Monday, 1 December 2014

The Hospital (1971)

In which Diana Rigg cures George C Scott of impotence.

*Although let's face it, surely Diana Rigg at this time could have, given the opportunity and inclination, cured any man of impotence, right?!*

I've been meaning to watch The Hospital for some time, despite the generally conceived opinion that it is a tonally uneven, flawed picture. Having watched it now, I find I have to disagree with the perceived wisdom. Perhaps watching Mother, Jugs and Speed this weekend - another 1970s medical based black comedy that, to my mind, truly is uneven - means I can appreciate just how much the charge against The Hospital is actually incorrect. Yes it may not be the most accessible of movies, but its dark and peculiar tone is in fact largely the same throughout and I feel you either get on board with it from the off or you don't.

Paddy Chayefsky, the acclaimed and award winning screenwriter (Marty, Network) weaves a pitch black tale of mayhem, murder, satire and middle aged angst which commences with the death by of a randy young intern at a New York teaching hospital.  The junior medic was sleeping off his night of passion with a nurse in an empty bed when he was, it seems, inadvertently fed intravenously. But when a nurse and two more doctors also turn up dead within 24 hours it's clear the hospital has become the victim of foul play. 

Into this chaos steps George C Scott's Chief of Medicine, Dr Herbert Bock. A misanthropic, suicidal and impotent bear of a man, Bock is estranged from his wife and has a Maoist son who now refuses to talk to him. He is, in short, an unlikely hero; doomed to try and make a difference the best way he can even though he knows he is, to quote the script, "pissing in the wind".

His world is somewhat turned around when he meets the daughter of a comatose patient. This young woman, played by Diana Rigg, is an eccentric former nurse with a history of tripping on acid and breakdowns, who now lives in Arizona with a tribe of Native Americans who have accepted her father (Barnard Hughes) for his sudden ability to speak in tongues. 

The Hospital's finest moment are without doubt when Chayefsky pauses and turns the film into a two hander between Scott and Rigg set in his office during a dark and stormy night. These scenes are indicative of his skill and expertise with dialogue and the ability to convey emotions and entire personal histories through it, but they are also a testament to the excellent acting on display as well as the assured direction of Arthur Hiller. The jaded, weary doctor tells his life story and the girl relates hers in a series of first class monologues which culminate in an argument leading to physical grappling and, perhaps inevitably, in them rolling around on the floor. In the cold morning light, Rigg's character claims he ''ravished'' her a total of ''three times'', whereas Scott's uses the much blunter and more loaded word, ''rape''. It's the kind of scene that could set alarm bells ringing in the modern viewer, where it not for the fact that Rigg's performance and Chayefsky's writing make it clear that her character desired Scott and orchestrated the whole thing to not only 'cure' him of his confessed psychosomatic belief that he was no longer a sexual being, but also to simply get her rocks off with a man she was physically attracted to. It's clearly a generation gap thing and it is only Scott's somewhat patriarchal sense of the world, courtship and 'the done thing' that leads him to believe he may have behaved improperly.

Come the final act, The Hospital does perhaps buckle a little under the necessities of the plot, relying on the kind of flashback device that most Agatha Christie films employ to explain away just what has been going on in the failing institution. But ultimately what remains from The Hospital is the feeling that this was a necessary, if somewhat stuttering, step forward for the great Chayefsky to take before exploring similar themes to greater critical success with his excellent 1976 film, Network.

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