Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Wake Up and Watch This!

In the mid-70s, it was rare to go anyplace relaxing, like to a beach or a swimming pool, and not find someone reading a paperback copy of Robin Cook’s bestseller Coma. The (then) sort of provocative cover of a nude, muscled figure, dangling from wires, always caught my attention. I didn't read the book until quite a few years later after a friend reminded me of the film version and I had enjoyed that so much the first time I'd seen it.

The story concerned a female intern at a major hospital who starts to question the number of patients who wind up comatose in the wake of supposedly minor procedures. Naturally, this being prior to or on the cusp of The Women’s Movement, she can’t seem to get anyone to go along with her suspicions and, in fact, runs into considerable opposition from a collection of stubborn, sexist, male doctors, including her own boyfriend who works at the same hospital. Eventually, she investigates on her own, leading her on a suspenseful ride from which she may not return!

Adapted into a film in 1978, the creepy, paranoid story transferred well to the screen and remains a pretty good nail-biter even now. Not for those who fear the medical profession, this creepy thriller takes its time getting started, but later kicks into high gear. It creates a mood and builds suspense to an almost unbearable degree.

It’s sort of a statement in itself of going against the expected grain that, for the film version, the heroine, long-haired, blonde Susan Wheeler, was instead portrayed by elfin, brunette, less conventional looking Genevieve Bujold. Whether intended or not, this decision gave the film another layer of tension and despair as seeing such a petite, almost frail-looking person such as she taking on the big guys is far more effective than if a taller, stronger-looking actress had been cast. (Her spunky determination goes a long way in helping me to forgive a wretched hairstyle that is occasionally augmented by a heinous little barrette!)

Appearing as her boyfriend is Michael Douglas, at the time a known personality for his work on TV’s The Streets of San Francisco, but not yet the A-list actor he would become in the 1980s. It’s almost odd now to see Douglas in a role that’s rather peripheral to the main action (almost the “girlfriend” part), but he invests it with conviction and even a certain amount of threat and malice.

The rest of the supporting cast is top-notch. Craggy-faced Richard Widmark is perfect as the confident, condescending and curt Chief of Staff. He manages to expertly represent the “glass ceiling” sort of attitude that women faced then (and sometimes do now) while slathering onto it an “I’m here for you” smarminess.

Also performing effectively in just a couple of scenes (one of which is wordless) is Rip Torn. Like most others in the film, he has an aura of mystery and untrustworthiness that adds to the general unease of the hospital. Neither Bujold nor the audience knows who she can trust. Our own hesitance and fear of such places and situations help create a feeling of unease.

Best of all is the brief, but unforgettable, appearance of Elizabeth Ashley as the world's most intimidating nurse. In her opening scene she blinks exactly once! (Yes, I counted…) Her voice is a monotone terror and her stare is up there with Medusa's. The section that contains her is surreal, but arresting, and very campy! As a film viewer, I have a tendency to grab on to one performer in a movie and obsess about him or her. Miss Ashley, even with her limited screen time, earned a place in my own (imaginary?) Cinema Hall of Fame for her hysterically bizarre, haughty, intimidating performance as Nurse Emerson. That voice, always a distinctive one, is divinely rude here.

The film (directed by former medical student Michael Crichton, who wrote many sci-fi novels and directed several other films) has a blatantly frank point of view. People eat sandwiches while they are examining cadavers. Brains are sliced like deli meat. It's all very clinical and unsettling to non-medical viewers.
Though the big set piece is a visit to the austere and forbidding Jefferson Institute, there are several other highly charged moments including a duct hole exploration and a chase through a seemingly abandoned hospital. The chase contains several creepily creative aspects along the way. Hit-man Lance LeGault makes a sinister pursuer as well. In an unusual move (but one which adds to the clinical feel of the early scenes), Jerry Goldsmith's clanking score doesn't take center stage until late in the film, but it’s wonderfully nerve-wracking when it needs to be.

Adding to the fun is a series of small appearances by people new to the business like Lois Chiles, Tom Selleck and Ed Harris. The first two portray patients and acquaintances of Bujold’s while Harris is a technician. Most viewers spotting him in this exclaim their surprise that he has (some) hair. Another striking thing about the film is that it is rated PG and yet contains some fairly graphic imagery and even fleeting nudity. I think we were generally less uptight about the body in those post flower-child/pre-AIDS days. Until PG-13 came along in 1984, PG films were allowed a little more leeway than they probably would be now (see also Mommie Dearest’s famous, “Don’t fuck with me fellas!” line in the PG rated biopic.)


Post a Comment