This wasn’t the film I’d been meaning to watch last weekend. That was the Humphrey Bogart-starrer, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. But ten minutes into that, and I realized my mind was wandering. It’s probably a good film (it won several Oscars), but right then, I wasn’t in the mood to watch it. So I scrolled through my list of bookmarked videos, and came across a Cary Grant film, People Will Talk.
Cary Grant, I will have you know, is one of those rare actors for whom I will watch any film (and I have watched some less-than-enjoyable ones, simply because he happened to star in them). Mostly, though, his films range from good to excellent, so I decided I’d watch this one, dedicated to “… one who has inspired man’s unending battle against Death, and without whom that battle is never won… the patient.”
The story begins with a surreptitious meeting at the office of Prof Rodney Elwell (Hume Cronyn), at a medical college. Sarah Pickett (Margaret Hamilton) has come to meet Elwell, sent by a detective agency. Elwell wants to know about a former employer of Sarah’s, a Dr Noah Praetorius. Yes, Sarah says: she was housekeeper to him, 15 years ago in Goose Creek.
Elwell digs deeper, asking what methods Praetorius used to use to cure his patients. Powders, tonics, pills, says Sarah, then goes on to add that some people he could get well simply by talking to them. Her own grandmother is a case in point: now 108 years old (or 103, depending upon whether you take Grandma’s claim into account, or Sarah’s assessment) had pretty much given up on life, but Praetorius got her going. A miracle worker, that’s what he was.
Elwell is greedily writing all of this down. Doctor, healer, miracle worker. The famous Dr Praetorius? Sarah says he was certainly famous back in Goose Creek, 15 years ago. And is this the man? He shows Sarah a photo of Noah Praetorius (with a name like that, how likely was it that there’d be two of them?), and she agrees that yes, that’s him. And, asks Elwell, what does she know about Shunderson? At which Sarah suddenly seems to go all still and narrow-eyed.
We don’t, however, get to hear what Sarah tells Elwell about Shunderson.
Elwell’s meeting with Sarah comes to an end, and she reminds him that he’d promised the detective agency a job for her. He says that yes, she can come in to clean the dissection room.
The scene now shifts to the Anatomy Lecture Hall, where rows of students sit waiting for Prof Elwell to come for the lecture. There’s also faculty waiting: none other than Praetorius (Cary Grant) himself, along with Shunderson (Finlay Currie). A junior staff member, having phoned Elwell to find out if he’ll be coming, comes back to report that Elwell is running late (Elwell, naturally, being busy digging up Praetorius’s past).
Praetorius decides to give the students at least a brief introduction. He partially uncovers the cadaver—that of a young and pretty woman—and goes on to give the shocked-looking students a lecture on the importance of disassociating the cadaver from the person he or she had been: of thinking of it not as a human being, with dreams and desires and love and hate…
In the midst of all of this, one of the students, Debra Higgins (Jeanne Crain), who’s been looking increasingly queasy, suddenly passes out. Praetorius is among the first to reach her; she recovers quickly and Praetorius, chatting easily with her (and giving her a candy—he keeps passing candy out to just about everybody) tells her she’d better see a doctor.
And the doctor Debra goes to see is (intentionally, on her part) Praetorius himself. We get to see them again when she returns to his private clinic later in the evening, to follow up about her test report. It’s good, Dr Praetorius tells Debra, or Mrs Higgins, as she’s introduced herself. All’s well. But yes, he advises her as she’s about to leave: come back in a month’s time for another checkup. Or he can recommend a good obstetrician.
This simple bit of advice spirals off into a dramatic sequence of events. Debra realizes she’s pregnant. Dr Praetorius soon finds out that she’s not Mrs Higgins, but Miss Higgins. That she isn’t married, that the man who got her pregnant was in the Reserves and has gone back and that she didn’t even know him all that well…
… and, that she’s in the depths of despair. Praetorius wonders why: is it because she’s scared of what people will say? No, says Debra, now almost in tears. No, it’s her father. No, not because he’ll shoot her or something, but because he’s such a sweet man, such a good man. When he finds out what his daughter’s done, he will be devastated. It will kill him.
Praetorius wonders aloud why Debra came to see him, of all people: she could have gone to another doctor, after all. And he still looks sceptical when she says that he seemed kind, humane, during that brief lecture and even when he attended to her after she fainted.
Debra realizes that Dr Praetorius suspects her of some form of duplicity—perhaps he thinks she’s been hoping he’ll agree to marry her? Perhaps he’s right?—and, annoyed (she calls him a “pompous know-it-all”), she leaves.
Moments later, there’s a pistol shot outside. Debra has tried to commit suicide by shooting at her heart—though, as Dr Praetorius drily remarks, the problem with people who have little knowledge of anatomy is that they don’t know where their hearts are. She’s taken into surgery, Praetorius operates on her, and all is well. She’s admitted into the ward at the clinic, and Praetorius goes off to an evening’s entertainment…
…conducting the student orchestra of the medical college in one of their rehearsals.
After the rehearsal’s over, Praetorius’s good friend, Prof Barker (Walter Slezak), sits down for a tête-à-tête with Praetorius. He tells Praetorius to be on his guard; something’s in the air, something nasty. Elwell is trying to dig up Praetorius’s past.
Barker has known Praetorius well these past ten years, but he knows nothing of Praetorius’s life before that. Is there something there that Praetorius needs to hide? And who is Shunderson? Shunderson, who is always beside Praetorius, always a shadow, always serving him—who is he, why is he there?
Praetorius reassures Barker, there is nothing to worry about. Barker’s fears are not stilled, because he knows that this witch hunt Elwell has embarked upon is not something the snooping and malicious professor is going to give up readily.
Later that night, Praetorius stops by at his clinic to look up on Debra. She is still awake, and he tells her that he’s discovered there was a mix-up at the lab. Two tests were conducted for pregnancies. The result of one was negative, of the other positive. And in the handing over of those results there was a blunder: the results were accidentally switched. Which, basically, means that Debra is not pregnant after all.
Praetorius expects relief, but Debra is mortified. Because she has gone and told him things she need never have told anyone. Praetorius tries to pacify her—he is a physician, and patient confidentiality is a given—but she is still horrified at what she’s done.
Praetorius leaves his clinic. Barker, who’s given Praetorius a lift there, is waiting, and they go to Praetorius’s home for a slap-up dinner. Barker already knows about the ‘girl who tried to kill herself at the clinic’, and when Praetorius—without naming any names—tells him the latest (including something that’s news to us, too: that Debra really is pregnant), Barker is surprised. Why?
To let her get a good night’s sleep, Praetorius says.
But not so, because later that night, Praetorius receives a frantic phone call from the clinic. Debra Higgins has gone missing. They’ve looked all across the grounds for her, but she’s nowhere to be found.
So, guessing where she might have gone—to that father to whom she’s so devoted—Praetorius, with the faithful and taciturn Shunderson in tow, goes off in search of Debra. They end up at a farmhouse, where Praetorius meets Debra’s father, Arthur (Sidney Blackmer). And, talking to Arthur, Praetorius realizes why Debra couldn’t have brought herself to tell her father that she was going to be an unwed mother: Arthur is sweet and kind, and more importantly, he is painfully aware of his own circumstances. A man who has ventured into many occupations, but has never made anything of himself, and is now reduced to being completely dependent upon the pompous, self-absorbed and frighteningly insular brother who owns this farm.
What now? Because even if Debra believes for now that she isn’t pregnant, she will know the truth sooner or later. And there’s also Elwell’s interfering that Barker has warned Praetorius about…
What I liked about this film:
The film as a whole. I went into this film with very little idea—beyond the one-sentence synopsis on IMDB—of what it would be like. And no, People Will Talk is much, much beyond a film about a successful doctor who falls in love with a woman who’s pregnant. In fact, that is only one of the aspects of Praetorius’s character, a man who is defined by far more than the romantic angle of his life. Praetorius’s character is the thing that I loved most about this film.
This is not merely a do-good doctor or a romantic lover; this is a much more complex man, with flaws and virtues. True, he’s an excellent doctor—and, with that even rarer of qualities in the medical profession, a doctor with a great bedside manner—but he also has no qualms about admitting that he got rich on his practice at Goose Creek (a practice which does sound a little unorthodox, even if it wasn’t illegal). He is empathetic and humane (and has a fine sense of humour), but he can also be bitingly sarcastic when it comes to people like Elwell.
And Cary Grant shines as Praetorius. If all you associate Grant with are either the many films he did for Hitchcock, or his screwball comedies, try this one—it is a far better showcase of his acting ability.
The dialogue is good (there are some deliciously sarcastic lines here and there, especially in the first scene and the climactic one). The acting is excellent, and the story (originally a play by Curt Goetze, adapted for film by the director, Joseph L Mankiewicz) is a touching, inspiring one.
Did I not like anything about this film? No.