I went into the new Warner Archive Blu-ray release of The Carey Treatment (1972) knowing nothing about the film except that it starred James Coburn, one of my favorite actors. The Blake Edwards-directed production, based on an early novel by Michael Crichton has much to offer, though it left me with mixed emotions. So much of it feels like unfulfilled potential.
It was bracing to learn that an illegal abortion played a key role in this mystery drama just days after hearing of the leaked plans by the US Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs. Wade. The film isn’t about that, but rather how justice suffers in the corruption of systems. Still, it was a chilling reminder of how long this issue and the discord around it have been a part of our society.
The abortion in question leads to the death of the daughter (played by daughter of Mel Tormé, Melissa Tormé-March) of a Boston hospital director Dr. J.D. Randall (Dan O’Herlihy). Blame quickly falls to Dr. David Tao (James Hong), a physician at the hospital who is known for performing the procedure at cost for women of limited means.
There is no solid evidence that Tao is guilty though, a fact that is clear to his friend and a pathologist Dr. Peter Carey (James Coburn) who has recently arrived in town to take a cushy job at the hospital. While Tao sits in jail, Carey defies all orders to mind his business so that he may free his colleague.
Hong is a clear-eyed, refreshing presence in the macho world of seventies cinema, it was a disappointment to realize he would only book-end the main action of the film. Still, it was nice to see the prolific actor in an early role. He’s a lightly cynical counterpoint to the determined Dr. Carey.
In the titular role, James Coburn unleashes his reliable, easy charm, taking on a character who seems like a scoundrel on the surface, but who has empathy and sensitivity in opposition to many of the male roles of the era. He has the same morality as a superhero, but none of the corny, upstanding aura that comes with that.
The often underused Jennifer O’Neill is Carey’s love interest. She’s a dietician with a deadbeat husband on an extended ski vacation and a young son to support. While she is only there to allow Carey’s inner monologue to translate into dialogue and exposition, it’s interesting the way the relationship unfolds. Instead of the familiar game of pressure and subtle aggression, Carey gently communicates his attraction. His simple, unsleazy flirtation is welcome and indicates his confidence in himself and the challenges he faces.
There are a few stand-outs in the intriguing supporting cast. Elizabeth Allen is smoothly entitled as the wife of Dr. Randall and stepmother of his deceased daughter. Skye Aubrey also stands out as a troubled nurse who loses control of her life. The always reliably skeezy Michael Blodgett brings his low-lidded corruption to the role of a masseuse who looks like trouble, but somehow still gets away with way too much.
While the story and cast are solid and this was a generally entertaining film, it felt a bit sloppy and ill-formed. In reading about the production, I learned that due to studio interference, Edwards was not able to make the film as he desired. He would later take out his frustrations by alluding to the incident in S.O.B. (1981). It’s a shame, because all the talents involved were capable of much more, but Coburn’s charisma makes up for a lot and is reason enough to make the film a must-see for fans of the actor.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.
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