Losing their Patients – Rediscovering ‘The Hospital’ (US 1971 – 103 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - December 04, 2014
Losing their Patients – Rediscovering ‘The Hospital’ (US 1971 – 103 mins)

A superb farce that blends satire with real-life, Paddy Chayefsky’s sublime black comedy ‘The Hospital’ may get a little too close to the bone at times, but it expertly injects humour into an everyday story of our overcrowded and understaffed hospitals. Oh and there also happens to be a murderer roaming the corridors.

Depressed medical chief Dr. Herbert Bock (George C. Scott) is at the end of his rope. His wife has left him, his children ignore him and he seems increasingly on the verge of a breakdown. Plus, with job cuts and a budget crisis, the last thing Bock needs is for somebody murdering staff at his overcrowded Manhattan hospital.

I don’t entirely see ‘The Hospital’ as just a black comedy, although it’s often labelled as that. Yes, it has some very funny moments, but it also has moments of all too realistic horror, as bumbling surgeons and inexperienced nurses leave dying patients in their wake.

Coming a year after his (refused) Oscar-winning turn in ‘Patton’ (’70), I think George C. Scott gives his best performance here, which is full of rage and compassion, and seems so natural it’s occasionally frightening to watch. Diana Rigg (who never looked lovelier) has a rare appearance in an American movie, and she’s very good in a fairly small role, playing dropout Barbara Drummond, a patient’s daughter who turns out to be the quiet comforter to Scott’s suicidal doctor. Barnard Hughes is marvellous as a disturbed patient and Roberts Blossom has an important role as a patient who’s mistaken for Christ! Also in important roles are Stephen Elliott, Richard Dysart and Frances Sternhagen as some of the overworked personnel.

The movie has many memorable and quotable moments. One dark yet funny scene has a doctor operating on the wrong patient (causing her death), then panicking that he’s already “got one malpractice suit pending, I’m not taking the rap for this one”. Another has Scott berating senior management with the line “I mean, where do you train your nurses – Dachau?”

Canadian director Arthur Hiller expertly employs shots of busy wards and chaos as the camera follows the characters around corridors and operating rooms. Hiller often worked in comedy and later made the excellent Peter Falk/Alan Arkin farce ‘The In-Laws’ (’79), and the unfairly maligned ‘Author! Author!’ (’82) with Al Pacino. The bitingly brilliant screenplay won playwright Paddy Chayefsky his second of three Academy Awards. He had previously won for ‘Marty’ (’55) and later in 1976 for ‘Network’.

With elements of mystery and even horror, ‘The Hospital’ is near flawless, and with a top-notch cast and expert script, it may be my favourite movie of 1971.

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