The Caretakers, 1963. 8/10

Medical drama starring Robert Stack, Polly Bergen, Diane McBain, and Joan Crawford. Bergen, as Lorna, is Dr. McLeod’s (Stack’s) psychiatric patient. Also with Herbert Marshall, administrator Dr. Harrington and Van Williams as colleague Dr. Denning.

Not surprisingly, Crawford plays hard-nosed traditionalist Dr. Lucretia Terry, in conflict with McLeod, who has a more progressive approach. Terry has a loyal underlying, Alison Horne (Diane McBain). A mental institution is nothing without its assorted ‘clients’–so we have ringleader Marion (Janis Paige), Ruth (Virginia Munshin), Connie (Sharon Hugueny), Edna (Barbara Barrie), and Irene (Ellen Corby)–all disarming, in their idiosyncratic ways.

First things first, as we must be shown how Lorna gets committed. In what would today pass for post-traumatic stress, Lorna blames herself for her child’s death, igniting her public breakdown. [Verycool ab-ex background, along with a jazzy score as the credits roll]. Appearing disoriented on the street, Lorna ducks into a theatre.

Noises bug her, and then the silence seems overwhelming. A violent newsreel doesn’t help her equanimity. Screaming in anguish, she rushes down to the very front row, silhouetted against the screen. The ushers quickly intervene. Whisked away in an ambulance–must’ve been a heck of a long newsreel, as it’s suddenly nightime–she’s still screaming. We see an admittance tag “Order Of Commitment, Insane.” Quick diagnosis in those days. She’s been hallucinating for some time now.

She reads “please God help me” on the hospital wall. Anyway, McLeod comes to see her; thrashing around, she eventually calms down. The doc has all the bedside manner of a dustbunny. No, dustbunnies are more articulate–the mumbling is deafening. Dr. Denning and nurse Cathy (Susan Oliver) accompany McLeod on his rounds. “There are some that don’t agree with your methods” Alison reminds McLeod.

Lorna has a nice teddie bear. But a not so good nightmare. She realizes that she doesn’t know where she is: prison? No, MacLeod says, a hospital. Lorna’s husband, Jim (Robert Vaughn), comes to see what’s going on. “What’s happened to her, doctor?” But MacLeod answers by asking how Jim wants his coffee.

Apparently, the breakdown was exacerbated by Lorna’s discovery that, after losing her child, she wouldn’t be able to have any more. We get some more background: it was Jim who had her committed.”Will she be… alright?” is, naturally, what’s on his mind. Meanwhile, she continues to suffer, writhing around. Does she know who she is? Where she is? “Hell,” yeah, that’s what I thought too.

Group therapy time: with a sort of cliquish bunch. Marion is pretty upfront with the doc “when did you discover sex?” Irene makes sense “no one’s crazy here, we’re all alone, that’s all.” Lorna seems to be OCD. Connie, meanwhile, like a proto-hippie, just “feels like a daisy!” Then she gets health conscious as well: “they’re poisoning our food.” On a remote TV monitor, the nurses watch the patients. One nurse says, “some of them seem normal, some seem insane” MacLeod gives a cryptic, enigmatic answer “these are normal people that are sick.”

He shows them a view of the “regressive ward.” That is, a Bedlam-like room of zombies. A bit later, Lucretia asks Marion, “was group session really that bad?” They more or less plot against MacLeod. There “must be a misunderstanding” she says to MacLeod and Harrington. Lucretia seems to be more concerned with the nurse’s “safety” rather than the patients, as though the patients the enemy. Specifically, Lucretia wants to put Lorna in seclusion.

Even worse, they try electroshock therapy on her. Marion, obviously acting under Terry’s orders, taunts Lorna by telling her that she “better get used to” shock treatment. Cathy, The more sensitive nurse, seems to have taken a shine to both doctors. Anyway, Irene comforts Lorna as she creeps back to the ward.

Somewhat recovered, she looks at the pet bird and muses “I will never see him [her child] again.” Connie reads a letter from home, which is an authentic tear-jerker. Needless to say, the effect on Lorna is bummed out all the more. What’s really odd is that Connie might’ve been ‘reading’ from a blank page.

Then there’s judo lessons from Terry–you know those dangerous patients–can’t be too careful. In a subsequent conversation with MacLeod over Lorna’s status, Terry complains, ironically, that he has no regard “for personal feelings.” His retort is that she “out to start treating them [the patients] like human beings.” Meanwhile, Cathy, looking ever so much like Kim Novak, tries a nice goody-two-shoes act.

Well, it’s not really an act, she’s the only staff member who’s demonstrated a caring attitude. Back in group therapy, Marion carries on about evil men, zeroing in on MacLeod, whom she derisively calls “Buddha.” Anyway, Lorna starts talking about how she killed her child; she was driving the car in the accident that resulted in his death.

Jim comes back. She’s bitterly resentful that he committed her. When he pleads that he misses her, she has a perfect response: “How? How do you miss me?” He dithers, “You’re much better…” She: better than what!?” Then she really goes off on him, sounding like Marion “You never loved me!”

Next thing, an impromptu party in the ward. But Connie starts to freak out..When Alison intervenes, Marion calls her an “animal trainer”–accentuating the point by setting the caged birds free. This is a fascinating scene, as the patients’ reactions are vastly divergent. The culmination is that Lorna, defending Edna, comes after Alison with a knife.

Harrington, at a frantic meeting, of course can’t decide what’s what. Cathy gets trashed by Terry; Cathy insists, however, that she could’ve defused the situation non-violently. After all, Edna’s huge transgression was simply grabbing the runaway bird.

For once, we’re outdoors at a sort of cook-out. Food, music, dancing. Irene’s busy playing matchmaker for Connie. Looking on from the inside, Terry can’t resist a jab: “this isn’t a hospital any more, it’s MacLeod’s private country club.” It might be, but it looks like Terry hasn’t paid her dues.

She and Harrington continue to discuss MacLeod, and the future of the hospital. Taking a break, Lorna attracts a young boy’s attention, but his dad warns him to keep his distance from “them.” Crestfallen, she starts fleeing. Fortunately, MacLeod follows. Back into the hospital building, she tries to shake off the staff; how she’s able to hide out in an alcove and then walk around undetected is a mystery–isn’t a runaway patient some sort of emergency?

She gets back into the ward–but, what’s this?– she must’ve got the wrong floor, because, just like that, a throng of male patients emerge out of the darkness, and close in on her. They attack. Well, she’s rescued, as the next thing we see is MacLeod and Cathy hovering over her with concern.

Back in group therapy, with Ana–apparently a concentration camp victim/survivor. Awfully, Lorna calls them all a “dirty bunch of women.” Another confession is coming from Lorna…Her family had split up when her father ran off with another woman. Now, it’s MacLeod’s turn to throw all this back at Jim. With an apt analogy, the doc mentions that alcoholism is no longer jeered at, so neither should mental illness. He tells Jim that Lorna doesn’t hate him, but, instead she needs love, acceptance.

Cleverly, as MacLeod tries to sweet-talk his nemesis, Terry intuits that he’s up to something. That is, to set the table, so to speak, for the board meeting that will decide which way the hospital is headed. He tells Cathy all about his experience with the old, inhumane type of treatment. This stuff fits, but is drool-inducing, coming from the petrified wooden speaker our guy Basehart.

Edna, meanwhile, ruminates over her rosary; all the patients are edgy, as they look forward to stepping into an unfettered day-hospital, or straight down to more “hell.” Cathy wants to somehow give Edna a lift; Marion is too busy playing solitaire to care about one of those…what d’ya call ’em? Patients, right.

Maybe a eureka moment, or a red flag, as, listening to Marion carrying on, Lorna figures that Marion’s just the sort of woman that took her father away. “Do you think it’s a gravy train, coming into this world a bastard!” At least Marion shares for once. But Edna steals the show by lighting a torch she’s lashed together. MacLeod can prove his nice touch now, in front of Alison and the patients.

Lorna is the one to chill her out, “we want you Edna, we love you Edna” Well, that approach works. A breakthrough, as Edna talks (she’s been mute). Even Marion is impressed. That’s it, except, duly noted, the board seems to have swung in a progressive direction–the next and last thing we see is the new-fangled day hospital.

This is not a well-loved movie–just a 5.5 rating on IMDb–so I was curious about what to expect. One line of criticism is that The Caretakers wants it both ways: to promote progressive treatment of the mentally ill, and, at the same time, to sensationalize mental illness with lurid stereotyping.

I would say that it would be nearly impossible to realistically depict the mentally ill without showing some bizarre behavior. It’s also clearly shown here that the institutional environment breeds just the sort of ‘illness’ that it’s supposed to treat.

If anything threatens to send The Caretakers to the bottom of the sea, it’s Basehart’s performance. He’s good in his military commander roles, but that sort of character is as opposite as possible from what’s expected from a doctor. Especially a progressive, patient-oriented one.

With that admittedly large issue aside, there’s a lot to like here. Most of the other performances are quite good, from Bergen and the other patients, to Crawford and McBain. The patients are all interesting, maybe a bit stereotypical, but carefully nuanced nonetheless. Another gripe is that Crawford’s role is too small; but since Alison, her henchmen, has plenty of scenes, the attitude exuded by Crawford’s character is everpresent.

Vaughn’s role is worth looking at; he wants what’s best for his wife, but obviously doesn’t know what that entails. It’s easy to pick apart his motivation, but he’s frustrated, and worn down by dealing with Lorna on a day-to-day basis. He represents the sympathetic, but apprehensive view of mental illness typical for the era.

Crucially, we see that Lorna improves steadily, until, by the end, she could stand in for one of the nurses. The fact that no one seems to notice this very much is nonetheless an implicit endorsement of progressive treatment, and not a plot ommission. Her condition shows, with a great deal of struggle, what the theme promises.

There wasn’t much fun stuff for Farmermouse to latch on to here, so he’ll give the Caretakers eight little pet birdies. 8/10

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