Archive for the ‘MEDICAL DRAMA’ Category

Pressure Point

27 Feb

Pressure Point – directed by Hubert Cornfield. Drama. 91 minutes Black And White 1963.
The Story: A black prison psychiatrist takes under his care a crazed white-supremacist convict.
Sidney Poitier in his most characteristic role, The Patient One. His Patient is played by Bobby Darren.

Darren is a devoted extremist, member of The Nazi Bund, and declarer to Poitier that, when the round-up for the cattle cars comes, Poitier will be easy to recognize. The characterization is easy to meet, because Darren internalizes the role to such a degree that he never steps out of it while playing it, by making the character evil, thus to say: “See, I’m really not like this.”

Poitier keeps the ball rolling by picking up his cues and by holding back his rage until the final scene, where he lets Darren have it full bore. It’s the customary structure of Poitier films, the soft-spoken man, sufficiently put-upon, becomes the hard-spoken man in the last reel.

All the big actors in Hollywood had turned down the role of the bigot, but Darren campaigned for it. He is excellent; he got a Golden Globe nomination for it.

Stanley Kramer had a lot of people on the payroll after the big success of Judgement At Nuremberg and he had to put them to work. He directed only the framing scenes including Peter Falk, scenes which weaken the power of the story.

All of Stanley Kramer’s pictures are dated, and were so at the time, because they were all delivered with a violin obbligato of 19030s sentimental idealism. That means that they deliver the pain of democracy’s failures at the same time that they congratulate themselves for nostalgia for the same failure.

It has always been startling that actors could get their mouths around his lines. For this perfumed idealism is lodged in the writing. It is writing to side with the pre-ordained underdog, writing slanted in such a way that we are given no choice.

But Poitier is always good to see and never wastes our time by a single line.


Vigil In The Night

23 Jul

Vigil In The Night – produced and directed by George Stevens. Medical Drama. 96 minutes Black And White, 1940.


The Story: Two nurses try to escape their pasts in a cruel and dangerous profession.


The five important pre-War directors in American film – George Stevens, Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Huston, and John Ford – all were permanently affected by it, as were the actors who went.

Robert Montgomery, Tyrone Power, James Stewart, Douglas Fairbanks, Junior, Clark Gable engaged in dangerous action in The War. Sweet Kid Galahad, Wayne Morris, flying a Hellcat off the aircraft carrier Essex, shot down 7 Japanese planes and contributed to the sinking of five Japanese ships. As did the whole nation, all came back solemnized by The War.

Before The War, George Stevens made comedies such as Swing Time, the best of the Rogers/Astaire musicals, Vivacious Lady with Jimmy Stewart, The More The Merrier with Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn, Gunga Din with Cary Grant, and Woman Of The Year, the first and best of the Tracy/Hepburn comedies. During The War, George Stevens filmed Dachau. After The War he never made another comedy.

So the pre-War Vigil In The Night comes as a surprise in Stevens work. It is serious. It is an ER melodrama such as we have seen many a one on TV, set in the nursing profession, with Carole Lombard in a role of the sort she was never known for.

The highest paid actress in Hollywood at the time, she ordinarily played lamé women of a highly volatile disposition in slapstick comedy. Here she is burkad in nurses’ caps and scarves and aprons. She appears to wear no noticeable lipstick or eye makeup. Because she had a scar on her left cheek, her face has a heavy, but matte, foundation. Her blond hair is seldom visible.

The story is from a novel by A.J. Cronin, who, like Keats, Stein, Maugham, W.C. Williams, was a medical doctor, so, written from the inside, the movement of the material rings true as narrative.

If Vigil In The Night had been a masterpiece, the film would have been a masterpiece. But unlike Stevens’ A Place In the Sun and Shane, no visual or narrative power on the part of the director can budge it beyond its convention of well-ordered melodrama. Its convention is honorable and solid, of course. It is narrative-driven. But it cannot escape the many corners of its own story. This story holds the film firmly in hand, and the only escape from it is the question that arises in the viewer as to whether the leading nurse will renounce her profession of nursing for marriage to the doctor who is in love with her.

This is the sole drama for the audience. All the rest of the drama is elected to the screen, moved forward there, resolved there. In Vigil In The Night, there is nothing for us to do. In Shane and A Place In The Sun there is everything for us to do. In A Place In The Sun, the power of the film lies in the director’s ability to leave an immense part of the story literally in the dark, at a distance, over there, for our delectation and voyeurism. To Watch it, a huge amount of imagination is called for, as to watch Shane. To watch Vigil In The Night no imagination is called for. The plot suborns it all.

The astounding thing about it, this being so, is the director’s handling of the material: the almost silent-film opening with its Bela Lugosi music, the angles of the camera, the overhead shots of the operating room, the director’s movement of the cast through wards, his placement of personnel, his characteristic use of windows through which to shoot, the taciturn handling of a bus accident so that, in not quite knowing what is going on, we experience the confusion of the episode, the management of every scene to make it unobtrusively interesting and right for us, shooting the child’s rescue through the slats of the crib, his arrangement of bodies in light, his ability to tell the emotional story through stark movement. From the point of view of treatment, Vigil In The Night is a masterpiece. Otherwise, not.

He produced the film, under the fine, overall production of Pandro S. Berman at RKO with whom he had worked successfully before. And as usual, he edited the picture himself. The only blight on the film is Alfred Newman’s music, which sentimentalizes emotion by supplying sentiment already there. Stevens’ soft spot for polemic also peeks out here – a trait that was to sink him years later.

What you have at the center of all this are four main characters: Carole Lombard as the career nurse, Brian Aherne as the honest hospital physician who must fight the head of the hospital board for healthier conditions, Anne Shirley as Lombard’s sister who doesn’t belong in nursing at all, and Ethel Griffies as the hospital head matron of nursing.

In scene after scene, through imaginative shifting of points of view and position Griffies holds the story in suspense as to the question of whether Lombard and her sister Anne Shirley can escape or redeem their pasts.

Brian Aherne, the archetypical leading man, is an actor of lyrical rather than dramatic strain, which perfectly suits the sexuality of the character he plays, since he needs to not claim Lombard without her express permission. Stevens films him with his eyes lowered in one scene; unusual for a camera to dwell on an actor like that; it suits the character perfectly.

As it should and must, the film retains our engagement because of Carole Lombard.

What is it about her? There was always the sense she was a madcap amateur, with the voice pitched too high.

Not so here. Here she is entirely under wraps, and one is given latitude to respect what she does and is. Quite simply, quite obviously, she was that rare combination of an actor who was both truly beauteous and, behind that, truly appealing.

With her hair concealed, the planes of her face emerge, and they are something to behold. Large, wide-spaced eyes. Mobile mouth. High cheek bones. A long, delicate jaw-line. Slender figure. And the voice, for once, placed low. Regard the slight movement of her exquisite brow. The features are severe; what lies behind them is not.

Technically it is a part hard to do without pushing and thus betraying the virtue we are expected to credit this character to possess, which is that of self-sacrifice, devotion to duty, a capacity for grueling, dangerous work, command in emergency, nobility. None of these does Lombard “play.” We are left to supply them, and we do, willingly. Thus we root for her. She herself makes nothing of them – and makes nothing of making nothing of them, as is right, for they would be already part of her character’s nature, and she and the director knew that the muscle of the story and her movement in a scene did the job. Lombard keeps it simple.

She had chosen the part because the wanted an Oscar. She had been nominated for My Man Godfrey, but she was not nominated for Vigil In The Night at all, and you can see why: the part goes nowhere. No alteration is available to her from beginning to end; no arc. She is superb in it, but superb is all she can be. Still, she is a perfect vessel for Stevens’ direction. Had she lived, one wonders if he would have used her again, as he tended to do with actors.

Stevens tells and lets the actor tell the emotion of the story with movement alone. By this I don’t mean grimace, expression, gesticulation. What I mean is that he makes the dynamic of the scene itself move the actors, not emotionally, but physically, to tell their story. You know what they feel by where and when they walk, how closely they stand to one another. For Stevens, emotion is narration, narration is actor placement, placement dictates scenic content. Stevens was the cameraman of Laurel and Hardy, and knew that their power lay not in jokes or in what they said or in slapstick, but in the collection of drama available inside the wider context of each scene they played. It had to do with the quite careful but unforced allowing of comedy to emerge – you find this over and over in Stevens’ comedies.

You find it here. Finding it here might not be enough to lure you to see this film, but Vigil In The Night is more than a text for screen scholars or students. It is master work by a great film artist. It is a masterpiece of directorial and acting entertainment in which every resource available to render the material for us has been engaged, invented, imagined.



29 Mar

Safe [1995] – directed by Todd Haynes. Drama. 119 minutes Color. 1995.


The Story: A young woman falls under attack of environmental pollutants.


What I saw was a film most beautifully made. It is realized with dirty Marin pastels, which perfectly suit the personnel of the affluent Southern California world in which it begins and which its people inhabit.

It is also a film constructed with a series of calm and beautiful master-shots, which show broad interiors and broad exteriors, characters moving in them, characters placed in them, just so, and just right.

As the piece progresses one sees the characters to be perfectly cast – in this case with excellent actors whom I have never heard of or seen before, so their presence gladdens me as I go.

The film is made with a certain stillness, which, along with the big master-shots, presents a distance for observation of what is going on, a distance almost documentary, but a distance also as refined as the subject environmental allergy requires.

These pleasures give me confidence. As does the fact that I had no idea what this film was about before I saw it. So I had no expectations to defy or meet.

And so I was betrayed. On a fundamental level. The primitive level of: do you believe?

I was betrayed by that intelligent, accomplished, and sometimes daring actress, Julianne Moore who plays the woman.

Her first and perhaps her last error is to place her voice just inside her jaw, dismissing all chord vibration from it. This is an attempt to show the woman has no voice of her own. The result is she emerges as a stupid child.

She retains this method throughout, so the result is monotony of execution.

I expect Moore sees the woman as vacuous. And that is what she manages to give us. It holds our attention only to extent that we watch the film to the end to see if she will ever come alive. But, since she is in no conflict about coming alive or staying a zombie, drama is drained from the character thus from the film.

For she does something which Bette Davis in her days after Eve did which was to mum or play-act the part. Moore does not act it. If she had we would not wonder how her husband could ever in a million years have married such a vacancy. An actress needs always to determine not what is missing in a character but what the character wants. Moore in playing her as having no voice and no want emasculates her.

Those I have known who suffer from environmental abuse have a need for isolation and servants. Their disease must be served. For they cannot shop, clean house, walk abroad, hold a job. You must do for them. The reward is nil. The promise of recovery nil.

The affect they give off is one of collapsed water. They seem to have no affect at all. But inside them is an emotional violence that rules everyone around them in their search for survival, a violence so potent no one can gainsay it, help it, or stay in its presence with sustained affection. This gives one the suspicion that everything they have made themselves into is phony, a trick, a manipulation.

Julianne Moore fasted to emaciate the character she plays. She is blotched with rashes and a boil. Her strong hair is caged. All this works, and all this is an earmark of the dedication to acting of this actor.

But nothing she does survives what she misconceived the role to be. The result on the screen is not mystery but bafflement. We have nothing to identify with because she has, in choosing no-voice, chosen nothing.





Dallas Buyers Club

14 Dec

Dallas Buyers Club – directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Docudrama . A rogue cowboy discovers he has a fatal disease and ventures to defy law and save fellow sufferers. 116 minutes Color 2013.


Some actors are despicable: Jack Palance, Shelly Winters, Miriam Hopkins, Richard Widmark, Robert Mitchum, Jessica Lange, Christian Bale. Humorless bullies all.

Matthew McConaughey stands tall in this category. There is no actor whose appearance in a film I more wish to avoid. A slivery egomania rules in him with imperious ease.  A smug cologne, unquestioned and rank, the attar of this assurance wafts about him.

He is dreadful looking, with fatal dimples, tiny teeth, and the most beautiful and seductive male speaking voice since Charles Boyer. He is worse than a rogue; he is a bounder. To be in his screen presence is to break out in a rash. He threatens to make one believe in evil.

He is one of those persons who stumble into acting and make a great success. This so rarely happens, it becomes legend, so we think if it can happen to Gary Cooper, it may happen to anyone. But legends are never common.

And what is not common about Matthew McConaughey is that, apparently and even so, he has discovered the craft of acting for himself. That is not an easy thing for a big star to do. Robert Mitchum never did it, nor did Gary Cooper.

But McConaughey is a person of enormous intelligence. Or maybe it would be better to call it smartness. After all, he’s a Texan. And in Texas intelligence means horse-sense. And horse-sense means a practical grasp of life as it is actually lived. What does an actor of his cheap effect do once his romantic appeal gets stale?

Mud was an example of this actor taking on the task of dropping out of the category of leading man and entering into the category of character lead. Going somewhere beneath or other-than his masher forte, he entered us into an arena of acting into which one never in a million years expected him to venture. What a revelation!

Of course, this switch may have happened more slowly with him: one sees but the sudden result: films take years to generate: his change may have been long pondered: this may have happened less suddenly in films of his I have not seen.

In the present film we see a character bodied forth who also took long planning, since the actor had to emaciate himself by 47 pounds or a quarter of his body weight to play it. He plays a hero, but is never noble, always the ornery cuss. Miss him play it in peril of the cultivation of your soul.

In the past, McConaughey has been the tray of despicableness on which the part was presented to us. In Dallas Buyers Club he takes that tray of despicableness in both his conscious hands and presents it and all that is on it to us as an offering of human truth.

It is wonderful to see an actor discover the great and dangerous craft of acting.



10 Jun

Hysteria – directed by Tanya Wexler. Women Lib Drama. Two daughters become the objects of the attention of a doctor with an unusual therapeutic practice for women in the 1890s.100 minutes Color 2012.


Oh, Maggie Gyllenhaal. Maggie Gyllenhaal. Maggie Gyllenhaal. Repeat that word over and over for as long as this page is long and for as long as you like, and consider it an hosanna. The picture is a women’s lib version of a subject, 19th Century medical masturbation as a placebo for female ailments, also dealt with concurrently by the play In The Next Room: The Vibrator Play, which I have seen and which, like this, is unworthy to witness as a subject for a cause so great as equality of gender. The orgasms we see on screen are cartooned by the actresses and by the director; they are never taken as real, deep,and important. They are executed by actresses chosen because they are funny looking: either fat or thin or blousy, and when we see ordinary women being treated, they and their orgasms are mocked by the actresses themselves. The male doctors engage in this treatment with reverence. They take it they are engaging in a medical breakthrough. Jonathan Pryce is the senior physician in a part written only one way, so we know how he and the movie will end. As we know how it will end with his two daughters, the one proper, the other a Shavian modern woman running a settlement house, played by the great Maggie G. Watch how she stands at the trial scene. She never stands foursquare, but, like Garbo, always at an angle. Her whole performance is like that, except once. See if you notice it and how telling that is! Anyhow, the script is routine, and the performance by the leading actor is  – well, let’s say he is not such as to carry a film. But with a film this flimsy, that would take Atlas. The spectacular, even scandalous subject is not sufficient to make a good story of it. It simply plays like an oddity out of an old Sears Roebuck catalogue. It presumes to find itself important. One thing it seems to be blaring out is, “Tut tut, Men don’t understand female sexuality or even consider it to exist!” So you see, it’s really mean-spirited and as dated as a zombie.  It presumes to look down on male ignorance. Everything about it presumes, except for M.G, who simply vibrates with life. She, and she alone is the vibrator.



01 Oct

Contagion – Directed by Stephen Soderbergh. Drama. A mysterious plague moves fast through the world killing millions. 109 minutes Color 2011.

* * * *

I don’t believe this film succeeds in accomplishing what it set out to do, which is to incite. But I don’t know if that is what it set out to do, because the massive and spectacular documentary details of its execution, none of which we are allowed to dwell upon either, causes us to lose identity with the characters – such that the characters, in terms of narration, are executed tokenly – bigger than a cameo, smaller than a part — although they are not acted that way. A good example is the final scene of Marion Cottillard to whom is delivered the news that she has unwittingly participated in a fraud, and she simply gets up to rectify it presumably by telling those defrauded that they have been. It’s not enough. And over and over again the spectacle of ruination of the mysterious killer disease is shown, to the dead loss of all of the main characters, except in a sort of follow the dots plotting. But characters are not dots. So there is nothing to latch onto in the human realm, leaving the arrangement of the plague to look like a put-up-job, a numb what-if. The characters turn up here and there and are given very little screen time, leaving us with a fancy show of contagion, which does not frighten because no one we know is threatened. Why? Because the disease kills  immediately; it never threatens, it just does you in. Marion Cotillard plays a research person, and she really should give up playing non-character leads in American films. She is not a leading lady. She is completely cold on the screen. It is as if she were just waiting to find another monster to play. Gwyneth Paltrow is, as usual, an unexceptionable actress, in the part of the first carrier of the disease, as is Kate Winslet who goes out earnestly to stop the plague. Laurence Fishburne is the honcho in charge of Disease Control, and most of what he does is to transmit or suppress what is supposed to be scary information. Jude Law as an Aussie yellow journalist who early latches onto the story and attempts to radicalize it – but succeeds only in making it a scandal – seizes the screen between his uneven teeth and shakes it like a mutt shaking a dead rag. But it is Matt Damon who anchors the film; he’s a very fine actor, if one of modest means, and he deserves a lot of credit for way he holds this role. The acting is unadorned, and no one does a star turn, which is to the director’s credit. The fault lies with the writer’s conception that we could have a movie about a plague that looks like a documentary, is played like a documentary, but is really a whole sea of confetti made from cut up newsprint barged into at various points by neat O’Henry twists.






01 Oct

50/50 – Directed by Jonathan Levine. Drama. The cancer diagnosis of a young man affects everyone around him. 99 minutes Color 2011.

* * *

I never thought I would live to see the day that Wallace Beery would be reincarnated on the silver screen, but Seth Rogen has caused it to come to pass. Much of the script has been written to accommodate his grunge comedy, and he is brilliant at it. But the script as a whole pulls sentiment like a dentist pulls teeth, so sometimes his unshaven goings on work well for us, although they never touch upon reality at any point, because the character he plays would have woken up to his friend’s inner plight long before Rogan is allowed to do so here – I suppose simply to keep the yuks going a little longer. The character who comes down with cancer is perfectly cast and played by Joseph Gordon- Levitt. He has sad and humorous eyes – think Lew Ayres – and we are with him right through to the end, which I shall not reveal but which is unlikely. Gordon-Levitt is very beautiful, never more so when he is with shaven head. All the actors are asked to force themselves into the lines of a script which is quite uneven, and the technique of the two young women, which is television acting at its most irritating, shows up badly. They react to everything, they respond to nothing. This means there is a show of feeling but no connection. They hem and haw mightily. Aren’t they cute? It’s so silly; it’s so greedy; it’s so frugal. On the other hand we have Seth Rogen who is a force of nature rather like an avalanche is a force of nature – responsive, quick, and blind.  Placed neatly under them all like the legs of a piano, Angelica Huston holds her own against every script fault imaginable, including the failure of the writers to develop her scenes. What a waste. And the great Philip Baker Hall as cynical old cancer buff – again a character who is left hanging at the end. But it is not for them that we go to this piece of gallows humor, but to see Gordon-Levitt execute it so honestly and endearingly.




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