able to participate more. Yet, I've come across many films in the past year that would almost warrant yet another long Toerific discussion. But there is only one film that's kept coming back to me, kept interrupting my concentration. And not just in the past year, but over the course of many years. A Toerific discussion might do it some good.
So it is with great pleasure that I announce my selection for Toerific's April 2011 discussion: Hall Bartlett's Jonathan Livingston Seagull
(1973), based on the 1970 bestseller by Richard Bach. The book has continued to be a favorite of generations over the decades, but the film, alas, has faded from public memory--as has the career of the late writer/director who made it.
The discussion on Jonathan Livingston Seagull will be held the morning of April 6, 2011. I'm not sure which time--I'll settle for either 7:00 AM or 9:00 AM, one of those two. I realize that it's been awhile since everybody participated in a Toerific discussion and that not everybody will be willing to participate, but it'd be nice to see a huge output. Like I said, this type of film might benefit from a Toerific discussion. The lukewarm reception it received in 1973 has all but blocked it from receiving any intellectual examinations by the film community since then, and I think a Toerific discussion would correct that mistake.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull is currently available for rental on Netflix and Blockbuster Online. It's available for purchasing on eBay and Amazon, and it's also available as a streaming site in various websites.
Please promote the discussion with one of the two banners I've offered here in this post.
See you in April, everybody.
Monday, March 7, 2011
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.
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—and for his future.