Thursday, March 16, 2017

OVP: The Caretakers (1963)

Film: The Caretakers (1963)
Stars: Robert Stack, Polly Bergen, Diane McBain, Joan Crawford, Janis Paige
Director: Hall Bartlett
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Cinematography)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 1/5 stars

I have discussed quite regularly on this blog the strange situation of reviewing or viewing films that are decades old, and the way that politics oftentimes gets involved.  I try as hard as I can to remember "time and place," though my track record is hardly spotless (particularly when it comes to racial or gender politics, it's hard not to see oblique prejudice as anything other than that).  There's a flip to this too, though-that of an issue that was important at the time that no longer is as relevant.  I am hopeful in the future that struggles like gay marriage or trans rights will be like this-where stories that seem deeply relevant today are treated as such in the future.  That's certainly the case with the treatment of the mentally ill in The Caretakers, a film that feels pretty ridiculous and mundane by today's standards but was nonetheless an Oscar-nominated hit in 1963.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film centers around Lorna Melford (Bergen), a woman who is suffering from a deep clinical depression after the death of her son in a car accident, and is put into an institution after she starts becoming distraught in public places, screaming and panicking in front of strangers.  At the clinic, she is joined by a group of woman (played by the likes of Janis Paige, Ana St. Clair, and best-of-the-bunch Barbara Barrie as a mute pyromaniac) in group therapies, as her residing clinician Dr. MacLeod (Stack) is at odds with the head Nurse Terry (Crawford), as she prefers treating the women more like prisoners than as patients with a disease.  Even in 1963, you can see where this is headed-as the film progresses we find that Lorna gets better because of Dr. MacLeod, and after a couple of setbacks, eventually proves that his method is better than the dehumanizing ones employed by Nurse Terry.

The film would be fine and perhaps even good if it had just stuck to that issue.  It's not like mental illness doesn't still encounter stigma, and certainly is still an issue explored in film, though perhaps not as frequently with a psychiatric clinic.  But the film is littered with over-the-top, terrible acting, and takes itself way too seriously.  The film is intent on having a fully-fleshed army of side characters to fill up what is a relatively thin plot, but even actors that are having fun with their parts, like Janis Paige's sex-crazed Marion, do so with wild and over-the-top mannerisms.  Worst of the bunch, quite frankly, is Bergen, who was enjoying a very brief period as a leading woman at this stage in her career, but cannot seem to find anything deeper with her character than what is on the page.  I did like Barbara Barrie, as she seemed to be the only patient portrayed as an actual person (and she does a lot with her big scene toward the end of the picture), and am a little surprised she didn't gain more awards traction for such a showy role, and Crawford is her usual good self, even if she plays Nurse Terry a bit stiff when you'd prefer she embrace the scenery being feasted on by the other actors, but in general the acting is holding this movie back.

The same can be said for the mood.  I thought the somber music played over the end credits (which featured photos of most of the cast...I'm drawing a blank on what the term for that is, so if you could tell me in the comments you'd save me a lot of googling) was silly, and the finale was largely unearned-suddenly Lorna is okay because she does the doctor's job for him?  And he's rewarded for this?  It feels a bit silly, and the movie treats certain scenes as far too exploitative (particularly Lorna's grief and when she is nearly raped by the male patients) for my taste.  Overall, though, it's just not a good story or really doesn't have any redeeming qualities.  Even the cinematography is just average-there's nothing striking here to lend itself; perhaps the way the chase sequence is framed, but you could find that in the best Twilight Zone episodes.  I feel like this, the tale end of when AMPAS split black-and-white and color for this category, might have benefited most from a lack of competition.

Those are my thoughts on the disappointing Caretakers-how about yourself?  Anyone want to come to its defense (this is the sort of film that usually gains steam by being campy, but it's far too self-serious to gain that shade)?  If not, anyone have a good Polly Bergen role?  I've liked her in television before, but cinema has so far been mostly misses.

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