Friday, June 15, 2012

"People Will Talk"

This name "Mankiewicz" was familiar.  I didn't know what he had directed, but I did know I had heard of him before—a good sign, that.  The back of the VHS case assured us that we were about to see some kind of chipper romantic comedy.  The reviews around the web proclaimed it to be tiresome, anti-McCarthyite, liberal propaganda.  IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes gave it about a 7/10.

Well, IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes were about right (though I'd say more of an 8/10 myself).  The reviewers who noted the anti-McCarthyism were correct, the way a couple of mycologists are when they discover a rare species of Pleurotus and fail to appreciate the forest full of flora and fauna that surrounds the growth.  The back of the VHS case was just plain stupid, like a biography of Napoleon that focuses on his fashion sense.

And my toupee is just too excellent too ...

Let's start by saying that People Will Talk doesn't follow rules.  Cary Grant is the star, but he's not playing a Cary Grant type—neither romantic, nor comic, nor suspenseful, but human, and therefore a little bit of all of those things, as most human beings are.  In fact, despite the eccentricities of his character here, he seems strangely normal, in a way that, say, John Robbie, Dudley, Walter Eckland, and even the splendid C.K. Dexter Haven do not.  For a gynecologist named Noah Praetorius, who comes complete with a mysterious past as a reputed miracle-worker and a present-day familiar nicknamed The Bat, that's saying a lot.

The movie opens to music brimming with Beethovian humanism.  Count one for Mankiewizc.  (OK, so maybe the scholars of communism are partly correct, and we're dealing with "liberalism" in a broad sense here.)  We are treated to a brief, slightly pretentious couple of paragraphs about What Great Truths This Movie Will Be About.  Count one against Mankiewizc.  The setting is an archway looking over the quad of some vaguely ivied academic institution. Word and music fade, and we find ourselves in one of the said institution's halls.  A pinched, irritable-looking woman is sitting outside a door waiting.  Hold up—

It's Margaret Hamilton!  Yes, that Margaret Hamilton, Miss Gulch, aka the Wicked Witch of the West.  (As a side note, in real life and prior to her movie career, Hamilton was, of all things, a school teacher; in fact, she taught kindergarten.  She is said also to have "loved and doted upon children all her life," and to have adored small animals.  I offer Margaret Hamilton as Exhibit A  in my You-Don't-Have-to-Be-It-to-Play-It Parade.)

Although Hamilton will appear only in this one opening scene, she effectively steals it from ... The man walking down the corridor, Hume Cronyn, or for the purposes of PWT, Dr. Elwell.  Dr. Elwell and Hamilton's character, Sarah Picket, exchange words.

Picket: They said for me to come right away.
Elwell: Who said?
Picket: The agency.
Elwell: The agency?  What agency?  [Light dawns.]  Oh, it's the detective agency, Sergeant Cooper ...  [Unlocks his office door, and speaks louder and more pleasantly.]  Yes! come in, come in.
Picket: If I come in, does the door get closed?
Elwell: Naturally ...
Picket: Then I don't come in.
Elwell: Why not?
Picket: You know why not; you're old enough.
Elwell [beginning to sound indignant again]: My dear Mrs. Picket—!
Picket: Miss Picket.  And don't butter me up.
Elwell: I have conducted my affairs behind closed doors for twenty years.
Picket: Not with me.
Elwell [sizing her determination up with a sigh]: You overestimate both of us.  Have it your way.

He enters, she follows, we snicker, and the door stays open—for now.  It seems that Elwell is collecting information on a colleague of his, a certain Dr. Noah Praetorius, whom Miss Picket once kept house for.  Elwell clearly suspects Praetorius of some kind of misconduct, and Sarah Picket is ready enough to oblige with spicy gossip concerning the man who "healed people."

Ooh, look!  Skull ...

But when Elwell brings up Praetorius' friend Shunderson ...  Sarah Picket gets up and closes the door.  Apparently she'd rather take a chance with Elwell than risk said Shunderson overhearing her.  My my ...

The next scene gives us Dr. Elwell's anatomy class.  Elwell is late, due to his conference with The Pickett; and Dr. Praetorius offers the waiting students an impromptu lecture on the importance of Humanity in Medicine.  In the course of making his points, Praetorius (partially) exposes the cadaver of the pretty young girl (partially, friends—that's what the Hayes Code was for!) who is about to be anatomized, causing one of the more sensitive female students to faint.  Praetorius dismisses the student with some advice and a piece of candy.  All the while, the large silent figure of Shunderson (Finlay Currie) is hovering by his elbow.

Oooooh, look!  Skeleton ...

Eventually Dr. Elwell shows up, apologizing for his lateness with the excuse of a "malignant tumor" that he wanted to see.  Praetorius is amused.  "Professor Elwell, you are the only person I know who can say 'malignant' like other people say 'bingo'."

We follow Praetorius and the still-silent Shunderson to Praetorius' private gynecology clinic.  Praetorius tells a by-the-book nurse to humor a patient who wants to take her gall bladder home with her; he comforts an old dying woman with a story of how he had a near-death experience as a child.  He clearly has the right touch with his patients.

Or ... does he?  Enter "Mrs. Higgins," the student who fainted in anatomy class.  She has come in for some tests, hoping to ascertain that her fainting spells are nothing serious.  Nothing serious at all! —Dr. Praetorius tells her, looking the test results over.  She's pregnant!

And wears fifties lipstick.  OK, OK, I'm done being irreverent ...

This is not what "Mrs. Higgins"—or rather, Deborah—wanted to hear.  Because she's not married.  And her soldier boyfriend has just been killed in Korea.  And anyway, she hadn't even known him that long, "not even long enough to be sure."  She is a bundle of anger and fear; and he, with all his attempts at soothing advice is, in her words, "a pompous know-it-all."  In the end he puts it to her bluntly.

Praetorius: Is it the baby you're afraid of?
Deborah: In a way ...
Praetorius: Don't you want it?
Deborah: Of course I do, but I can't have it; I just can't have it!

She is afraid to tell her father about her pregnancy.  Praetorius offers to break the news to her father for her, but she turns him down and walks out of the clinic.  Praetorius, preparing to leave the clinic himself for the evening, complains to the still-silent Shunderson.

Praetorius: Sometimes, Shunderson, it seems to me that half the women who come in here want babies they can't have, and the other half—
Nurse (picking up the topic since clearly, Shunderson never answers questions anyway!): She's old enough to know what she's doing, and to take what's coming to her.
Praetorius: I never want to hear you say anything as idiotic and heartless as that again! 
Nurse: But doctor, I—
Praetorius: For one thing you're a nurse.  For another you're a woman.  I'm ashamed of both of you!

Before the nurse can reply, there's a shot outside.  Yes, it's Deborah; and she's attempted suicide.

The wound isn't serious (remember? we're in a comedy, yes?), and so they wheel her into surgery and repair the damage.  After the nurse has left, Shunderson and Praetorius are left with the still-unconscious Deborah.  And ... mirabile dictu! ... Shunderson speaks.  "[S]he'll try it again.  She's still all alone.  And there's still nobody to help her."

Dark words ... but we're in a comedy, yes?  So the next scene gives us some comic relief.  Praetorius is apparently, among his other talents, an amateur conductor, and he is rehearsing a concert with the premeds, who obviously adore him.  Praetorius engages in a little repartee with one of his fellow professors, Professor Barker (the inimitable Walter Slezak), who is also playing in the orchestra.

Praetorius: ... and as for the gentleman on the third bull fiddle.  Professor Barker! is there any reason why you who live so intimately with millions of neutrons and know them all by name cannot maintain a simple beat on a bull fiddle?
Barker: Are you referring to me?
Praetorius: I did not mean to impugn your academic standing, of course ...
Barker: My dear Dr. Praetorius.  I would willingly entrust the life of my sister to your skill as a gynecologist, but I would not let you conduct my three-year-old nephew to the bathroom.

After the students have scattered, Professor Barker tries to warn Praetorius ("Noah") about Elwell.

Barker: I want you to know that I am your good and devoted friend.
Praetorius: I've known that for some time.  And I am yours.
Barker: Therefore I have the right to point out to you that there are occasions when you behave like a cephalic idiot!
Praetorius: Also granted.  Any particular occasion?
Barker: Out of a universe of time and space, only you could pick Rodney Elwell's anatomy class!

Barker is not concerned about Praetorius' mysterious past—that is, he doesn't care to know about it himself—but he is afraid that Elwell might be able to dig up something unpleasant on his friend—something that might lead to the University investigating Praetorius ...

Praetorius brushes off Barker's concerns, and goes to check up on Deborah.  And ... tells her that his clinic made a mistake.  He read her the wrong test results, the test results of another woman.  She's not really pregnant.  Which is a lie, and probably some kind of misconduct or malpractice as well, but solves the problem of preventing a second suicide attempt.  Temporarily, anyway.

Oddly enough, Deborah's not too much happier than she was before.  "I had to go and tell you all about myself, and about what I did, and now it turns out I didn't really have to!"  It seems that she is beginning to develop feelings for the noble Dr. Praetorius ... which under the circs. is "not surprising, really"!

Praetorius says goodnight to Deborah in a chivalrously staid fashion and goes off to have a bachelor dinner with Barker.  Barker wants to talk about Deborah, but Praetorius is reluctant to dwell on the topic.  Partway through their meal they receive a call from the clinic: Deborah has disappeared.

Barker [deadpan, holding his beer stein]: Who flew the coop?  The young lady we were discussing?
Praetorius: Yeah.
Barker [still deadpan, glancing at beer stein]: Why would she run away?
Praetorius [starting to pace]: I don't know.  But I've got to find her.
Barker [slightest chuckle]: I should think so!  It seems you've got some important information about her that she hasn't got.  [Drinks.  Praetorius glares at him.]

Alright, I'm done now.  You're about a third of the way through the movie.  Go watch it!  It's like ... a prolife movie before being prolife was an issue.  Refreshing.  And for those of you who are Chesterton fans, there's a scene towards the end that is so exquisitely reminiscent of the trial of Innocent Smith that ... well, OK.  The whole movie has something Chestertonian about it.  Just go watch the blame thing!

(That's the first clip from YouTube.  The rest is there; you can also find the movie on Amazon, Netflicks ... no excuses, mon freres!) 

1 comment: