BR: Hospital, The (1971)

January 23, 2018 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Standard

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  December 19, 2017

Genre:  Black Comedy

Synopsis: A suicidal, boozing surgeon is overwhelmed by street protests, an insane staff, and a rash of murders in an inner NYC hospital. Relax, it’s a comedy.

Special Features: Isolated Mono Music & Effects Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




Preceding the bilious Oscar-winning black comedy Network (1977), The Hospital also earned writer-producer Paddy Chayefsky an Oscar for his similarly vicious script on a NYC inner city hospital whose innards and surrounding appendages are erupting with unrest and sudden deaths.

There are two ways to regard this undeniable pitch black comedy: as an unsubtle commentary on the massive drift of the medical profession from humanitarian practices to uncaring, greedy, bureaucratic assholes; and an unintended, seminal serial killer thriller, predating the more vicious genre classics Se7en (1995) and the seminal torture porn film Saw (2004).

George C. Scott is Dr. Herbert Bock, just separated from his wife and free from a dead marriage, and boozing his way through an otherwise highly important job as doctor, surgeon, and educator when not dreaming of complicated scenarios to kill himself; he wants the eternally sleep, but leave no incriminating evidence that would rob his idiot children of insurance monies.

We never see his wife nor brats, but feel his frustration through the massive verbal tirades typical of Chayevfsky’s scripts and prose, and perhaps only deliverable via stage-trained actors whose professionalism makes the unnatural words and extreme takes on their bleak characters seem ‘natural.’

Bock confronts his demons first in a hysterical attempt to gain psychiatric advice on impotence from a colleague, and later in a drunken late night rant with Barbara Drummond (Diana Rigg, trying very hard to maintain an American accent), the twentysomething daughter of a patient. In classic 1970s absurdism and wrongess, hammered Bock gets tired of defending the supposed virtues of impotence, and rapes Barbara, but by sunrise they love each other, and following the story’s increasing ridiculousness, Bock seriously considers junking his career for a woman as old as his daughter, and running off together to an Apache commune in the Mexican desert.

This highly improbably romance is contrasted by recurring deaths of hospital staff, as doctors discover colleagues and nurses DOA in waiting and operating rooms, wearing IDs of real patients. Are these mistakes, or someone in their midst exacting cruel revenge on apathetic caregivers and life-savers?

Shot on location in a real (and really dingy-looking) hospital, Arthur Hiller directed cinematographer Victor J. Kemper (Dog Day Afternoon, Coma, Eyes of Laura Mars) to follow his cast in long takes, and mimic documentary camerawork to add to the film’s already weird blend of comedy, horror, social commentary, and absurdism. The often handheld work is marvelous, fluidly stitched together by editor Eric Albertson (Killer Party, The First Deadly Sin), but Hiller recognized (or was influenced by co-producer Chayefsky) to exploit the author’s insane exchanges and near-monologues with sometimes unbroken takes, and with the stylistic highlight being Scott’s pre-rape diatribe – itself propelled by the actor’s intensity and delivery in easily one of the finest screen moments of his career.

Not all shots are perfectly framed – Scott’s head is a little cropped in the psychiatrist’s office – but the scenes remain intense because of the stellar lead and many fine supporting character actors, including Barnard Hughes as Barbara’s ill father, Richard Dysart (L.A. Law, The Thing) as a profiteering hack surgeon, Canada’s Don Harron (The Best of Everything) as a main administrator, Katherine Helmond (Soap, Brazil) as a patient’s wife, Stockard Channing (The Fortune) as a pouty nurse, Dennis Dugan as an E.R. doctor, Christopher Guest (!) as an intern, and scene-stealing Frances Sternhagen (Outland) as a waiting room nurse shouting for numbers and insurance company details.

Equally vital to the cast are the background disturbances which Chayefsky uses to imply a community / societal meltdown in progress: the hospital needs more room, hence the expulsion of residents from nearby low income housing. The film opens with street protests, the narrative is interrupted by short scenes showing the wide gap between the locals and the corporate overlords, and ends with the continuing fracas (and the film’s funniest line as a closer).

So where does the serial killer story come into play?



Well, the killer, himself a victim of medical ineptitude, sets up scenarios where the victims can only be saved if the doctors and nurses do their jobs: the deaths come from victims being ignored, mistaken, and misdiagnosed. The doomed can only be saved if archetypes of the medical profession transcend their present day low levels of care and make the right choices – basically do their fucking jobs.



Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports a sharp transfer of the gritty film, and an isolated mono M&E mix offers the approximately 3-4 cues by Toronto-born Morris Surdin: pretty much just Main & End Credits, and a pair of ‘eerie’ music chords.

Julie Kirgo’s liner notes provide needed background for this slightly lesser known cousin to Network, and feels quite modern for the rage against an uncaring health system and bureaucracy. Chayefsky’s penchant for researching technical jargon and nomenclature to such accuracy has characters seemingly vomiting dialogue at audiences in poetic, generally profane-free projectiles.

Chayefsky’s prose isn’t ideological; it’s degrees and angles of ranging arguments and observations which as Kirgo points out are perhaps more direct than Network; unlike anchorman Howard Beale, Dr. Bock doesn’t go bonkers and become a pop culture icon; in spite of the bile, he struggles almost hourly to remain faithful to the only worth in his life: decent medical care. How one reads the finale is maybe dependent on one’s stance as an pessimist or optimist: Bock continues on a path towards personal disintegration, or he returns to the trenches to reignite a good (if note futile) fight.

Chayefsky’s final film credit before cancer killed him at 58 was Altered States (1981), one of Ken Russell’s best films, and a production that according to its director’s memoirs, Chayefsky loathed, almost ruined, and ultimately took his name off the credits after the two couldn’t find any common ground during production.

Director (and Canadian-born) Arthur Hiller directed the Chayefsky-scripted romantic classic The Americanization of Emily (1964), and followed The Hospital with the musical dud Man of La Mancha (1972) but recovered with a series of comedies, especially the lightly Hitchcockian Silver Streak (1976).

Diana Rigg would have a plum role in the exceptional black horror comedy Theater of Blood (1973), playing alongside Vincent Price in his darkly comedic highpoint, whereas Scott would earn an Oscar Nomination for The Hospital, and star in the cynical The New Centurions (1972).



© 2018 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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