The Hospital (1971, Arthur Hiller)


This badly misjudged black comedy about macabre happenings at a teaching hospital might have worked if it were not so terribly unfocused. After an auspicious start in television, a medium he dominated in the ’50s along with Rod Serling and Reginald Rose, the screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky became best known for two dramatically opposing worldviews documented in the 1955 Best Picture winner Marty and then the unquestioned masterpiece Network. Marty is humanist, low-key, optimistic in its unglamorous look at love among the downtrodden normals of New York City; Network is a nasty, gleefully satiric attack upon American culture and its vices with Billy Wilder-like cynicism strewn atop its just-this-side-of-over-the-top portrayal of TV news. Released between those films, The Hospital is an apparent attempt to reconcile Chayefsky’s impulses but it’s a disappointing mess because he’s lost the feel for genuine human relationships in the former and hasn’t yet mastered the deadpan sarcasm of the latter.

The film is initially set up as an admirably quiet character study, with George C. Scott as a hard-drinking, suicidal, very misanthropic Chief of Medicine. As you might expect if you’ve seen him in astonishing performances in films that deserved him like Petulia and films that didn’t like Hardcore, he’s tremendous — tragic, sad, mordantly funny — and the script lets him down. In a long series of skillful long takes through confusing hallways, director Arthur Hiller contrasts Dr. Bock’s personal desperation with the pride he takes in his work, only even that is now starting to fade with a series of bizarre and morbid happenings in an already volatile moment. Not only has Bock just separated from his wife and recently kicked his son out of the house, the hospital is inciting riots over the squat houses being demolished for its expansion. And now — patients are turning up dead left and right, under Mysterious Circumstances.

Sounds pretty serious, right? And like so many serious-minded social problem pictures of the ’60s and ’70s, it’s aged pretty terribly. That’s mostly because it can’t leave its own story alone; it has to have Themes, and as you well know, there were more than enough of those to go around, sprinkling otherwise competent dramas in the early days of the MPAA ratings system and the attendant freedoms. Start with Chayefsky’s quite deliriously simplistic take on the Movement, the New Left, hippiedom, “believing in everything,” abortion, feminism and the fallout of the 1960s crashing into the Nixon era, and with his characters as overwritten monologue-heavy mouthpieces he sounds like a grizzled talk show host now even if he didn’t at the time.

It gets worse when Chayefsky, whose attitude toward women is occasionally suspicious even in his best work, throws in Diana Rigg as a Manic Pixie Dream Rape Victim who wakes Bock’s penis up from its impotence thanks to her wandering into his office, spouting the writer’s vision of free-love claptrap and then being apparently a-OK with his non-consensual nighttime attack on her after the fact. Already here, the film loses its right to be considered as a character study, a social comment, a black comedy, much of anything because this important plot point comes from a place of such deep wrongness and stupidity. If nothing else did the trick, the consensual-afterwards rape scene will keep The Hospital from ever finding an audience in this century.

But it gets worse somehow — all of this is finally leading to a climax that reveals the killing and malpractice and insanity all to have been the results of a big bit of benignly kooky preaching from MPDRV’s dad. It’s the kind of big reveal that belongs in a Don Knotts comedy. If you want to do that, write a Don Knotts comedy. Quite apart from the sexism, racism (a lot of weirdness about Native Americans especially), and general dated aloofness, I just can’t accept that film that simultaneously expects to be taken seriously and to be excused as a goofball farce.- Despite its virtues (the camerawork and Scott’s performance are impressive and extraordinary respectively), this is yet another acclaimed “comedy” that comes across now as a tone-deaf and laugh-free slog. And I bet it always did.

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