Thursday, February 27, 2014

Don't call me Chucky

Cliff Robertson and a rat in Charly

Among the more recent Best Actor Oscar winners showing up on TCM during the day on Friday is Cliff Robertson's award-winning role in the 1968 movie Charly, at 3:45 PM.

Robertson stars as Charly Gordon, a mentally retarded man who lives in a one-room apartment in Boston and supports himself by doing menial janitorial work at a bakery, where his coworkers consistently make fun of him for being mentally slow. Charly has been trying to improve himself through education, not realizing that some people are only born with a limited mental capacity and will never be able to advance beyond it. His tutor Alice (Claire Bloom) has been doing the best she can to help, but has of course been unsuccessful to this point. However, she's heard of two doctors, Strauss (Lila Skala) and Nemur (Leon Janney), who have been doing experimental research on rats and who believe they've been able to find a way to increase the mental capacity of laboratory rats. They're finally ready to begin experimenting on humans, which probably ought to raise a whole host of ethical questions in the real world, but thankfully doesn't here or else we probably wouldn't have a movie.

Alice brings Charly to see Strauss and Nemur, who run a battery of experiments tsting Charly against the lab rats, which frustrates Charly to no end because the lab rats do better than he does, especially the rat Algernon, to which he becomes attached. Eventually he undergoes the brain surgery that is part of the experimental treatment. That surgery seems like a success! At least, it seems to be succesful medically. Charly has an increased capacity for knowledge, and begins to study all sorts of things from the sciences to American history and government. Unfortunately, although his intellect is greatly increased, Charly still has a lot of learning to do emotionally. He fits in just as badly at the bakery as he did before, although in a different way. Worse, he's fallen in love with Alice, who isn't so certain whether she loves him, or whether it would even be right to try to pursue a romantic relationship. Charly, never having had to worry about such things, obviously has nothing more than a child's understanding.

Evetnually, Alice has a reconciliation with Charly, and all seems to be going well. That is, until Charly is asked to speak at a conference of distinguished neuroscientists, where Charly is intended to be the main exhibit, so to speak. On the eve of the conference, Charly finds Algernon dead, and discovers that while the treatment clearly increased the lab rats' brain capacity, that effect was only temporary. The implication of course is that the same effect is only going to be temporary on Charly too, something which he resents and wants to fight against for as long as he's able to.

Cliff Robertson has to play pretty much a dual role in Charly, and I think he pulls it off effectively. He's both sympathetic enough in his retarded state to be sympathetic, but also pathetic enough that the possibility of him reverting back to this state is tragic for the viewer. (The question of whether Charly is still going to be able to understand what happened to him if he does end up retarded again is left unanswered.) He also does well as the emotionally stunted genius, and is also quite good when faced with the dilemma of losing his genius, and doing everything he can to help the research along. For me, the movie had a bit of a weak spot when it came to the scenes involving a possible romance between Charlie and Alice, but they don't slow the movie down fatally. Everybody else is, I think, good enough but not memorable enough to stand out; again, that's not a bad thing since the story really should be focusing on Charly and not so much on the people around him.

Charly did get a DVD release years ago, but seems to have fallen out of print as there are only a few pricey copies available at Amazon. It really deserves another release.

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