Judge Bill Gibron didn't need his head examined to recommend this intriguing movie.
Our review of The Gregory Peck Film Collection, published November 24th, 2008, is also available.
It Speaks to You in the Language of Love, Laughter, and Tears
Unless you were born of a certain generation, you don't remember a time when psychoanalysis/psychotherapy/psychiatry was viewed as vile, voodoo medicine. Unfriendly names like "head shrinker" and accusations of professional malfeasance (and in some cases, outright fraud) plagued the vocation for decades. Of course, the history of how the mentally ill were treated around the world played some part in the repugnant reputation, as well as the horrid state of institutions and asylums (not to mention dreadful meatball surgeries) used to supposedly "cure" these patients. It's taken years of understanding and explanation to see the field as anything other than brain butchery, and it was films like Captain Newman, M.D. that helped lead the revision. While this episodic comedy/drama does have its faults, it also illustrates the beginnings of a more definable debate, a way of seeing how contemporary ideas and the need for compassion lead to innovations both in the "trenches" and in the overall acceptance of the field of study.
It's World War II and far from the action on the front, Captain Josiah Newman (Gregory Peck, Moby Dick) works on the neuropsychology ward of an Arizona army hospital. He is viewed suspiciously by his superior, Col. Pyser (James Gregory, Barney Miller) and must suffer with a nosy overseer, Lt. Alderson (Dick Sargeant, Bewitched) sent to make sure he's not harming the men more. Though his ways are unconventional, he manages to sway the chief nurse (Angie Dickinson, Dressed to Kill) and a comical orderly (Tony Curtis, Some Like It Hot) to join his cause. Eventually, we learn of the diverse cases Dr. Newman must deal with, including a suicidal officer (Eddie Albert, Dreamscape), a captain who is still catatonic after 13 months in hiding (Robert Duvall, Tender Mercies), and a closed-off corporal who was severely traumatized (Bobby Darrin, State Fair). In each case, Newman tries to get to the root of the issue, in some cases using empathy, understanding, and when all else fails, a shot or two of sodium pentothal—anything to bring these men back to the real world.
What you have to remember about Captain Newman, M.D. is that, in the early '60s, few had heard of something called "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder." Often called "shell shock" because of the apparent connection between the concussive power of an explosion and the fragile psyche of the sufferer, this soon-to-be-standard wartime diagnosis was unheard of fifty years ago, meaning that Captain Newman's treatment of same was equally novel. The approach was also intriguing, trying to brighten up the otherwise controversial material with a few laughs (via Curtis) and some eye candy (Ms. Dickinson, looking young and dishy). The jagged storytelling style came from the desire to follow several cases over the course of the film, giving stars like Albert and Darrin (who would receive an Oscar nomination for his work) a chance to really shine. They all overwhelm Peck, who plays it a bit too straight to be seen as part of this particular paradigm. Instead, he seems too officious, as if he is required to stand back and make sure everyone knows his under the gun character is a serious man of science.
Many will marvel at the supporting cast here. Aside from the aforementioned stars, you get other stellar supporting players like Vito Scotti, Jane Withers, Larry Storch, and Robert F. Simon. All add a level of legitimacy to the movie. Even better, this isn't a film that tries to "dumb down" the occupation and its hazards. Though it took a group of four writers to weave their way through Leo Rosten's novel, they come out covering the most important stuff. Again, the revelations here are not going to set the 2011 world on fire. We've heard of a lot more compelling and complex psychological issues during an episode of Access Hollywood, and some of the sensational story elements are, five decades later, as old hat as…well, an old hat. Still, the performances make them compelling, and the direction of David Miller (who helmed such efforts as Executive Action, Midnight Lace, and Love Happy) is bold yet breezy. It's just a shame that Universal couldn't find any added content to flesh out the feature. A movie like this demands a kind of context that only a selection of extras can offer. Still, the 1.85:1 anamorphic image looks good and the sound is clean and crisp.
Before Woody Allen made it "cool" and Psychology Today put the entire arena in print perspective, psychiatry's "joggin' of one's noggin'" was considered a bunch of weird witch doctor quackery. While it didn't completely remove the stigma, movies like Captain Newman, M.D. helped put the troubled profession in perspective. It remains a dated but enjoyable curiosity.
Not guilty—a relic, but a reliable one.
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