Friday, 2 August 2013

The Hospital [1971]

THE HOSPITAL is an American satirical comedy-drama that was directed by Arthur Hiller and originally released by United Artists in December 1971.  It stars George C. Scott and Diana Rigg.  Among the supporting cast are Barnard Hughes, Richard Dysart, Jordan Charney, Roberts Blossom, Katherine Helmond, Frances Sternhagen, Robert Walden and Stockard Channing.  It follows a hectic couple of days in the life of a Manhattan hospital which is beset by problems, not least of which is a serial killer apparently on the loose.


I can't decide whether it's oddly comforting or profoundly depressing that a lot of the issues identified by Paddy Chayefsky in his script are still besetting healthcare some forty years later.  On the one hand, you might feel reassured that today's problems are nothing new and therefore don't indicate an alarming drop in standards; on the other hand it seems the likelihood of these problems being solved any time soon is low. Healthcare delivered to a high standard and representing good value for money appears to be an impossible goal, particularly as money and resources are sucked out of the system by private companies while a growing equality gap pushes more and more citizens into an unhealthy lifestyle.

George C. SCott as Dr Herb Bock
There is a sequence towards the end of THE HOSPITAL when the serial killer, who has at last been identified, breaks down as he / she recounts a seemingly never-ending variety of cases encountered on a daily basis by healthcare professionals.  It's a genuinely moving and horrifying moment which goes a long way to explain the inadequacy felt by central character Dr Herb Bock (George C. Scott), whose impotence becomes a metaphor for his despair and powerlessness.

Diana Rigg as Barbara Drummond
This, er, somewhat unreconstructed idea of power, masculinity and sex being essentially interchangeable is reinforced when Bock is seemingly revitalised merely by dint of shagging free-spirited young hottie Barbara Drummond (Diana Rigg), who is in the hospital attempting to discharge her father.  Up until this coupling takes place about an hour in, the movie has been a hugely watchable blackly comic drama which, like Robert Altman's M*A*S*H [1970], recognises that the only possible human reaction in the face of such overwhelming problems is gallows humour.  However, after Bock's metaphorical resurrection the film tips over the edge into farce and loses a lot of its power.

Dr Bock bawls out Mrs Christie (Nancy Marchand) as an uncomfortable Hitchcock (Jordan Charney) looks on
It's tempting to read THE HOSPITAL as a state-of-the-nation assessment in the way that Lindsay Anderson's BRITANNIA HOSPITAL [1982] is, explicitly, for the UK.  Indeed, it's always tempting to read films about enormous, dysfunctional organizations as being metaphors for society as a whole.  But I think Chayefsky's script, at least in the second half, focuses too much on Bock's personal struggles and the resolution of the frankly ludicrous serial killer plot for this to apply here.  On top of that I think it would have taken a much stronger director than Arthur Hiller to really deliver Chayefsky's script properly, as flawed as it is.  Hiller, still alive at 89 but now retired, was a journeyman director whose career flitted from project to project for the most part leaving nothing in its wake other than professionally-made but anonymous and superficial movies.  Put it this way, if you wanted to make your film a genuinely biting satire about contemporary society then Arthur Hiller is not your man.

Robert Walden as Dr Brubaker
George C. Scott though is brilliant to watch; he's the type of leading actor I admire hugely, particularly because he is totally unafraid of playing fundamentally dislikeable characters.  There aren't many of that type around any more - the last was probably Gene Hackman and he has sadly retired.  It's difficult to imagine, say, Brad Pitt or Will Smith playing deeply unpleasant men; they're superheroes, essentially, whose persona is that of the ubermensch not Joe Public.  It's not really their fault because that's all that Hollywood requires of them; as far as the money men are concerned, Pitt and Smith were not put on this Earth to play realistic character parts.  And that, sadly, is a reflection of modern Hollywood and perhaps the main reason why I rarely go to the cinema these days; as flawed as THE HOSPITAL may be it is at least a film made by adults for adults, about and directed at recognisable human beings.

Dr Bock lets Dr Welbeck (Richard Dysart) know exactly what he thinks of him
Some notes about the wonderful supporting cast.  Richard Dysart, who plays the objectionable surgeon Welbeck, was a prolific character actor who had equal low-key success in film and on TV; coincidentally, in THE HOSPITAL his character has a heart attack and requires de-fibrillation, whereas in John Carpenter's THE THING [1982] his character administers de-fibrillation, with memorably gruesome consequences. Jordan Charney, who plays Hitchcock the slimy hospital administrator, played the slimy un iversity administrator at the beginning of GHOSTBUSTERS [1984].

Roberts Blossom as Guernsey
Roberts Blossom is a real film geek's actor who played small but significant roles in numerous quality movies and even got to play the lead once, in the Ed Gein biopic DERANGED [1974].

Katherine Helmond as Marilyn Mead
Katherine Helmond is well known for her terrific gallery of weird old ladies, particularly in the great sitcom SOAP and Terry Gilliam's BRAZIL [1985].

Frances Sternhagen (L) as Mrs Cushing and Stockard Channing (R)
Frances Sternhagen was another good character actress, who specialised in no-nonsense spinsters, such as the only person gutsy enough to assist Sean Connery in OUTLAND [1981].  Robert Walden was memorable as Donald Segretti in ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN [1976], a member of the White House 'ratfucking' team.  Stockard Channing is most famous of course for GREASE [1978] but is a talented and quirky actress who has probably been under-used in films.

Diana Rigg will always be Emma Peel and, probably for that very reason, had a curiously underwhelming film career.  Which is a shame because she's really good in THE HOSPITAL as the spunky, kooky and sexy Barbara Drummond; she more than holds her own next to George C. Scott and that's no mean feat.

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