Sunday, February 10, 2008
Far Out Films From The Seventies: The Hospital
Paddy Chayefsky could have re-written the Bible and he would still be primarily known for his incredibly prophetic and biting screenplay for 1976's NETWORK. All of the wonderful work the talented Chayefsky did before and after NETWORK has essentially become a footnote.
Chayefsky's ferociously funny screenplay for 1971's THE HOSPITAL is the key to one of the great, under the radar, films of the seventies. Acidic, honest, touching and always extremely funny, Arthur Hiller's film of one of Chayefsky's best scripts is rarely mentioned among the best films of the seventies, but it remains a topical and brutal look at health care and just what it means to be a doctor.
George C. Scott gives one of his great performances as, the just over the edge and suicidal, Dr. Bock. Along with HARDCORE, I think this is the most underrated work of Scott's distinguished career. He garnered one of the film's two Oscar nominations (Chayefsky's script got the other) as best actor but lost to Gene Hackman's astonishing performance as Popeye Doyle in Friedkin's THE FRENCH CONNECTION.
Scott is joined by an incredibly eclectic group of actors including Diana Rigg, Barnard Hughes, Richard Dysart and Nancy Marchand. Stockard Channing appears in a brief unbilled role as does Christopher Guest.
The film with its wild plot of serial killers, deadly wrong diagnoses and hard hitting political questions is handled expertly by, the sometimes pedestrian filmmaker, Hiller. Coming shortly after his smash LOVE STORY and right before the disastrous MAN OF LA MANCHA, Hiller is intelligent enough to bring a very un-showy touch to the already electric script. Chayefsky's writing is incredibly smart and did I mention funny? Along with THE HEARTBREAK KID and MASH, Hiller's film remains one of the funniest of the early 70s. The fact that it is also a very serious social critique is equally important, like the all out attack on the problems with the media in NETWORK, THE HOSPITAL successfully brings up some serious issues, regarding health care in this country, that continues to plague us to this day.
Scott's amazing performance controls the film but the rest of the cast is also notably good. Rigg's hippie daughter of a dying patient is especially solid. Nearly unrecognizable from Emma Peel we find Rigg giving one of her most complex and engaging performances here.
THE HOSPITAL is a film almost entirely built on situations and dialogue. From the iconic opening Chayefsky narration (which seems like a dry run for not only NETWORK but Paul Thomas Anderson's MAGNOLIA) to any number of extraordinary monologues by Scott, THE HOSPITAL is a film constructed on some of the sharpest dialogue ever written for a film. The words and ideas of the film are indeed so complex and well organized that even after viewing it half a dozen times or so I still find myself surprised at the film's numerous plot twists.
Hiller's film also has a nice unfussy look about it thanks to director of photographer Victor J. Kemper. Kemper would garner much acclaim in film and television throughout the seventies in films ranging from Sidney Lumet's DOG DAY AFTERNOON to Irvin Kershner's THE EYES OF LAURA MARS. I like his work in THE HOSPITAL a lot as he uses just a very basic pattern of colors that puts the audience directly into the very antiseptic and rather bland environment of the hospital itself.
Also worth noting is several well known faces that pop up in small supporting roles in the film. These include future award winning and popula performers such as Stockard Channing and THIS IS SPINAL TAP star and co-creator Christopher Guest. The entire and rather large ensemble cast of THE HOSPITAL is just terrific and none ever hit a false note.
THE HOSPITAL quietly influenced a couple of generations of medical comedies and dramas, ranging from YOUNG DOCTORS IN LOVE to E.R.. It is available on Dvd from MGM in a bare bones Widescreen presentation. I am happy the film is out but a special edition, to go along with the incredible double disc collection of NETWORK, would be most welcome.
For lovers of American cinema in the seventies or just cinema in general, I highly recommend this often overlooked gem of a film. It'll make you laugh, think and perhaps most importantly...it might make you question things you never would have thought to.