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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
…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…
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.