Futures & Pasts: The Carey Treatment
The Carey Treatment screens in 35mm on Tuesday, February 25 as part of Film Comment Selects.
To get to 1972’s The Carey Treatment, Blake Edwards’s bitter goodbye to American studio filmmaking, we’ll begin with his even more bitter comeback. At the beginning of Edwards’s 1981 film-à-clef S.O.B., set “once upon a time in a wonderful land called Hollywood,” producer Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan) has been reduced to catatonia by the failure of his latest film, Night Wind, a saccharine musical starring his wife, Sally Miles (Julie Andrews, whom Edwards had married in 1969). After a string of botched suicide attempts, Farmer is resurrected by a bolt of inspiration: “We sold ’em schmaltz,” he bellows. “They want sadomasochism!” Using his own money, Farmer buys Night Wind back from Capitol Studios and proceeds to overhaul it into a kind of psychological softcore smut epic. But Capitol president David Blackman (Robert Vaughn) pulls off a backroom deal that gives him control of the negative and final cut, and this sends Farmer permanently off the deep end. The title stands for, among other things, Standard Operational Bullshit: show business as usual.
Distorted by the fun-house mirror of farce, the events in S.O.B. directly reflect on events in Edwards and Andrews’s own parallel careers. While both had had more than their share of astronomical successes in the 1960s, nobody was buying Edwards’s brand of slapstick comedy in the latter half of the decade, and he was experiencing an identity crisis. He and Andrews’s 1970 burlesque musical Darling Lili, for Paramount, had been an ill-starred shoot and box-office catastrophe. In the wake of its belly flop, Paramount head of production Robert Evans practically accused Edwards of sedition, and so Edwards mounted his next project at MGM, a nostalgic Western called Wild Rovers starring William Holden and Ryan O’Neal. At MGM, however, Edwards acquired a new professional bête noire in the person of incoming president James Aubrey, a bottom-line-minded former CBS executive who’d been invited to the financially foundering company in 1969 to plug leaks in the hull. (At CBS, early Beverly Hillbillies champion Aubrey was known for his all-purpose prescription of “broads, bosoms, and fun,” called “The Aubrey Dictum.”) With Aubrey’s arrival, two Andrews projects, She Loves Me and Edwards’s adaptation of Irving Berlin’s Say It with Music, were dropped from the slate, and when Wild Rovers was released in summer of 1971, what Edwards called his “best movie” was missing either 20 or 40 minutes from his final cut. Isn’t the best movie always the one that gets away?
Not necessarily. Edwards made no such grand claims for The Carey Treatment—which plays next week as part of Film Comments Selects in a “Healthcare Mayhem” double-bill with 1971’s The Hospital—whose editing he likewise lost control of. But though the film has widely been regarded as collateral damage in the clash between Edwards and Aubrey, there’s still plenty of material worth salvaging from the wreckage. The story of the production began when Aubrey offered Edwards a property based on a thriller called A Case of Need, published in 1968 and credited to one “Jeffery Hudson”—a pseudonym for then–Harvard Medical School doctoral student Michael Crichton. Presumably it was during Crichton’s clinical rotations at Boston City Hospital that he found his inspiration for the book, which concerns one Dr. John Berry, a pathologist at a Boston hospital investigating the circumstances surrounding what appears at first to be a fatal botched abortion. Edwards, who had dealt with suspense material successfully before—see 1962’s Experiment in Terror, released to Blu-ray last year by Twilight Time—went for it.
The screenplay, written in a hardboiled patois, was credited to James P. Bonner—a pseudonym employed occasionally by husband-wife team Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., though given that they’d kept their real names on acclaimed works like Hud and Norma Rae, one can assume that they also thought they were working beneath their talents here. Dr. Berry has become Dr. Peter Carey in the film, and is played by James Coburn, who’d previously starred for Edwards in What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (66), a movie which began the run of box-office bad luck that The Carey Treatment would extend. Dr. Carey is a Californian transplant newly arrived to work at an unnamed Boston hospital. The victim of the clumsy abortion is 15-year-old Karen Randall (Melissa Torme-March), the daughter of Carey’s new boss, the hospital’s chief surgeon and a leading citizen, Dr. J.D. Randall (Dan O’Herlihy). The fall guy is Carey’s friend from his intern days, Dr. David Tao (The hard-gigging Chinese-American actor James Hong, in a substantial role.) An alleged deathbed confession from Karen is all that it takes to land Tao in jail, but Carey, convinced of Tao’s innocence, decides to launch his own investigation into the matter.
When Carey first pulls into the hospital, a cop shoos him out of a doctor’s-only parking space—presumably nobody with those aviator sunglasses and swinging brown suede jacket could be an institutional square. Carey’s plays-by-his-own-rules investigative methods owe more to Hammett’s Continental Op than Jack Klugman’s Quincy, M.E. The poster for the film, which shows Coburn delivering a sweeping backhand blow to a silhouetted figure, asserts that Dr. Carey “has a unique way of operating.” He sure does: in order to extract information from Karen’s slatternly boarding-school roommate, Carey essentially kidnaps the teenaged girl and drops a righteous slut-shaming on her while recklessly weaving his station wagon along precarious coastal roads and suicidally jumping a rising drawbridge. Later, Carey will storm into his boss’s office with a blown-up, poster-size photograph of himself caught in flagrante delicto to prove a point, and wring a confession out of a junkie by convincing her she’s going into withdrawal.
To say the absolute least, Dr. Carey is a bit of a loose cannon—though other than a lingering scene where he sits in on Karen’s autopsy, it’s hard to say where the vehemence with which he pursues the mystery of her death is coming from. How much of the protagonist’s erratic character is attributable to ham-handed studio interference? With some movies, foreknowledge of their mutilation prejudices the viewer, but in the case of The Carey Treatment, you’d have to be pretty dopey not to notice the surgical scarring. The courtship between Carey and a pretty dietician at the hospital named “Georgia Hightower” (Jennifer O’Neill, terrible in a terrible part) is taken completely for granted. One minute Carey’s asking her out to dinner, the next he’s giving her a key to his new pad and she’s talking about bringing her waffle iron over, with no hint as to how we got from Point A to Point D. Loose ends dangle askew everywhere. The sleazy photographer played by Sol Schwade who snaps Carey and Hightower in bed together—who is he working for, and what leverage could anyone hope to gain by proving a relationship between two consenting adults? Why would Karen Randall—or her stepmother, the only witness to her stepdaughter’s alleged accusation—want to put Dr. Tao in jail for a crime he didn’t commit in the first place?
In Sam Wasson’s critical biography A Splurch in the Kisser: The Movies of Blake Edwards, Edwards is quoted as saying that The Carey Treatment was a trap laid out by Aubrey, intended for failure from the get-go, and that the thrift-obsessed exec “was actually out to crucify [him]” when he cut two weeks off of the shoot. While I don’t doubt that there was a real enmity between the two men, it’s worth noting that Aubrey’s own daughter, Skye Aubrey, appears in the substantial role of a nurse with a morphine habit in The Carey Treatment, and it’s giving him credit for an unusual amount of malice to suggest he would throw his own flesh-and-blood under the bus just to spite an uppity director. (Incidentally, Melissa Torme-March, in her only film role here, is the offspring of the Velvet Fog, Mel Torme.)
The cut-rate production history of The Carey Treatment is an incontrovertible fact, but so is Coburn’s cocky charisma and flippant flirtatiousness. With his grinning donkey choppers, lean prowl, and those long hands that wander about with a mind of their own, the 43-year-old Coburn is in fine form, and the P.I. trappings suit him. (See for further reference his starring role in the 1978 TV miniseries made from Hammett’s The Dain Curse.) Structured as a string of interrogative vignettes, the film makes room for some memorable supporting bits, including a wry Pat Hingle as a menacing basset hound of a police captain; Elizabeth Allen as the accusing stepmother, “shanty Irish” who married rich and has stayed Scotch-drunk since; and plummy voiceover actor Alex Dreier as the deceased’s rotund gourmand uncle with a rep for performing abortions for the high-born Brahmin set, who absently stirs a Danish rum sauce while Carey cross-examines him.
It’s in such odd touches that Edwards raises expository scenes above the routine, and his disillusion with this project didn’t diminish his genius in composing for the anamorphic frame, developing an overarching visual motif of entrapment that renders the city as a honeycomb of cells. The Carey Treatment is a solid specimen of the Boston movie, settled chronologically and in quality somewhere between the high peaks of Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler in 1968 and Peter Yates’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle in 1973. All of the above are investigation movies—and as in the better films of their type, this means not only an investigation into a particular crime but an excavation of the various strata of the society which produced that crime. Carey’s investigation will take him to the finest homes on Commonwealth Avenue, as well as to seedy steam baths on Washington Ave. in the shadow of the since-demolished elevated Orange Line.
The Carey Treatment manifests an anger towards the city of its setting that’s fierce, if somewhat unfocused. Dr. Carey righteously rails against the blue bloods who failed Karen, though rooting through Beacon Hill’s skeletons in the closet turns out to be an unnecessary detour, as no one in that crowd turns out to be directly culpable for Karen’s situation. What this does establish is the sense of Boston as a city of calcified social orders in which things are done a certain way—a place that is quick to scapegoat outsiders who don’t know and follow the rules, or who just don’t look right. Carey, who comes from Palo Alto, is one such outsider. Another is Hong’s Dr. Tao, who says of born-to-the-manor J.D.: “If you’re under 60 and white you call him ‘Sir.’ If you’re black, yellow, or somewhere in between, you evaporate.” (An accusation against Tao is as good as a conviction. Says one character: “In Boston, with a jury half-Catholic, they’ll convict him on general principles.”)
It’s interesting to see Edwards touching on the matter of racial prejudice against Asians, for this after all is the man who gave Mickey Rooney his buckteeth in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (61), and assigned Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau Burt Kwouk’s Cato as a valet, sparring partner, and “little yellow friend.” Even S.O.B. has Stuart Margolin mocking Benson Fong’s Chinese cook with a pidgin R’s-for-L’s voice. It should be noted that in the latter two examples, the caricatured attitudes are hardly being held up as exemplary, and I don’t want to imply that Edwards—according to the standards of his time and possibly according to the standards of ours—was a racist. Take for example Edwards’s 1968 The Party, the nearest thing to Playtime ever to be released by a Hollywood studio and arguably his masterpiece. In The Party, Sellers smears on brownface to play an Indian actor named Hrundi V. Bakshi, stranger in the strange land of a Hollywood shindig and unquestionably the film’s identification character. I’m not sure how attaching words like “racist” or “enlightened” to such a multivalent work begins to cover the complicated feelings that it evokes. (An irresistible, tangentially related fact: both Edwards and Coburn studied Jeet Kune Do under Bruce Lee.)
Crichton’s novel added yet another layer of racial tension to the drama: Karen’s boyfriend, played in the film by a depraved, bouffant-blond Ken doll called Michael Blodgett, was a black man. Apparently two topical controversies were deemed quite enough for The Carey Treatment. At the time that the film was being made, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had what were then considered relatively lenient abortion laws: the procedure was available in case of danger to a woman’s health. A year later, the Supreme Court had ruled 7-2 in favor of the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade and, in somewhat less monumental news, James Aubrey was also out as president of MGM.
Edwards and Andrews were already gone themselves, decamped to their chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland. The Carey Treatment had been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Edwards sued to have his name taken off of it, and lost. He and his wife spent most of the Seventies in self-imposed European exile. There Edwards produced ever more deliriously surreal Pink Panther films featuring an ever more scenery-hungry Herbert Lom, and wrote the screenplays that would, at the end of the decade, facilitate his triumphant return to box-office viability and allow him to air his grievances against the industry that he felt had scapegoated him and made him as much an outsider as Hrundi V. Bakshi or Dr. Tao. Edwards’s 10 (79) would earn 10 times its budget, while Vaughn’s Blackman in S.O.B. was a slanderous combination of Evans and Aubrey, who Lucille Ball would only refer to as “that S.O.B.” Edwards’s Hollywood kiss-off is a sourly funny, totally iconoclastic movie, a classic overloaded with succulent one-liners, many belonging to Robert Preston’s prescription-happy tinseltown doctor. “I could sue you for calling me that!” he merrily burbles at one point. “A ‘shyster’ is a disreputable lawyer. I'm a quack!” As for The Carey Treatment, it belongs to its period more than to all time, but its ineffaceable qualities prove that Edwards could never be reduced to quack or hack.