Charly (1968)

This was not the film I’d been intending to review this weekend.

The film I’d meant to watch was, instead, quite a different one: a Viking/King Arthur historical, the Robert Wagner-Janet Leigh-Debra Paget starrer Prince Valiant (1954). Why, then, am I reviewing this film, which has nothing to do with Vikings or history? Simply because Prince Valiant turned out to be—as a blog reader had so succinctly described The Long Ships in a comment—a ghanta film. (ghanta, for those not familiar with this particular usage of the Hindi word, refers to something cheesy, inferior, and generally avoidable).

Besides the fact that it consisted of slightly pointless (not to mention extended) violence and some very predictable romance, Prince Valiant had Robert Wagner looking like a masculine Amelie, which really put me off. To recover, I decided to watch Charly instead.

Cliff Robertson in and as CharlyThe credits of Charly roll against the background of a children’s playground: amidst a bunch of children, small and not-so-small, a man (Cliff Robertson) also plays. He swings merrily—going higher than the children—and laughs joyfully as he goes down a slide and then races around to climb up the ladder and come down the slide again. As the camera comes closer, the carefree body language of this adult being a child translates to a child-like face too: the eponymous Charly Gordon, even though his body may be that of a grown man, has all the innocence of a child.

Charly at the playground
As we move into the opening scene, it begins to appear that Charly’s not just an adult who can shed his inhibitions to join the kids at the park. He’s also, to put it bluntly (and, as he’s described in the film itself), ‘retarded’. Back from the playground, Charly sits at a small blackboard in the very drab and neglected room he calls home, and scrawls his day’s schedule. Wensday. Wirk. Shcool.

...at home
Charly lives on his own. He is, though, obviously on good terms with his maternal but overbearing landlady, Mrs Apple (Ruth White), who lives one floor below him.

Charly's landlady, Mrs Apple
He also works—at a bakery, where he does menial jobs such as mopping the floor.

The men at the bakery, whom Charly fondly believes are his best buddies, take advantage of his simple-mindedness to have a laugh at his expense whenever they can. For example, they fill Charly’s pail with a yeast-laden dough and bung it into his locker—so that when, at the end of the day, Charly goes to his locker, yeasty dough is spilling out all over.

Charly, the butt of yet another prank...
The men laugh their guts out, and Charly, too innocent and too sweet to realise he’s been made the butt of a joke, joins in.

Charly's buddies at the bakery
He’s cheerful through it all, but now and then, it strikes home that his ‘friends’ are taking Charly for a ride. In a poignant scene, for example, Charly is standing in the middle of the night at a street corner, having been told by his buddies that that corner is where the first snowflake always falls when it snows in Boston. They’ve persuaded Charly—with no effort—to stand there, waiting for the snow, and as soon as it begins to snow, to phone them so that they can get to their respective homes before the snow hits the rest of Boston.

...and another
So Charly stands there, all alone on a dark street, waiting for the snow. When two cops go by in their car and ask what he’s doing, Charly tells them—and just about hears one of them mutter “Stupid,” before they’re gone. The slump in Charly’s shoulders as he moves away, and into the now-deserted playground, says it all. Charly knows he’s stupid (or dumb, or whatever people call him). He knows he can do nothing about it, and that he will have to grin and bear it. But it gets him down occasionally.

Only, he tries not to show it.

The effect on Charly, eventually
In the evenings, Charly goes to night school. The teacher, Alice Kinnian (Claire Bloom) is kind and sincerely supportive of Charly’s far-from-perfect attempts to learn.

Mrs Kinian teaches Charly at night school
Mrs Kinnian is also the one who helps in Charly’s regular sessions at a clinic where two researchers, Dr Anna Straus (Lilia Skala) and Dr Richard Nemur (Leon Janney) are conducting a series of studies on brain function. Charly is the subject of a study, and spends some time every week at the clinic, with Mrs Kinnian painstakingly asking him one question after another. Some are forthright tests of everyday intelligence: what is common between shoes and gloves? Others are tests of a more emotional nature: what does this illustration of various people depict?

... and assists Charly at the clinic
One day at the clinic, Charly is introduced to yet another experiment, and to another participant in the experiment: Algernon, a white mouse. The scientists instruct Charly on what he’s supposed to do. Algernon will be dropped into a small tabelop maze, and has to make his way to a little pot of food at the end of the maze. Simultaneously, a two-dimensional diagram of the maze, with Algernon’s start point and the food marked on it, will be given to Charly. Charly is supposed to start drawing a line from the start point to the food on his diagram, while Algernon scurries along in his maze. Who will get to the end faster?

A race against Algernon
Sadly, it’s Algernon who wins. Again and again. Dr Straus and Dr Nemur watch, along with Alice Kinnian, as Charly, despite trying very hard, cannot succeed in beating Algernon. Charly himself is distressed that he can’t even beat a dumb mouse.

Algernon wins against Charly
Until one evening, when Mrs Kinnian accompanies Charly home and quietly breaks the news to him: Algernon is so smart because he’s been through an operation. Drs Straus and Nemur’s research has led them to devise a surgical procedure through which they have been able to up the mouse’s intelligence to unimaginable levels.

Now the two scientists are looking for a human specimen who would be willing to undergo the operation. Would Charly want to do that?

Alice Kinian talks to Charly about the operation
Charly is willing. In fact, eager.

There is, however, a hitch. Straus and Nemur want Alice Kinnian to be part of the experiment. Charly, once he’s been through the operation, will require a lot of help from a teacher to hone his newly-acquired intelligence. Since he knows and trusts Mrs Kinnian, it is only logical that she should be the one to guide him.

Drs Straus and Nemur discuss Alice's role, post-operation
Mrs Kinnian initially refuses; she and her fiancé want to get married soon (she is a widow, we later learn) and she cannot devote so much time to the experiment. However [and for no reason that we are specifically told, though it’s possibly that simple humanity triumphs], she changes her mind. She tells Charly that he’s going to have the operation, and Charly is delirious with joy.

Chaly is operated upon
So the operation takes place, and Charly comes to—not feeling any smarter than he was before. When he’s recovered sufficiently, the experiment with Algernon is repeated. And the mouse wins, as before.

Charly is devastated. Ha she gone through all this only to have his hopes dashed? He tries hard—Alice Kinnian is there, beside him, egging him on, as are Dr Straus and Nemur—but it seems a hopeless task. Charly is no smarter, it seems, than he was earlier. The operation’s been a failure.

But it hasn’t. And slowly, gradually, things start falling into place. Beginning with one evening in his bare little room at home. Somebody (Alice Kinnian? We never know, but she seems the likeliest suspect) leaves Algernon, his cage, the maze, and the sheets of diagrams in Charly’s room.
Charly’s landlady unwittingly eggs him on to look after his ‘pet’, and Charly decides to first have a race with Algernon.

A win, finally
…and, to his own surprise, wins. He is so excited that he bursts out of his home and runs all the way to the clinic to tell Alice Kinnian, Dr Straus, and Dr Nemur. Charly isn’t as dumb as Algernon any more!

From there on, it’s progress all the way. Very swift progress, too. Within weeks, Charly has gone past the elementary school stage [all of this we learn about later, when Dr Nemur is recording his notes about the experiment]. We catch glimpses of Charly now and then, though: doing a video-based learning class (and excelling at it), beating Alice Kinnian at her own game of correctly punctuating a block of text…

Charly turns the tables on Alice Kinian
…and, as his intelligence burgeons, beginning to realise that Alice Kinnian is not just another human being, but a very attractive woman.

Charly discovers more about life and emotions
This is where the problem with Charly’s mind comes into play. Charly has suddenly changed from a mentally disabled man into a genius (yes, really; he is phenomenally intelligent), but his emotions, as Dr Straus despairingly tells Dr Nemur, “are still those of a child”. His paintings, for instance, she interprets as depicting his frustration, his inability to understand the world around him.

The trauma of growing intelligent
Charly, obviously, has a long way to go. In making sense of the world, in realising that just because he is attracted to Alice Kinnian, it does not follow that she should reciprocate. And in realising, too, that the world may have problems coming to terms with the fact that Charly Gordon is a ‘moron’ no longer.

What I liked about this film:

While Charly is a sci-fi film, I would like to begin this section by pointing out that this is primarily a film that touches on various aspects of life, especially social and emotional. [Not that I have anything against the more hard core sci-fi films about alien invasions, monsters, etc]. While the ‘scientific makeover’ experiment does require a stretch of one’s imagination, it’s actually just a catalyst for something beyond. Charly’s mind changes, bringing about with it other changes—from something as simple as which hand he uses to write with (he goes from being left-handed to right-handed), to his interactions with other people (in one touching scene, a stranger who is mentally disabled).

Cliff Robertson as Charly
This is what I really liked about Charly: the core story, of the change—psychological, emotional, mental—that a man undergoes. For Charly, the transition from a pre-operation, happy and (literally) blissfully unaware man, to a highly intelligent and increasingly aware individual, is traumatic. Exhilarating, sensual, but turbulent, too.

Cliff Robertson as Charly
Added to this is Cliff Robertson’s excellent performance as Charly Gordon: the role won him a well-deserved Oscar for Best Actor. The depth and breadth of the role—from the somewhat goofy but sweet man before the operation to the obviously intelligent, self-aware man later, and then further into the film (I won’t say what, since that would be a spoiler)—is impressive, and Robertson is mesmerising.

What I didn’t like:

The split screens. The director, Ralph Nelson, uses split screens every now and then (along with, later in the film, the jarring zooms and graphics that used to be so popular in the 60s). My main problem with the split screens was that I found them very distracting—I didn’t know where to focus, because there was invariably something equally interesting happening in both halves of the screen.

Split screens in Charly
Part of the second half of the film. Till Charly’s operation happens and he begins to slowly make progress, this was a sensitive, poignant and interesting film. Then, when he turns into a genius, it goes slightly off the rails: things move too quickly in comparison with the relatively leisurely pace of the first half, and there’s an inexplicable decision on the part of a certain character that I found hard to fathom.

But? Despite that, this is a wonderful film. Sweet, sad, moving. And with superb acting on Robertson’s part. Certainly worth a watch.

Some trivia:

Flowers for Algernon, a short story by Daniel Keyes, was the basis of a 1961 TV film called The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon, which starred Cliff Roberston in the lead role. When Keyes rewrote the story as a novel, Robertson—who had seen many of his top TV roles go on to be played by other actors on the big screen—bought the film rights to the novel, and eventually (along with Ralph Nelson), made it into Charly.

The music in the film is by Ravi Shankar.

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21 thoughts on “Charly (1968)

    • “Kind of a film, which makes one go, Awwwwwww!

      Yes, it sounds like that! Actually, I watched Charly (which is about an hour and 40 minutes long) in two sittings – the first hour one day, and the rest the next day. When I finished the first day’s viewing, my reaction was pretty much like yours: I thought this was a very lovely, sweet modern fairytale (very well described, Harvey!). But the next day, when I watched the rest, the story changes completely. It becomes really rather sad, so much so that while I loved Charly, I may not be able to watch it again for a long time – it left me too weepy. :-(

  1. Madhu, this certainly was an interesting last-minute change! And I certainly understand why you made the decision that you did!

    You know, I don’t think I ever saw this film (although maybe I saw a piece of it on TV – don’t quite remember), but I did read Flowers for Algernon a long time ago. You never see this sort of thing nowadays (I don’t think), but the short story and the novel on which this film was based were real classics in American science fiction literature.

    I liked the part of your review where you said, “While Charly is a sci-fi film, I would like to begin this section by pointing out that this is primarily a film that touches on various aspects of life, especially social and emotional. [Not that I have anything against the more hard core sci-fi films about alien invasions, monsters, etc].” Except… I think that a story like this is should be considered real science fiction way before most of the other stuff.

    Back in my youth, when I was interested in being a science fiction writer (which seems like an utterly bizarre idea to me now :) ), I used to be in serious science fiction writing circles where we would talk about real science fiction or speculative fiction and something like this certainly would qualify, while most of the nonsense in the movies was just sci fi. Maybe that was a little snobbish? But sometimes I miss hearing that point of view.

    • “the short story and the novel on which this film was based were real classics in American science fiction literature.

      I believe so. While glancing through the message boards of the IMDB page for Charly, I kept coming across people who mentioned they’d studied the book in school. I’ve never read it, but the majority of people who had both read the book and seen the film seemed to think the book was far better than the film.

      “Except… I think that a story like this is should be considered real science fiction way before most of the other stuff.

      I’ll have to admit that the reason I put that particular bit in was to counteract people who think Jurassic Park and Alien are all that sci-fi is all about (and I know a lot of people who’d skip even reading about Charly, dismissing it as “just science fiction”, under the impression that sci-i has to be only about something totally grotesque and inconceivable). Personally, while I have enjoyed a lot of films that fall into that bracket, I do like the more speculative sci-fi a lot. Charly, of course. And Metropolis. And plenty more. 1984 too.

      Not snobbish at all. Just less pedestrian sci-fi? ;-)

  2. I have never even heard of this film, Madhu! From your review, it sounds very, very interesting. (I had read Flowers for Algernon a long, long time ago, but it took your review to remind me of that. I am growing old!) I see that it is available on YouTube, should get around to watching it sometime.

    ps: WordPress is making it very difficult for me to comment on your site. :( This is the third time I’m trying to do so, and it keeps sending me off into the Valhalla of lost comments.

    • I’m sorry about WordPress playing up, Anu. I’ve no idea why that could be happening! Unless other people are simply not commenting (or giving up in a huff after trying a few times!), this seems to be only targeting you. :-(

      You must watch Charly. Since you’ve read the book, you probably remember what happens, so that’s good, I guess… in a way, since you won’t get any surprises. Cliff Robertson’s acting was Oscar-worthy, in my opinion, and I still haven’t gotten over the film.

      • Madhu, I am not a great fan of sci-fi, and it was only the fact that you mentioned this film was based on Flowers of Algernon that made me remember the book. So, no, I don’t remember any of the story. :) But yes, your review made me want to see it, and since you recommend it so highly, I have bookmarked the link to watch.

        Down with a fever at the moment, so, somewhere in the futre when I get time, I guess. :(

        By the way, I think this comment will go into moderation because I’m using a completely new email id – I’m tired of WordPress making me jump through hoops before I can comment. :( :(

        • Oh, poor you, Anu! Get well soon.

          And yes, WordPress did send this to me for moderation, but at least it didn’t disappear into cyberspace. Hopefully you won’t have any more problems now that you’re using a completely different mail address.

          Take care.

  3. Madhuji, I had enjoyed this highly awarded story several decades ago, several times and in several forms (short, long, and then the movie, although I have not seen the play based on it). The short story, Flowers for Algernon, stands tall among science fiction classics and so does Daniel Kaye, although his other works were not as successful. And it is far superior to both the long (novella) form of the story and the movie. The (short) story comprises a series of letters (and nothing more). Gurney’s Love letters too relies solely on letters. But the reading of the text by the characters on stage fully conveys the content: the plot, the characters, the emotions. I cannot imagine that happening in the case of Flowers for Algernon. Using the device of written letters turns out to be extremely effective in capturing the dynamics of IQ growth and decline as you see the gradual changes in spelling and punctuation (which cannot be conveyed by actors reading the text), choice of words, the structure of sentences and the organization of thought in paragraphs. The novel and the film depart from the shorter form’s exclusive reliance on letters, and lose the tightly woven magic of a minimalistic, parsimonious, tellingly effective story.

    Apart from Gurney’s, letters seem to play important role in movies such as Roxanne, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Il Postino. Indian writers and filmmakers would appear to have underutilized the potential of letters as story telling devices. Although a letter plays a key role in the climax of movies such as Andaz, Sangam, and Tumhara Kallu, I consider them cases of missed opportunities. I believe the Tamil movie Duet was based on Gurney’s play. And I had seen a play about Amrita Pritam and Sahir Ludhianavi that featured a number of their letters.

    By the way, Daniel Kaye used to teach a class of “slow learners” and is believed to have been inspired by one of the students telling him he wanted to become “smart”.

    • Canasya, thank you so very much for that detailed, very interesting, and informative comment. Now I’m very keen to get hold of Flowers for Algernon as well as Gurney’s Love Letters – the latter too sounds wonderful.

      Incidentally, it’s ironic that your comment regarding Hindi cinema (or even Indian cinema as such) not using letters to play an important part comes now – because the latest Hindi movie I’ve seen actually uses letters as the means of communication between its two main characters. In The Lunchbox, Irrfan Khan’s and Nimrat Kaur’s characters never meet (or at least, she doesn’t see him); their entire relationship is built up around the letters they exchange. Lovely film, and I thought the concept of the letters was woven very well into the story.

  4. Flowers from Algernon is a pretty good novel. As you mentioned, the divide between Charly’s intellectual and emotional quotient/growth is a major theme of the novel alongwith how others see him pre- and post-op.

    The arrogance of scientific community is another important theme. In the novel, the doctors who operated upon Charly make it clear that they think they have done an enormous favour to him by turning him into a productive member of society, thereby implying that he almost did not exist prior to the operation. Alice Kinnian and Charly himself are understandably outraged at this assumption. In fact Kinnian goes a step further and points out (to Charly) that while the previous Charly was intelligent and gullible, he was also a far more caring and fun person to be around than the current self-centred Charly.

    The film is fine but too fixated on Charly’s and Alice’s romance. That is never a major theme in the novel since the focus is only on Charly. By making it a romance the film is robbed of the other more important considerations that the novel propounded. The 60s effect is also jarring, particularly the pointless counterculture montage after Charly’s rejection by Alice. I was thinking that it was purely symbolic, representing Charly’s emotional upheavals and mental turmoil and nothing more. Later on when Charly mentions that his bike is on sale, it struck me that Charly is supposed to have gone through that biking, drugging and nightclubbing phase in reality. That was just an utterly unwise move on the part of the makers. How could Charly have done that? He had only opened his eyes to the world around him a few weeks ago. Even if he wanted to do all those activities, he would not have known where to start. Also, his high intellect would have looked down upon such a wandering, unproductive life.

    Although to be fair, the novel is not free of the 60s either. In one of his psychiatric sessions, Charly goes in a trance which not unlike the effects after ingesting a hallucinogenic drug such as LSD or psilocybin mushrooms. It is very much in line with the “consciousness expansion” and “Turn on, tune in, drop out” philosophy of Timothy Leary.

    There is another adaptation of the novel, a TV movie this time, made in 2000 with Matthew Modine in the lead role. This one retains the title of the novel. That brings me to another quibble – why change the title? “Charly” sounds too vague. It could mean anything, even nothing. The novel was a bestseller with a baffling (to those who had not read it) but intriguing title. Surely that title would have made the film more noticeable to the general population? I guess maybe they changed the title because the line about putting some flowers on Algernon’s grave does not exist anymore in the finished film… but it still was a wrong change.

    OK, moving on… Flowers from Algernon (2000) is a much closer adaptation of the novel and a better film than Charly. In fact, it is ideal viewing as a companion piece to the earlier film because both films depict separate facets of Charly Gordon’s life. The TV movie is focused on Charly Gordon’s adjustment more and the romance only comes into play towards the end of the film. It also features some other events from the novel that were left out of the 1968 film, such as Charly re-connecting with his long-estranged mother (a fantastic cameo by Bonnie Bedelia) and the scene featuring the line that gives the novel its title. Matthew Modine’s performance is outstanding too and made me see him in a much more favourable light than how I saw him back in the 80s when he was a regular leading man in feature films. The film is not without its flaws. It is unabashedly emotionally manipulative in a way made-for-TV movies generally are and its score is dreadfully banal. In fact had a music composer not been credited, I would have guessed that it was entirely composed of separate musical pieces available in public domain. But in spite of these drawbacks, I recommend it highly to the fans of the novel. It is available on youtube but I suggest a proper DVD since Youtube quality is often mangled, which might put potential viewers off and keep them from appreciating the film’s merits.

    P.S.: Ravi Shankar’s score for the original is quite unique, isn’t it? It doesn’t always work but it certainly stands out among other typical film scores of the 60s.

    P.P.S.: The director Ralph Nelson also directed another actor to a Best Actor Oscar in the 60s: Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field.

    • Thank you for that very insightful and interesting (not to mention informative) comment. I remember thinking, when I first published this post and others commented on it, that I should try and get hold of the novel. That slipped my mind somewhere along the way, but this time I’m making a note of it so that (hopefully) I read it sooner rather than later.

      It’s sad that Hollywood tends to reduce so much science fiction to ‘commercial’ scifi – as it did to The Day of the Triffids. If I’d only watched the film and not read the novel, I’d have thought it was only a story about monster plants. All the deeper stuff, the politics that result from the apocalypse – all gone. Instead, a romance shoved in. Geez.

      By the way. I have watched (and reviewed) Lilies of the Field. Lovely little movie.

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