Dr. Peter Carey (James Coburn) is the new pathologist at a Boston hospital presided over by Dr. Randall (Dan O’Herlihy), a snooty brahmin who accuses this brash California import of being one of those insubordinate malcontents who rot every organization from within, a renegade priest. Carey responds with a critique of various greed-laden aspects of their system, but they’re really jousting about the fact that Randall’s daughter has just died of a botched abortion for which Carey’s colleague and friend (James Hong) has been accused of murder. The latter, who apparently has no attorney, admits to performing abortions (a hot topic in this pre-Roe vs. Wade era) but says he never touched the girl, and Carey believes him. We’re certain the guy’s innocent because he’s Chinese and this is 1972, so clearly it’s a racist frame.
Carey proves to be the Mike Hammer of pathologists in what turns out to be a murky example of late noir based on a novel by a pseudonymous Michael Crichton. Our establishment-rattling anti-hero indulges in dangerous bullying and sadism on his way to scaring the truth out of the labyrinth of interconnected suspects, so much that the local hard-nosed police captain calls him “a worse SOB than me”. His investigation leads to the havoc of the final scenes, with at least one anonymous nurse perhaps getting killed while another gets her face slashed and mysteriously vanishes from the scene. The smiles-all-around coda feels falsely tacked on.
While berating his colleagues and bulldozing for justice and truth, Carey carries his own colossal sense of entitlement, only it looks cooler on him because he’s Coburn. In the first scene, he ignores a guard who keeps saying he can’t park in a doctor’s space until Carey finally reveals that he’s a doctor. “Why didn’t you say so?” asks the man (or The Man, although he’s actually much lower on the totem pole than the doc), and it’s not an unreasonable question. Why didn’t he? It’s an ambiguous way to establish character, because it could be that we’re meant to identify with Carey getting one up on the fuzz who keeps hassling him, man, or it could mean something else.
If it’s not entirely clear how Carey connects the plot’s dots, that might be due to editing and interference against the wishes of the writers (who chose to mask themselves behind a pseudonym) and director Blake Edwards, who disowned the film. During this period, Edwards had bad luck getting studios to release movies as he wanted them. What they couldn’t change was his felicity for the widescreen. There’s a notably self-conscious shot involving Carey, a colleague, and a mouse under a bell jar. The doctors are seen alternately peering in, both gods and specimens.
As a hospital murder mystery with social elements, this isn’t as memorable as its contemporary The Hospital. It’s also not as satisfying as some other late noirs of the era, though it’s certainly more messy and pathological, and that may be intentional. It’s freshly available on-demand from Warner Archives.
// Notes from the Road
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