NYFF Diary #2: People Will Talk
Several minutes before its protagonist first appears on screen, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s rich, elusive 1951 fable People Will Talk confesses that he might be too good to be real. “There may be some,” reads one of the movie’s opening title cards, “who will reject the possibility that such a doctor lives, or could have lived. And there may be some who hope that if he hasn’t, or doesn’t, he most certainly should.” As the wise Dr. Noah Praetorius—could he have been given a more venerable name?—Cary Grant does indeed give off an almost supernatural presence. His practice is a fairy-tale vision of medicine as a holistic treatment of the soul, his clinic sparklingly clean, and his bedside check-ins closer in spirit to Socratic debates. Occasionally, he’s capable of bouts of Hamlet-like melancholy—“just my usual twilight sadness,” he replies when a nurse finds him staring broodingly into the night from his office window—and moments of well-intentioned deception. But the inquisition launched against him by his sniffy, jealous colleague Prof. Elwell (Hume Cronyn)—though it’s presented as the main fulcrum of the movie’s narrative—is nonetheless, we’re meant to feel, doomed from the start.
The movie surely isn’t about Elwell, nor, properly speaking, is it about the treatment of actual physical ailments, to which it pays almost no attention. In fact, one of the great pleasures of People Will Talk—showing as part of a complete Mankiewicz retrospective during and after the New York Film Festival—is that it often doesn’t seem to be about any one thing. It’s a digressive, gleefully eccentric film spattered with left-field discourses on, among other subjects, model-train driving, symphony conducting, and farm management, spaced out to make room for solos from a terrific lineup of character actors: Walter Slezak as the dotty Austrian chemist who plays upright bass in the medical school faculty orchestra Noah conducts; Sidney Blackmer as the sheepish, penniless father of the doctor’s young patient-turned-wife Deborah (Jeanne Crain); Will Wright in a cantankerous one-scene turn as Blackmer’s brother, a farmer for whom life’s chief pleasure is the adding up of tax deductions; and, in what might be the film’s strangest element, Finlay Currie as the broad-statured, slow-witted shuffling “friend” of Noah’s who inexplicably clings to the younger man like a shadow.
Grant was entering the last great decade of his career when he starred in People Will Talk, and Praetorius was, one senses, a part he could only have played after having perfected the immature young idealist (Holiday) and the swaggering cynic (His Girl Friday). There are elements of both in the doctor’s lucid, serene, unflappably assured manner, as well as a streak of chilly, disconcerting detachment unglimpsed in Grant’s earlier screwball heroes. “You’re quite a noble character,” his new wife tells him bitterly after he informs her that she’s still carrying the baby over which she tried to kill herself—and which, in a tactful breach of medical ethics, he’d told her had been the result of a false positive on a pregnancy test. “I’ve heard of doctors who were unsatisfying and unselfish,” she continues, “but were you that afraid I’d kill myself?”
Noah: How afraid is “that afraid”?
Deborah: Enough to marry me to keep me from it.
In the long exchange that follows, Grant locks his face, with its naturally rigid, chiseled features, into a tight-set mask. Praetorius’ answers are considerate, witty, eminently logical, and at the same time disconcertingly formal; he’s still playing the part of the doctor-as-Socratic questioner, drawing out his patient’s inconsistencies and slips of reason.
Mankiewicz is often either vaunted or criticized (depending on who you listen to) for the writerly refinement of his dialogue, and there is, it should be admitted, something about this passage that comes off as stiff, belabored, overly theatrical. One gets the sense that Noah, for all his benevolence and all his declarations of love, is thinking through the situation without giving full attention to the visibly distressed flesh-and-blood woman in front of him. He has become one of those people for whom, as the ethicist Peter Railton has suggested, morality has an alienating effect, reducing the world to “a fabric of obligations and permissions in which personal considerations deserve recognition only to the extent that, and in the way that, [they] find a place” in the whole. It’s hard to imagine how he would respond to her last line, not a question but an order: “love me.” Something, we expect, has to intervene—and something, in the form of a resounding burst of music from outside the door, does.
There is, the movie suggests, an implicit link between the practice of medicine and the conduct of morality, not only because both have a kind of restorative mission—“there is a world of difference,” Praetorius insists, “between curing a disease and making a sick person well”—but also because both involve the cultivation of a perspective over and above personal interests and special preferences. It’s unclear, however, how long such a perspective can be developed or sustained. Early in the film, the doctor forces a roomful of mildly shocked medical students to recognize that the pallid, beautiful young woman stretched out on a slab in front of him is “a cadaver, not a dead human being,” and there’s a current of queasy humor in the way he absent-mindedly plays with the woman’s long black hair before the lecture begins. (The scene, like the rest of the film, has a shade of autobiography; Mankiewicz graduated from Columbia’s med school at 19.)
At the same time, the movie keeps leaving itself open to cases in which the question of life’s presence, or its absence, remains suggestively open: the baby whose existence is repeatedly concealed and revealed; the ailing old woman who praises Praetorius for making “dying seem like a pleasure”; Currie’s Shunderson, who comes off throughout the film—even when he is not being trailed by a dog named “Beelzebub”—as a kind of resurrected corpse. It isn’t until the movie’s last act that this last character, in a monologue of deadpan, macabre, and utterly weird Midwestern humor unlike anything else in the film, reveals the mystery of his past—and his speech does, in fact, suggest that not all cadavers stay dead.
In a magisterial chapter late in his autobiography, William Carlos Williams—a working doctor who received patients steadily for four decades—wrote of “the humdrum, day-in, day-out, everyday work that is the real satisfaction of the practice of medicine”:
The actual calling on people, at all times and under all conditions, the coming to grips with the intimate conditions of their lives, when they were being born, when they were dying, watching them die, watching them get well when they were ill, has always absorbed me . . . We begin to see that the underlying meaning of all they want to tell us and have always failed to communicate is the poem, the poem which their lives are being lived to realize . . . It is actually there, in the life before us, every minute that we are listening, a rarest element—not in our imaginations but there, in fact.
Praetorius’ skill consists more in talking his patients out of what they have said than in listening for what they haven’t, and it’s perhaps this—the difference between his drive to “make sick people well” and Williams’s to “see the meaning of all they want to tell us but have always failed to communicate”—that results in the gap between his brilliant bedside manner and his somewhat chilly inability to take his loved ones into full account.
Mankiewicz, too, is arguably more at home with the spoken than with the unexpressed and inexpressible. (“Let’s not mess with the unconscious right now,” Crain’s character tells Grant’s during their climactic quarrel. “We've got enough conscious trouble to worry about.”) As much in its lighting and staging as in its subject and theme, the movie is his riff on “The Anatomy Lesson,” a copy of which appears in the background during a key scene. Praetorius—a Dr. Tulp presiding over a crowd of onlookers enraptured, curious, jealous and unmoved—is a great man, we’re told in the film’s last minutes. But his climactic triumph—in the film’s last scene, he conducts the faculty orchestra in a rousing performance of a Brahms overture—is, to my eyes, exclusively that of a public hero: poised, elevated, brilliant, and not yet reconciled to the poem of his life.
People Will Talk screens October 2 as part of the New York Film Festival retrospective Joseph L. Mankiewicz: The Essential Iconoclast.