The Carey Treatment (1972) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film


Based on Michael Crichton’s A Case of Need (which I reviewed here), this was one of Blake Edwards’ occasional excursions into the mystery genre (I profiled some of the others here). Edwards and the screenwriters disowned the released version and it does take many liberties with the book too. It does however star James Coburn as the doctor trying to clear a friend accused of murder after carrying out an abortion – but is it any good?

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – click here for links.

“There’s nothing wrong with him that retirement and a healthy bowel movement wouldn’t cure” – David Tao (James Hong)

This is in some ways a curious adaptation of Crichton’s novel (he is, incidentally, credited onscreen with the pseudonym he used on the book, ‘Jeffrey Hudson’). It keeps the basic plot and sensibly streamlines the narrative (the book is set across several hospitals, the movie sticks to one) and eliminates many of the peripheral characters though the plot does get a bit lost in places, only coming into focus in fits and starts. This is largely because the dry tone of the book has been changed considerably by jettisoning John Berry, the original protagonist. In the book he is a fairly traditional, happily married man and a father; but he is also complicit in several (then illegal) abortions. He is an insider letting us in, navigating an area mainly unfamiliar to us. In the film he becomes ‘Peter Carey’, a swinging bachelor newly arrived from Palo Alto and is actually based on ‘Norton Francis Hammond III’, a subsidiary character from the novel who appears in only a few pages but who proves his youth and desire to break with the past by driving around on a motorbike. Carey thus becomes an outsider like us but the film strangely doesn’t make much use of this as he is so clearly at odds with his surroundings, which actually further de-emphasises the plot as we feel Carey is not being drawn in but rather pulling away.


This change however really suits Coburn’s cool persona of course. Having dispensed with his wife and child, to provide a love interest a new character is invented, the hospital nutritionist who, in the shape of Jennifer O’Neil, makes for a very appealing leading lady if not given much to do relating to the investigation. She was a fairly new face at the time after the unexpected sleeper success of Summer of ’42 and is utterly entrancing, which is just as well since Coburn, like his frequent co-star Charles Bronson, is another one of those charismatic, macho Hollywood icons who always seems a bit uneasy in romantic scenes. The romance in the film is initially a bit perfunctory – the two virtually fall on each other the minute they meet (this may be due to the post-production tampering) – but there are plenty of quite nice scenes between the pair where they get to talk about themselves (she has recently been abandoned by her husband, he comes from a deeply conventional background and admires his four-square father). The film goes to great pains to draw credible portraits of these two people and their affair, which is fairly naturalistic and low-key though lumbered with some typically attempts at ‘with it’ dialogue, the most notorious being when they have a tiff and Carey says:

“you just stay who you are baby, I’ll stay who I am”

What this does do however is keep the romance almost completely separate from the main plot, which again slows down the thriller aspects except for an amusing scene with a peeping tom and a flash camera …


The film rights to this Edgar-winning novel had been snapped up within weeks of the original publication in 1968 but by the time the film came out, four years later, Coburn’s anti-establishment pathologist, who bridles against ‘The Man’ whether he be an officious car park attendant, the Chief of Police or the head of medicine at the Boston hospital where he works, feels a bit like a ‘flower power’ character left-over from the previous decade. However, the plot and theme of abortion were what got people all excited when the book came out and that is largely retained here. Karen Randall, the daughter of the all-powerful head of the hospital (Dan O’Herlihy, largely wasted in what few scenes remain in the final cut) dies after a botched abortion and Carey’s old friend David is arrested. It turns out that David really does in fact perform abortions but not in this case – and Carey believes him, mainly because he knows that such a good surgeon could never have done such a poor job.


At the autopsy it becomes clear to Carey (though no one else apparently) that Karen was not in fact even pregnant and may instead have had a tumorous growth that gave the same symptoms. In the book David (or rather Art Lee as he was originally) is innocent but covers up something making the detection much harder. In the finished film this is all lost (he had performed an abortion for another member of the Randall clan), as is for the most part the sense that the whole medical community is closing ranks against him, perhaps for racial reasons as David is of Chinese descent but mainly because of JD’s huge power. This is a bit of a shame but the film does offer a typically fine performance as David by the consummate character actor James Hong (who turned 84 this year and thankfully is still going strong, seen most recently in one of this Summer’s big films, R.I.P.D.)


Shot on location in Boston in the Fall of 1971, the film benefits greatly from its unusual locale, especially in an otherwise spurious scene in which Carey frightens Karen’s college roommate (played by Jennifer Edwards, the director’s daughter, one of many appearances for her father in his movies) by driving all over the countryside like a maniac (and magically failing to get arrested). All the film’s most notable scenes, like this one, are in fact not from the book at all. The most amusing is the one where Coburn, infuriated that O’Herlihy has hired a photographer to spy on his dalliance with O’Neil, has the resulting photo of them in bed together blown up to poster size and shoves it into his face and suggests he hang it on his wall to brighten his office up a bit; or the queasy-making session with a masseur that becomes very threatening as the man is in fact one of the villains of the piece and starts to apply way too much pressure on poor Carey, who is only wearing a towel for protection. It turns out that Karen had been involved with a couple of drug dealers, helping them to steal supplies from the hospital and the last part of the film, like the book, is all set in the hospital for a violent showdown.


The notable screenwriting team of Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch submitted a revised version of their screenplay in mid July 1971 but by the time the final script was approved two weeks before shooting began in late September, both John D.F. Black and Blake Edwards’ names had been added to the credits. Ultimately the film was so mauled in post-production by MGM studio head James Aubrey (whose daughter Skye Aubrey incidentally plays the drug-addicted nurse Agnes in the film) that Edwards tried to get his name removed as director, unsuccessfully. Frank Jr. and Ravetch were also displeased and refused to take a credit so ultimately the joint pseudonym “James P. Bonner’ was used, which they had previously used on the John Gullermin thriller House of Cards (adapted from the eponymous novel by Stanley Ellin – review due at Fedora soon-ish by the way). In the finished film the narrative is certainly very choppy and doesn’t have much in the way of momentum to it until the very end, and even that feels stilted, stopping and starting as Carey is hit by a car and taken to hospital where the masseur and his accomplice nurse coincidentally also happen to be when they stab each other – and then goes on for another 15 minutes before the movie really wraps up.


There is much to enjoy here – along with the charismatic leads, nice locations and unusual subject matter there is also a typically taut and dynamic score by Roy Budd – and Edwards as usual manages to attach several touches of humour. There is no denying though that the narrative and characters feel slightly shortchanged in terms of development. Having said that, it’s a bit too easy to blame the post-production difficulties since we don’t know what was really left on the cutting room floor, though copies of the original script are in circulation. And interesting touches abound, such as in the autopsy scene when suddenly we cut to slow motion shots of the young woman when she was alive, splashing around in the sea – it’s not a flashback of course as the girl is dead (though the poor actress does a really bad job of holding her breath) and none of her family are there – it’s an authorial interjection and a nice one. It does tend to throw up what may be a limiting factor in the structure of the film – having made Carey an outsider, and so not tainted by the hypocrisy that he finds throughout the Boston medical establishment, it means that there is too little at stake for him – he can, after all, just leave whenever he likes, whereas in the book the character is rooted there and involved in the abortions too. This is none the less a competent mystery, well worth at least one sitting.

DVD Availability: Released as part of the bare-bones series of on-demand Warner Archive DVDs, this comes in a decent anamorphic transfer that gives every indication of having been scrubbed up very nicely from the best available elements.

The Carey Treatment (1972)
Director: Blake Edwards
Producer: William Belasco
Screenplay: ‘James P. Bonner’ (aka Harriet Frank Jr. & Irving Ravetch, John D.F. Black and Blake Edwards)
Cinematography: Frank Stanley
Art Direction: Alfred Sweeney
Music: Roy Budd
Cast: James Coburn, Jennifer O’Neil, Dan OHerlihy, James Hong, Pat Hingle, Elizabeth Allen, Skye Aubrey, Regis Toomey, John Hillerman

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2013 Book to Movie Challenge, Blake Edwards, Boston, Michael Crichton, Tuesday's Overlooked Film and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to The Carey Treatment (1972) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – Thanks very much for sharing this. I’ll confess that I’ve never seen this film, ‘though I’ve read (and enjoyed) A Case of Need. It is a shame there was so much post-production mess, because it sounds as though it could have been a fascinating alternate take on the story. In any case I find the story a really interesting look at that time and those attitudes – a ‘snapshot,’ if I can put it that way.

    • Thanks Margot – it is certainly a movie of its time! To a degree one can understand its comparative obscurity – Crichton’s impriomatur is disguised, the well-known director was well regarded in other genres and the star is cast in a role that is abotu 2 years out of sunc with the times, which is probably the Hollywood norm but not with what si supposed to be a topical movie. Worth a look if you can get hold of a copy – no idea if its on Netflix though I think Warner are moving over to digital delivery …

  2. le0pard13 says:

    It remains an entertaining mess of a film, Sergio. I picked up the MOD of this a year ago, having seen it first-run the year I graduated high school. The subject of abortion being so controversial back then (hell, our GOP continues to make it so) that it garnered some critical looks. Still, it’s another Blake Edwards film (never miss these), and one taken away from his creative control like a few others, that makes it interesting.

    Can’t be bored with this one. Certainly Coburn and O’Neill (she certainly vanished from movies, now didn’t she?) had good chemistry onscreen. The late-Michael Blodgett also had a good presence, but was another who had a cursed career (TV, film, novelist). I agree with you Dan O’Herlihy was wasted on the project. Great look at the film’s pluses and minuses, my friend. When I think of James Coburn, I inevitability add this one into that mix. Thanks for this.

    • Thanks very much Michael – I think you and I are very much on the same page here (and don’t get me started on the GOP’s eternal retrenchment – it’s so utterly appalling that it is paralysing to the spirit). Confession time – I didn’t realise that the this was the same Michael Blodgett who wrote all those films with Dennis Shyrack – Turner and Hootch (granted, re-written by Daniel Petrie Jr to add his usual smuggling subplot as in Beverly Hill Cop and The Big Easy) is one of my Dad’s favourites!

  3. Kelly says:

    I had no idea A Case of Need had been made into a film. Thanks for the detailed review.

    • Thanks Kelly – the book probably works better on its own terms despite a rather pompous narrator and a delightful if absurd surfeit of footnote, asides and appendices (as opposed to appendixes that might also have appeared – ho ho).

  4. Patti Abbott says:

    I doubt I saw this one. Coburn came out of the Steve MdQueen cool guy tradition, I guess. I enjoyed him in THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST especially.

    • That is a wonderfully funny movie Patti – I do like Coburn a lot and wish he had made more films with Edwards as I think he would have responded well to his sense of humour – ah well, not to be. Mind you, he was incredible in the distinctly humourless Affliction from the Russell Banks novel.

  5. Colin says:

    Top stuff as usual Sergio.
    I remember talking about different DVD versions of this some time ago – I might have to dip into the Archive again to nab a copy of this.
    I can’t get enough of Coburn from this era, and I think you make a good point about his seeming a little uncomfortable in romantic situations. There was maybe too much detached coolness and underlying cynicism – as though he knew the world too well – for him to appear convincing in romantic scenes.

    • Thanks Colin – the DVD is pretty nice overall with just the usual trailer attached (a P/S job horribly reproduced from video). Of course it’s just as true of Marvin or Wayne that they were not considered romantic leading men anyway. What is true is that he played quite a few villains or less sympathetic characters around this time (I’m thinking of The Last of Sheila and Internecine Project especially along with the amazing Duck, You Sucker). What is interesting, and may just explain the behind-the-scenes shenanigans on this film, is that Edwards and the writers were clearly trying to push the romance here quite a lot but it all happens so suddenly in the final edit that it tends to undermine that aspect of it. In the trailer there is a hint of how things may have gone – when Carey is attacked in his flat and the man falls over the upstairs banister, in the trailer Carey tries to grab him and holds on to his leg before the man drops, which explains why he didn’t die from the fall – this suggests that Aubrey was just chopping everything down to the bone. As is, it’s not too far from running two hours so it does make one wonder just how long Edwards’ initial cut would have been since to have a fairly straightforward thriller like this run more than two hours would have clearly been daft!

      • Colin says:

        There’s always some compromise involved when the filmmaker’s ambition clashes with the studio’s aims, isn’t there? Aubrey seems to have been extraordinarily fond of wielding the scissors though.

        • The Harvey Weinstein of his day! Well, I suppose due to the fairly well documented debacles over Edwards’ Wild Rovers and especially Pechinpah’s Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, it makes it easier to believe the fairly nasty things that have been said about ‘the smiling cobra’! His entry on Wikipedia makes for scary reading …

          • Colin says:

            It certainly does! Whatever his business skills, Aubrey sounded like a pretty unpleasant type.

          • It is fascinating to see that old argument – yes he was an awful person and treated his employees dreadfully but he made lots of money – as a viable argument – you can’t even say “only in Hollywood”. Let’s hope he did lots of nice things that we don’t know about – otherwise, why waste the space?

          • Colin says:

            Can’t argue with that.

          • Mind you, apart from Irving Thalberg, were there any really well-liked studio heads?

          • Colin says:

            This may be just a demonstration of my ignorance, but I don’t recall reading anything particularly negative about Paramount’s Adolph Zukor. And now that I’ve said that I fully expect you to post a link to a list of all the people he was horrible to. 🙂

          • Nah, although he didn’t really get involved in the nitty gritty and was fairly far away from the frontline, unlike Cohn, Warner, Mayer, Zanuck etc (Philip French’s The Movie Moguls is still worth reading) – Disney was fairly well liked, well until he got so hawkish in the late 1940s anyway.

  6. TracyK says:

    This sounds interesting. I don’t know if I would want to read the book first or not, or if that matters. Sounds like a lot of changes were made to the film.

    • The film is lighter, more fun than the book – the book, on the other hand, tells the story much better so depends what your preference would be – not much really, am I? Sorry TracyK, will try to do better next time!

      • TracyK says:

        That actually is helpful, Sergio. I would probably start with the book first. Either would be enjoyable I am sure, although I wish the DVD was a tad less expensive. I do like to support Warner Archives though. We just ordered Mask of Dimitrios from there. And I will be getting the Hildegarde Withers set soon.

        • Those are great movies TracyK – and the Withers films are great fun (or rather, the ones with Edna May Oliver – I’ve only seen those first three) – they are definitely too expensive (and getting them imported into the UK just doubles the price usually as there are customs charges too). Will you be reviewing these, stretching out into multimedia? Hope so.

          • TracyK says:

            I may be reviewing them eventually. I always feel more intimidated writing about films than books for some reason. Don’t feel like I know enough in that area.

          • Really? If nothing else, this blog proves that film reviewing is neither a specialised nor a restrictive art! Well I’d like to read what you think all the same! Besides, this is wehere your hubby might come in handry, right? 🙂

          • TracyK says:

            You are right about my husband. He always encourages me to review movies we have watched if they have any connection to mysteries or crime fiction at all. And whenever I get brave and do it, he is a great resource.

          • Well, you definitely have my vote!

  7. Sergio, thanks for this review. I haven’t read the book or seen the (near) film adaptation. I’m hoping to read a few of Crichton’s novels and will put this one on the list as well, even if he wrote it under an assumed name. Did Crichton also disown the film? I have never really given James Coburn serious thought as an actor and that may be because I haven’t seen many of his early films with the exception of THE GREAT ESCAPE and A REASON TO LIVE, A REASON TO DIE, the latter I’m sure I must have seen for Bud Spencer and Telly Savalas.

    • Thanks Prashant – I don’t know what Crichton thought on this one actually though he kept a much tighter grip on later adaptations of his work, so that probably tells its own story! Well, I haven’t seen the Bud Spencer one weirdly enough! Coburn was great as the hero in the spy spoof Our Man Flint and turns up in dozens of films in supporting roles or as a co-star. Among the best as The Last of Sheila (which I reviewed here) as well as such westerns as Fistful of Dynamite (aka Duck, You Sucker) and Bite the Bullet. He was a great baddie in Monsters Inc. too!

  8. Nice write up I had not heard of this one previously.

  9. Pingback: 2013 Book to Movie Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

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