Monday, June 29, 2009

The Carey Treatment (Geoffrey Productions/MGM, 1972)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran our “feature” for the evening, The Carey Treatment, an interesting and entertaining if not especially great medical thriller from MGM in 1972. The director was Blake Edwards (this was from TCM’s recent tribute to Edwards during their “great directors” month, shown right after Experiment in Terror, which for all its flaws was a better movie than The Carey Treatment), and curiously both the author of the book on which it was based and the screenwriter were credited with pseudonyms: the book, A Case of Need (a considerably more interesting title!), was actually written by Michael Crichton but the author was designated here as “Jeffery Hudson” (did he publish the book under the “Hudson” name or was that the studio’s idea?), and the film script was done by Harriet Frank, Jr. as “James P. Bonner.”

The plot deals with rambunctious rebel doctor Peter Carey (James Coburn), who’s just come from his native Northern California to take a job as a pathologist in a hospital in Boston, and he runs into a political hornet’s nest including the hospital’s chief administrator, J. T. Randall (Dan O’Herlihy), who’s fiercely protective of his turf; his son Joshua (Alex Dreier), a doctor on staff; Sanderson (Regis Toomey), the retiring pathologist Carey has been hired to replace; Angela Holder (Skye Aubrey), a voluptuous young nurse; Andrew Murphy (John Fink), the awfully boyish-looking chief surgeon; and David Tao (James Hong), a young Asian doctor who Carey befriends. The police invade the hospital searching for someone on the inside stealing medical-grade morphine and making it available to street dealers; an orderly flees the cops and gets busted and fired because he had illegal drugs on him — not morphine but marijuana, and acquired on the street for his personal use — and then everyone gets into hotter water when Randall’s 15-year-old daughter Evelyn (Elizabeth Allen) is found dead, her front cut up as if from a botched attempt at abortion. Dr. Tao is the immediate suspect, and he’s arrested and spends almost the whole movie in jail awaiting trial — it turns out he had done illegal abortions, but only for cost, but he hadn’t done Evelyn’s and, indeed, Evelyn hadn’t actually been pregnant at all — she’d suffered from a rare pituitary disorder that made her look and feel pregnant without actually being so, though that’s explained only in passing and not until the final reel.

What could have been a quite compelling medical thriller is weakened by the superhero delineation of Carey’s character — the filmmakers were obviously inspired by the fact that James Coburn was best known at the time for the Flint movies, which were on the cusp between serious James Bond knockoffs and spoofs, and here he’s drawn as a Bond-like action figure with an M.D. instead of a license to kill, able to melt just about any woman’s heart just by looking at her (though he has a steady girlfriend — hospital dietitian Georgia Hightower, played by Jennifer O’Neill during her brief post-Summer of ’42 heyday — whom he moved in with on his first or second day there!) including Hudson, Evelyn (before she gets knocked off instead of knocked up — bad pun), Evelyn’s roommate and friend Lydia (Jennifer Edwards) — who, in the film’s weirdest scene, is the victim of Carey’s intimidation; in order to get information out of her he gets her to accept a ride from him and then deliberately drives fast and almost out of control to scare her into talking about Evelyn and their shared past — and Holder, who turns out [spoiler alert!] to have murdered Evelyn with that illegal “abortion” at the behest, and with the assistant, of Evelyn’s boyfriend Roger Hudson (Michael Blodgett, pudgy and not all that appealing but blond and hot in a certain dorky way — one can easily see what about him would turn on teenage girls), who was also a hospital orderly and the one who was stealing the morphine (ya remember the stolen morphine?), to which he had got Holder addicted, which was why she was willing to do his dirty work. The Carey Treatment is a satisfying movie, with some appealing scenes — notably a weirdly homoerotic one in which Carey poses as a massage patient to get a chance to talk to Hudson and there’s the sense of both love (or at least lust) and danger as Hudson works him over and threatens to dispatch him then and there by pinching him at some especially sensitive point — though when the scene ends it reverts to silliness: after we’ve been told how young and superbly conditioned Hudson is, he gets beaten up by a guy twice his age.

The film benefits from surprisingly progressive politics — Michael Crichton was still reality-based in 1972 and the lines about defending a woman’s “personal autonomy” to have an abortion if she feels she needs one are hardly what we’d expect from an author who eventually became a Right-wing crank — though it also suffers from the compulsion of its makers to make it as “relevant” as possible, crowding more social issues into the story than it can support and also using a bouncy jazz score by Roy Budd similar to the way Oliver Nelson and others were scoring the Universal TV-movies at the time (the film reminded both Charles and I of the Banacek episodes we’d been watching recently, though as far as I’m concerned the 1970’s George Peppard is way ahead of the 1970’s James Coburn in the sexiness department!). In a rather odd way, The Carey Treatment seems more dated than many films from the 1930’s — including the medical drama Life Begins from Warners in 1932, which however contrived it might have been had an intense emotional impact The Carey Treatment lacked — and it was a jolt in the opening scene to see James Coburn standing in the middle of a hospital lobby lighting and smoking a cigarette, with neither he nor anybody else on the staff finding that the least bit odd.