30 August 2002 | bmacv
Dx: Compellingly bad, as only an overwrought, self-important movie can be
Sixteen years after The Snake Pit and 13 years before One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, The Caretakers joins their company as `enlightened' explorations of the mentally ill and the institutions that hold them. But The Caretakers stays closer in spirit to Caged, with the female inmates transferred from the Big House to a mental ward called (of all things!) Borderline. (There's actually one holdover from the cast of Caged Ellen Corby, as a batty old schoolmarm and one sequence involving a parakeet which almost exactly reprises one involving a cat in the earlier movie.) But while Caged was overwrought but compellingly good, The Caretakers is overwrought and compellingly bad.
The jangly piano music over the titles, with their suggestions of Di Chirico and Picasso's `Guernica,' clue us to the racheted-up, `serious' tone of the movie. But soon we're watching Polly Bergen go flat-out berserk in front of the screen of a crowded theater. An ambulance ushers her into the gloomy shadows (the movie is well photographed) of the mental hospital, where she comes under the care of Robert Stack, who is pioneering progressive and humane methods of treatment (which nonetheless require jolts of electricity to the temples).
But Bergen is but one of the woeful women among whom we divide our time. This is the kind of dramaturgy where, when Barbara Barrie is introduced as never having uttered a word in seven years, we wait 90 minutes with bated breath for her to speak. She's lucky to get a word in edgewise, as recovering prostitute Janis Paige bazoos her way through every scene she's in and steals all the thunder from Bergen's go-for-broke histrionics.
The staff faces its own problems, however. Head of the hospital is Herbert Marshall, looking like he was just trundled in from Madame Tussaud's, but he's just a figurehead who has long since ceded authority to underlings, particularly Joan Crawford. Since she's been saddled with the name Lucretia, with nasty echoes of the Borgias, we know she's not exactly a helping professional. She stands in adamant opposition to everything Stack works for, and relies on head nurse and hard case Constance Ford as her secret agent. Unfortunately, Crawford's role is smaller than we can be sure she hoped it would be (and often her position seems to make sense).
That's about it. We never get to see a promised, climactic board meeting which will decide the fates of Crawford and Stack. That may have been a try for ironic ambiguity, but it looks like the movie just ran out of steam, or money. For some of the patients, rays of hope do pop out of the institutional-grey skies, for Hollywood never acknowledged a problem that couldn't be wrapped up by the last reel. This mixture of high earnestness and wretched overacting is simply stupefying.