Wednesday 22 February 2017

Captain Newman, M.D. (1963)

Director: David Miller
Writers: Richard L. Breen and Phoebe & Henry Ephron, from the novel by Leo Rosten
Stars: Gregory Peck, Tony Curtis, Angie Dickinson and Bobby Darin

Index: Dry Heat Obscurities.

This week’s Dry Heat Obscurity wasn’t entirely shot in Arizona. In fact, from what I can gather, most of it was shot on the Universal lot back in Universal City, CA. However, every time we step outside, we find ourselves on the Libby Army Airfield, which is part of Fort Huachuca, a U.S. Army installation at the northern end of the Huachuca mountains, fifteen miles north of the Mexican border. It’s part of the Arizona town of Sierra Vista today, though it wasn’t when this picture was shot, as they didn’t annex the post until 1971. We fly over Fort Huachuca behind the opening credits to land at Libby. Now, the Libby Army Airfield is also the Sierra Vista Municipal Airport, but this script calls it the Colfax Army Air Field, which is a fictional name. However, if we track the story back to its origins, we’ll find that it’s really pretending to be the Yuma Army Airfield, still in Arizona but located three hundred miles west, where it shares its facilities with the Yuma International Airport as a combined civilian/military operation. Are you confused yet?

Well, let me back up to the real Second World War and hopefully things will become clear. Ralph R. Greenson, best known today as a psychoanalyst to the stars, was then a captain in the Army Medical Corps, stationed at the Yuma Army Airfield, where he worked with patients suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, or P.T.S.D. He was an early professional to associate P.T.S.D. with the experiences of soldiers during wartime, so his work became well known and highly regarded. In 1961, a personal friend called Leo Rosten, a professional humorist and retired scriptwriter, fictionalised the doctor’s wartime stories into a novel, transforming Capt. Greenson, M.D. into Capt. Newman, M.D. Hollywood quickly came knocking to adapt this success onto the big screen, even though the doctor’s accomplishments were becoming eclipsed at the time by his professional association with celebrities, such as Marilyn Monroe; a number of conspiracy theories have him involved in covering up the circumstances of her death in 1962.

Then again, those celebrities may have helped the film to happen. Another of his patients was Tony Curtis, who shares top billing here with Gregory Peck, who, as Capt. Josiah J. Newman, M.D., is quite obviously the lead. Both Greenson and Rosten were Jewish; the latter was already well known for his writings about Yiddish characters but would become famous for The Joys of Yiddish, a vast encyclopaedia of Jewish language and humour. While Peck plays Newman with no obvious ethnic bent, Curtis has no such qualms and portrays Cpl. Jackson ‘Jake’ Leibowitz, an orderly who Newman hijacks into service on his ward, as quintessentially Jewish; he may well have been playing not only a part but an actual homage to his psychotherapist and the friend who wrote about him. His opening scene, as Newman captures his services, is priceless; he’s so pessimistic that he appears more like a patient. ‘We haven’t lost an orderly yet,’ suggests Newman. ‘Don’t spoil your record, Captain,’ he replies. Gin later? ‘Who plans that far ahead?’

While Leibowitz soon finds his feet and becomes a valued assistant on Ward 7, he eventually turns into minor comic relief; his best and biggest scenes are the least important ones in the picture, surely there only to break up the more dramatic episodes of life in a psychiatric ward; in many ways, he turns into the scrounger Curtis played in Operation Petticoat. Fortunately, Peck is able to ground himself much better and Capt. Newman is a fantastic character, defined as much by his failures as by his successes. To the credit of the source novelist and the trio of scriptwriters, Phoebe and Henry Ephron (Nora’s parents) and Richard L. Breen, he comes across as thoroughly believable. Much of that is because he’s introduced very well, first through his interactions with Col. Pyser, who’s in charge of Colfax, and then through his interactions with patients on his rounds. We watch and learn through a visiting statistician, Lt. Belden ‘Barney’ Alderson, played by Dick Sargent. Newman laughs at the character’s first name; Peck’s was actually Eldred.
These early scenes are blistering. The light hearted music that opened the film set the tone and there’s humour throughout these scenes, but there’s serious drama too and much insight. The first patient, Arthur Werbel, wants to be discharged so he can go back to the war to protect his brother. Alderson is sympathetic, until Newman explains that Arthur doesn’t have a brother. The captain has a different tone and a different technique for each and every patient. He knows them all deeply and he knows how he needs to respond to get them to progress to the point where he can safely discharge them. Bobby, for instance, has lost the ability to speak, so Newman’s friendly and tells him that it’ll come. Carrozzo is a character, diagnosing his doctor, so Newman is patient. However, an unnamed bully causes a riot in the ward, so Newman bullies him right back, making it very clear that he’s in charge. Alderson leaves the ward with a healthy respect of what this offbeat shrink is doing and what his patients are going through. So do we.

The problem is that the film doesn’t really know what it wants to be, possibly because it was ahead of its time. It starts by deluging us with the chaos of a psychiatric ward and lets us take some time to find our feet; we meet a lot of characters and begin a number of subplots to which we’ll return throughout the picture. However, the film gradually becomes episodic in nature, as we focus on one case to the exclusion of the rest; as that one is resolved, a new one comes along to replace it. Today, this would be a TV show, with single episode stories within an overriding season arc and with individual growth for regulars, but this was before M*A*S*H, let alone Hill Street Blues. As tends to be the case with episodes, some are stronger than others. One involves the introduction of 14 Italian P.O.W.s to Colfax, not mental cases but enemies, and Ward 7 is the only one with locks. Their Christmas stage rendition of Hava Nagila, a traditional Native American song according to Leibowitz, is funny but insubstantial. It’s a skit, a memory, a moment.
The meaty episodes are elsewhere, starting with Bobby Darin, who was deservedly Oscar nominated for his role as a gunner, Cpl. Jim Tompkins, who refuses to confront the episode in his past that torments him, a common scenario for P.T.S.D. sufferers. I won’t spoil this but will say that Darin gives an incredible performance here, so believably haunted by his past that actors in horror films should learn from his pain. His greatest scene comes when he’s ready to be given flak juice, or sodium pentathol, which turns out to be an amazingly versatile drug; in fact, it’s put to two uses here simultaneously, neither of which is as a truth serum. Jim wants it because it’s a powerful general anaesthetic; he has insomnia and can’t sleep unless he’s drunk himself into a stupor. Newman is keen to administer it as a psychiatric aid because it also facilitates the recall of repressed memories. Peck sits back and lets Darin blister, then quietly looks out of the window and expresses his own pain through subtle nuance. Both men do this scene proud.

I’ve always regarded Darin as a songwriter and musician, given that he wrote and recorded a number of million sellers in his time, many of which are well known today, like Splish Splash and Dream Lover. Somehow, however, I’ve never really acknowledged him as a superb actor too, even having seen him play an antisocial Nazi sympathiser in Pressure Point, earning a Golden Globe nod over his co-star, Sidney Poitier; he lost to his co-star here, Gregory Peck, for To Kill a Mockingbird. He only made fourteen pictures, but they’re a diverse bunch with highly unlikely roles for a teen idol. Apparently he was up to the challenge; he’s so great here that it’s notable how many others in the cast fail to match him. The couple of actors who do best are Eddie Albert and Robert Duvall, both coincidentally best known at the time for other pictures starring Gregory Peck; Albert for Roman Holiday a decade earlier, which brought him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and Duvall for his previous picture, To Kill a Mockingbird.
In many ways, Duvall plays a similar character here to Boo Radley there: it’s a small but important role of a young man suffering from mental damage who’s very quiet throughout but explodes into violence at a key moment. Capt. Paul Winston proves to be a challenge for Newman because his usual approaches aren’t working; he can’t break through to the man inside the shell, knowing only that the key lies in the thirteen months he spent in a cellar in occupied France. Duvall does well here, early in his career, but it’s a subtle performance that asks politely for our attention while most of the rest of the cast are given overt performances which rudely steal it. Albert’s is certainly one, as the mind of Col. Norval Bliss has split into two: the troubled Mr. Past and the intelligent but carefree Mr. Future, who steals a number of scenes from other great character actors. Albert is rightly known for his comedy roles, but he was a powerful man in serious dramatic parts too and his performance in this film underlines that yet again.

If it sounds like a testosterone fuelled picture, you’re not too far wrong, but there is eye candy in the film and that eye candy gets some opportunity too. Most obviously, there’s Angie Dickinson as Lt. Francie Corum, a nurse from Ward 3 who manages to get one over on Newman in her first scene. The obvious romantic subplot fizzles, when she realises that he’s courting her for her talents as a nurse rather than a beautiful young lady, but never quite goes out and would clearly get somewhere in that theoretical TV series version. It’s actually refreshing that it doesn’t within the two hour running time, given that Peck was 47 and Dickinson only 31, not a large gap for Hollywood screen romances. She willingly transfers over after witnessing Newman loudly dealing with Bliss. ‘Oh, I wasn’t shouting at him,’ the doctor tells her. ‘I was shouting at his symptoms.’ Incidentally, the name was surely sourced from the real medical facility at Fort Huachaca: the Raymond W. Bliss Army Medical Center.
One Angie Dickinson in an Army Base full of young soldiers would be a recipe for disaster, so we do have a number of other female characters. Bethel Leslie gets a highly unusual role as Mrs. Helene Winston, Capt. Paul’s wife, who Newman requests visit as a last resort. She’s utterly not what he expects and she walks a fascinating tightrope between upper class strength and really not having a clue. Jane Withers is also often on screen, as Lt. Grace Blodgett, the matron of Ward 7. She was a child actor, who began her film career at six in 1932 and had all but retired by the time she reached twenty, with over forty movies behind her; even though she’s still alive today, this proved to be her final screen role at the ripe old age of 37. Instead, she began a decade as Josephine, the Lady Plumber in TV commercials for Comet cleanser. As a film actor, her one trip out of retirement was to complete the role of Laverne in Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1996, after the original voice actor, Mary Wickes, died; she also reprised the role in the sequel.

With all this talent on show, it’s somehow surprising that Captain Newman, M.D. flopped. I think the main reason was that it was a little out of time. In many ways, it’s ahead of its time, presaging those deep dive television shows that took off after Hill Street Blues and are all the rage today. However, it’s dated too, feeling a lot more than nine years older than M*A*S*H. While the title character gains depth through acknowledging the irony that he’s getting soldiers well just so they can be sent back into harm’s way, this has little of the pessimism, not to mention nudity and strong language, that would show up with the counterculture’s response to the Vietnam War; it seems utterly surreal to find that that had already been raging for eight years at this point. Rosten’s source novel was released in 1961, the same year as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which turned out to be a much better pointer to the future; no-one quotes this movie today, or its source novel, even though I’m very tempted to personally adopt, ‘Is Mr. Future mad?’
Perhaps most tellingly, I’m not watching for Peck or Darin, Dickinson or Withers, Duvall or Arnold. I’m watching right now for the Libby Army Airfield, hardly the component part that Universal felt film critics might focus on half a century later. Fort Huachuca is a fascinating place, not least because it keeps re-inventing itself. Initially founded to fight Geronimo and his Chiricahua Apaches, it became the base for the Buffalo soldiers for a couple of decades until 1933. It took on a new focus on electronic warfare as long ago as 1954 and is now home to the US Army’s Network Enterprise Technology Command. There are two museums on site, which are open to the public for free, though civilian visitors are required to pass a criminal background check before being allowed through the gate. Just remember, it has been said that ‘it’s the only fort in the Continental United States where you can be AWOL for three days and they can still see you leaving.’ I wonder if I’ll be able to get a modern day photo to match the location in the film.

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