Judge Dennis Prince never sought to be a mental powerhouse, but he would have liked to have been taller. He's just biding his time, awaiting the fashionable return of platform shoes.
"Why is that people who would never dream of making fun of a blind man or a cripple will make fun of a retard?"
It was billed in 1968 as "a love story that begins with an incredible experiment!" Certainly, those who immersed themselves in all things sci-fi probably never conceived an important genre entry would be coming their way deplete of shimmering spacecraft and strange new worlds. Unlike the explorative cinema of the day such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes, this particular film came along with its roots deeply planted in the science-fiction consciousness yet operating as a character study and a rather subtle yet poignant sociological footnote. Charly emerged in a rather unassuming manner, much like the title character, yet earned actor/producer Cliff Robertson (Brainstorm) the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1969.
Facts of the Case
Charly Gordon (Robertson) is a 32-year-old mentally retarded adult. When not sweeping up in the bakery alongside his coworker "friends," they who descend upon the likable fellow with a nonstop barrage of sophomoric stunts, Charly is working hard in night school to learn to read and write. More than anything, Charly wants to understand the world in which he lives, wants to give back to the society from which he draws, and wants to understand the unending prattling of those smart college students he overhears on campus. Charly's night-school teacher, Mrs. Kinnian (Claire Bloom, The Haunting), recognizes the mentally challenged man's drive to improve and suggests him for an as-yet-untried-on-humans brain surgery. Doctors Straus (Lila Skala, Lilies of the Field) and Nemur (Leon Janney, The Last Mile) have successfully enhanced and accelerated the brain functions of a mentally retarded mouse, Algernon, via a procedure in which damaged or unresponsive brain tissue is removed and replaced with chemically restructured tissue that is able to produce brain protein at a heightened and unbounded rate. To test his suitability for the procedure, Charly is matched against Algernon in a race through a simple maze; the mouse scurries for a food reward while Charly attempts to navigate the same puzzle on paper. Clearly, Charly is outmatched by the super-intelligent Algernon ("How would you feel if you was dumber than a mouse?"). Charly undergoes the surgery, but the procedure seems to yield no results. Algernon continues to outpace Charly in the maze races, and Charly grows increasingly frustrated with his stymied mental development. And then it happens: Charly beats Algernon, and his mental capacity begins to grow by the day. But his analytical processes aren't the only things evolving; his emotions and awareness of human relationships are also evolving, to the extent that he develops a fixation on his mentor and sponsor, Mrs. Kinnian. But there is an undocumented effect of the surgery, and as Charly and the doctors discover it, it becomes a race to perfect the procedure before all the good work is undone.
Chances are you're well aware of this story and possibly its outcome, as most high-school students studied author Daniel Keyes's novel, Flowers for Algernon. Originally published as a novella in a 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, this lightly qualifying "science-fiction" work won the coveted Hugo Award that year. Its impact quickly felt in the literary circuit, the work was adapted into a television drama, The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon, broadcast in 1961 and starring Cliff Robertson in the title role. Within five years, author Keyes reworked and expanded the story into novel form, published in 1966. For actor Robertson, it became a defining role, largely by his own actions to purchase the film rights to the story to secure his place in the big-screen version. Well rewarded for his efforts, Robertson earned an Oscar for his role as Charly, a rather gripping performance in which the character not only experiences a developmental arc but actually endures a 360-degree turnabout. Robertson is very convincing as the slack-jawed, wide-eyed mentally deficient man who struggles mightily to make more of himself, well aware that's he's regularly exploited by a cruel society yet happy to go along with the gag regardless. As the brain-surgery effects begin to emerge, Robertson methodically and skillfully evolves the character into the determined and almost overtly self-confident "Charlie." Claire Bloom operates well in a more service-oriented role, maintaining the expected coolness of a teacher and psychologist who simultaneously has developed a fondness for Charly. As Charlie emerges, she must deal with his evolution and is forced to respond to the man in ways she never could have imagined. Skala and Janney, as the two scientists/surgeons, play their roles well, maintaining a clinical demeanor that we would also expect. In the end, all supporting characters exist to contrast the behaviors and experiences of Charly/Charlie.
As the film goes, it's not terrifically breakthrough or truly "riveting," per se. The underlying notion of transforming a retarded man, anchored by Robertson's outstanding performance, is more than enough to keep us attentive and involved. Interestingly enough, director Ralph Nelson evolves his filmic style and narrative as Charly's mental capacity evolves. We're greeted with rather basic sequences and setups early on, then are dropped into some rather complex montages as the intellectual Charlie begins to emerge. (Some inventive sequences provide a split-screen dual perspective, and an evocative mid-film sequence is downright Woodstock-esque in execution.) The film does bear a certain amount of late-'60s style and sensibility, but largely it functions without looking too much like a dated work. Perhaps one of the most overlooked elements that makes the film work so well is the remarkable score by Ravi Shankar (and no, it's not a sitar jam session but, rather, a very well-constructed and impressively diverse collection of compositions).
For a work that's been perpetually in print since 1959 and a film that has garnered so much attention and praise from 1969 through today, its delivery on disc by MGM is quite perplexing. This bare-bones release flies squarely in the face of so much study and analysis material (by author Keyes and others) generated around this well-regarded tale for the past 45 years. The transfer itself is generally okay, exhibiting low levels of grain and occasional source-print dirt along the way. It's not a restoration by any stretch of the imagination. The picture is presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on one side and in a 1.33:1 pan-and-scan chop job on the opposite side of this flipper disc. The audio is rather disappointing, indifferently delivered via a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix. It's intelligible throughout but is distractingly flat. Inexcusably, there are no extras on this disc. Certainly, an audio commentary with Robertson (possibly joined by Bloom) seems like required material here. Even commentary by film or literary experts would be easily justifiable. Alas, nothing. Not even a trailer or photo gallery. Unfortunately, the overall rating of this disc has suffered needlessly because of this gross oversight.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Again, Charly is not the most astounding picture you'll ever see, and some have noted that it lost much of its impact when translated from the series of Charly's written "progris riports" as found in Flowers for Algernon. It's a powerful and engaging picture nonetheless and would likely motivate one to read the novel (or novella), for point of comparison if nothing else.
Charly doesn't look and feel very much like the sort of science-fiction film we might at once conjure up when considering the late '60s. Still, it's a highly interesting film made all the better thanks to Robertson's excellent work. Whether you're film-schooled or just a film lover, Charly is a film that belongs in everyone's home library (study guide not required).
Cliff Robertson is once again due respect and recognition for his masterful performance, while Daniel Keyes and director Ralph Nelson are likewise acknowledged for their fine contributions. The folks at MGM, however, are sentenced to immediate night-schooling until they can show appropriate "progris" in their "dee-vee-dee ril-leeses" for such important films.
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