Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Pride Makes For Perversity
The early seventies were something of a low point in the career of Blake Edwards, a time where the director had several projects which were not only poorly received but their failures came after having already gone through numerous problems during shooting and editing. Among these films was the now forgotten mystery-thriller THE CAREY TREATMENT, first released in 1972. Never available on video in any format the film is probably remembered most today as one of a number of productions which by various accounts suffered from strong interference by MGM head James Aubrey (a list that also includes Edwards’ previous film WILD ROVERS and Sam Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID) and Edwards even apparently tried unsuccessfully to have his name removed from the credits. In spite of all these issues, Vincent Canby in The New York Times described THE CAREY TREATMENT as “absurdly entertaining” in a very positive review when it opened and Andrew Sarris declared it the no. 10 film of 1972 on his year-end list right behind DUCK, YOU SUCKER, another James Coburn vehicle that went through troubles in the cutting room. And while the film may have turned out better if Edwards had been allowed more control THE CAREY TREATMENT is still pretty entertaining, far from the nadir of the director’s long career. At the least, it doesn’t seem to bare the marks of a film that was wrecked in the cutting or shooting—that observation doesn’t necessarily mean anything but although there is some abruptness felt near the end it certainly doesn’t play as an incomprehensible mess that’s been cut down to eighty minutes (it runs 101 minutes, actually). For the most part it also doesn’t necessarily play as a recognizable Blake Edwards film, coming off more as a neatly plotted mystery than anything, the film version of a good airline novel as well as something with a little bit more depth to it than I was expecting.
Dr. Peter Carey (James Coburn, who previously starred for Edwards in WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY?), a swinging bachelor pathologist from Northern California, has just moved to Massachusetts to join the staff of a prestigious Boston Hospital. No sooner has this doctor who smokes settled in and begun to make his maverick persona known, as well as taking up with the beautiful hospital dietician Georgia Hightower (Jennifer O’Neill), when Karen Randall, the fifteen year-old daughter of the hospital administrator J.D. Randall (Dan O’Herlihy) dies after heavy bleeding and Peter’s old friend Dr. David Tao (James Hong of CHINATOWN, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA and a million other things) is arrested for performing an illegal abortion on the girl which is believed to have resulted in her death. He admits to performing such illegal abortions on girls (I guess this film was never going to have a long shelf life) but claims he never touched Karen. Believing what his friend says, Carey begins to investigate what happened and soon begins to realize that certain people aren't at all pleased about the questions that he's asking.
For the most part THE CAREY TREATMENT could be described as a fairly straight-ahead hospital thriller with a plot that doesn’t contain many elements that haven’t turned up elsewhere years after it was made, with the exception of the abortion angle that obviously now dates it. I even found myself wondering why the story felt like early Michael Crichton, sort of a warm up for COMA, until I looked up the film credits and realized that Jeffrey Hudson, author of the 1968 source novel “A Case of Need”, was in fact a Crichton pseudonym. I should have known. Credited screenwriter James P. Bonner is also a pseudonym as it turns out, in place of the three screenwriters Irving Ravetch, Harriet Frank, Jr. and John D.F. Black who all chose to take their names off after the interference by Aubrey. When he tried to do the same, Blake Edwards was unsuccessful and after this unfortunate experience took off for Europe for several years. The December 27, 1971 issue of Time Magazine reported in a piece on the studio head that Edwards had instructed his lawyers to file a breach of contract suit against Aubrey alleging that he “reneged on promised script changes to enhance the love interest between Stars James Coburn and Jennifer O'Neill, cut Edwards' location shooting unreasonably short, and set an April release date for the film that made it impossible for Edwards to edit it properly.” Keeping all this in mind it was hard not to think that one scene featuring Coburn and O’Herlihy sniping at each other during an operation (“Do you want it right?” “I want it now.”) feels a little like it’s meant to represent whatever was going on between Edwards and Aubrey. The critical biography “Blake Edwards” by Peter Lehman and William Luhr, their first of two volumes on the director, reiterates some of these matters at one point offering, “All of this interference makes the film difficult to discuss as an Edwards work. Many of the contemporary reviewers were surprised, considering its turbulent production history, at how entertaining and crisp a film it was.” I quote this because it’s precisely what I was thinking on this viewing. There’s no way to say how different Edwards would have made the film if he was allowed but except for some abruptness as well as the obvious elements that date it the film holds up nicely as an well-executed crackerjack thriller with interesting doses of wit and seriousness.
Crafted with skill but still done in a somewhat anonymous style, very little about THE CAREY TREATMENT feels much like a film directed by Blake Edwards. While earlier titles like EXPERIMENT IN TERROR and THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES are even darker than this one they certainly contain enough consistent thematic elements that they feel recognizably like his work. In THE CAREY TREATMENT even the one party scene, prime Edwards territory in either comedy or drama, feels kind of sedate in its swinging seventies vibe, just a device to move the plot along. The general feeling of craft evident in the direction is no surprise with a director like Edwards but also of interest coming from him may be the general feeling of midlife crisis malaise that seems to be felt by the characters throughout. The film is loaded with characters who seem increasingly lonely and dissatisfied as they approach middle age, trying to occupy themselves with hobbies like gourmet cooking or growing apples, something which can certainly be said for the film’s lead character as well. He’s James Coburn, yes, and he’s very cool, but also somewhat beaten down by things. At one point Carey muses how when he was young he wanted to be “the greatest surgeon in the world” but when asked what happened to stop it he’s hesitant to answer that question. It feels a little like the cool sixties James Coburn from something like DEAD HEAD ON A MERRY GO ROUND is several years past the good times and now he can’t figure out what the point of it all was. Though he claims that he made the move all the way from northern California to this hospital in Boston for “more bread” it feels entirely possible that there was more to it than that. He’s a person without a wall, “that thing you carry around to keep everyone out,” as his girl tells him and he can’t just stand by when no one else will do anything, though this renegade out to destroy the establishment occasionally pauses from his investigation to dally with Jennifer O’Neill as he recalls his lost life. At one point when he’s angrily called a son of a bitch when he goes a little too far in questioning somebody he doesn’t have an answer for that either.
The film seems filled with characters beaten down by their associations with this hospital and even the dead girl’s teenage roommate, very well played by Blake Edwards’ daughter Jennifer (later in S.O.B.), comes off as someone who has reached bitter middle age way too soon. As Carey digs deeper into what’s really going on all these people around him come off as more pathetic than threatening, like when a minor bad guy who he chases down pleads not to be hit squealing, “I just had a hernia operation,” and I suddenly found myself feeling sorry for the weasel. Of course, that may just be personal experience talking. But I know that I’ve never been as cool as James Coburn. In watching this film again I found myself struck by how well it succeeds as a character study of someone who since we never learn enough about him we have to sort out why he’s behaving this way on our own, an iconoclast played by an actor who excelled at them and this part fits him perfectly. As a mystery THE CAREY TREATMENT plays good but not great—the requisite elements out of THE BIG SLEEP work well thought there are a few holes and it also contains a crucial element that doesn’t get introduced until later than it should—but as a look at someone caught up in nastiness while trying to figure out where to go in his life the film holds together very well. In the aforementioned New York Times review Vincent Canby seems to take the whole film as a giant lark, so maybe he’s right and I’m being way too serious about it. But the dry nastiness of scenes like the autopsy of the fifteen year-old dead girl and when Carey goes to unexpected extremes to get information out of someone wound up getting under my skin, making me feel more than a little like all of these depressed people by a certain point. I don’t know if that feeling fully dissipates when the credits roll but it makes it impossible for the to totally dismiss the film even if its own director walked away dissatisfied.
Elements may be missing but James Coburn holds things together with his strong persona as Carey, working well with his co-stars in each scene and always compelling as this intelligent character who doesn’t know how to just sit by and not do anything. Jennifer O’Neill looks great and has a playful presence but she’s always on the outskirts of the plot with the drama of her failed marriage going on entirely offscreen—her character even has a son who we never get to meet. Pat Hingle dependably plays the police captain investigating the girl’s death, sparring nicely with Coburn in several scenes. Playing the accused, the very familiar James Hong plays a regular guy, something he never gotten much of a chance to do otherwise and it’s an interesting bit of casting. Elizabeth Allen, star of John Ford’s DONOVAN’S REEF, has a nice scene with Coburn as the girl’s boozy stepmother who insists that she’s not old enough to be her real mother. Dan O’Herlihy is enjoyable in what plays a little like the Dan O’Herlihy role, Michael Blodgett, the legendary Lance Rock of BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, plays a crucial role in the third act and Skye Aubrey, daughter of the man Edwards was battling with, plays a nurse who figures into the investigation, slyly rebuffing Coburn during the one party scene. John Hillerman turns up as a doctor at the hospital as does Robert Mandan who, in one of the driest moments in the whole film, blandly tells Carey that he’s ‘not a believer of any kind’ when the subject of religion comes up, as if working at this hospital has beaten any kind of spirituality out of his very soul. It should also be mentioned that this is the rare Blake Edwards film not to contain a Henry Mancini score (maybe by their choice), instead it featuring music by none other than Roy Budd of GET CARTER immortality and it’s very smooth, very early seventies, very James Coburn. The line that could be drawn from Budd to Mancini in their melodic stylings doesn’t seem that long anyway and the main theme is so hummable in its own cool way that it still seems appropriately part of a Blake Edwards film.
It’s not without problems—the romance is never integrated into the main plot particularly well for one thing and it feels like the film is missing the occasional grace note to give things more resonance. Even some of what’s there, such as a reverie involving the dead girl, doesn’t have much impact as if the movie is going for a loss of innocence feel that it’s unable to reach. And the last scene feels a little like they had to come up with something fast in order to have some semblance of an ending, though that ultra-cool Roy Budd music helps as the credits roll. But even though I’m a hardcore Edwards defender who would have loved to see the film that he by all accounts never even got to get on film let alone cut together I still find myself continually engaged by this film and the treatment of its characters. It’s pretty much forgotten now except for the occasional TCM airing which for all I know he’s happy about but it has enough sharpness to its characters and mystery that I’ll still count myself as one of its defenders. Even if no one cares enough anymore to hear that defense.