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