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A laid back West Coast physician who believes in a real "hands on" approach is the focus of The Carey Treatment (1972) - a title that refers to the special handling of a murder case by pathologist Dr. Peter Carey (James Coburn). A newcomer at a Boston hospital, Carey becomes obsessed with investigating the death of a 15-year old caused by complications from a botched abortion. The victim is the daughter of the hospital chief of staff, and the accused is a brilliant surgeon and friend of Dr. Carey's. The good doc unravels the mystery with myopic determination and questionable interrogation methods like driving recklessly to frighten a teenage witness. But once the big screen mystery is solved, there's plenty of ambiguity left surrounding the movie - off screen. For instance, the film was based on a novel written under a pseudonym and the script was penned by three writers who received screen credit under a single, fictitious name. Even the director Blake Edwards disowned the movie once he saw the final cut.
The first piece in the film's puzzle is author Michael Crichton. The best selling writer, who began publishing fiction to put himself through Harvard Medical School, turned out the novel A Case of Need, from which The Carey Treatment is adapted, under the pseudonym Jeffery Hudson. The story allegedly contained references to actual people at Harvard thus necessitating the need for a penname. But Crichton wouldn't be able to keep his secret for long. A Case of Need won the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award in 1968, prompting Crichton to step forward and claim the prize and authorship. In the meantime, another Crichton work beat A Case of Need to the screen. The Andromeda Strain was released a year before The Carey Treatment in 1971. And in 1972, Crichton decided to direct a TV adaptation of his novel Pursuit. He would then go on to direct big screen versions of Westworld (1973) and Coma (1978). Crichton's later credits would include two benchmarks of American pop culture: he created the television show ER and wrote the novel and co-wrote the screenplay for Jurassic Park (1993).
Based on Crichton's involvement alone, The Carey Treatment had the makings of a promising film. But changes to the script (at MGM's urging) forced screenwriters Irving Ravetch, Harriet Frank, Jr. and John D. F. Black to remove their names from the picture. The credited screenwriter on the picture is now listed as the pseudonymous James P. Bonner.
In addition, director Blake Edwards, who already had a running feud with MGM, was further angered by cuts made to The Carey Treatment by the studio. Edwards previous film for the studio had been the western Wild Rovers (1971), from which MGM edited out forty minutes from the original two and a half hour runtime. The results were disappointing to say the least and Edwards felt that "some of the original conception had been lost." Still, the director agreed to make one more film (The Carey Treatment) for MGM. Again, he faced opposition from the studio. Edwards referred to the final cut of The Carey Treatment as "a shambles" and basically washed his hands of the project (though he still received screen credit). After his experience with The Carey Treatment Edwards took a leave from Hollywood, retreating to Europe with wife Julie Andrews to write. As Edwards put it, "I determined in my own mind that I would never direct another film. I intended to keep on writing and knew I could make a good living from that alone. I didn't see where it was worth it to fight so much viciousness and irrationality to make pictures I believed in. I was escaping, and it was necessary that I do so." During this time he wrote scripts for the surprise hit 10 (1979) and S.O.B. (1981).
The Carey Treatment, despite the studio's meddling, opened to a number of favorable reviews. The New York Daily News called it a "well-organized murder mystery, generally well acted." The LA Times said it was "Blake Edwards best picture in years" and that it "[offered] James Coburn...his best role since moving up from supporting player to star." And certainly, in retrospect, The Carey Treatment has two thing going for it. First, it presents an early mystery from Crichton - who would become one of the master storytellers of our day. And, it stands as a fascinating time capsule of its era, one that explores the controversy of abortion in the years before Roe v. Wade. Telling details like a bloody ER (now unimaginable) without a latex glove in sight and seventies lingo like "you just stay who you are baby, I'll stay who I am" gives The Carey Treatment a quirky appeal, enhanced by its unlikely mixture of hospital drama and detective thriller.
Producer: William Belasco, Barry Mendelson
Director: Blake Edwards
Screenplay: Harriet Frank, Jr., Michael Crichton (novel)
Cinematography: Frank Stanley
Film Editing: Ralph E. Winters
Art Direction: Alfred Sweeney
Music: Roy Budd
Cast: James Coburn (Dr. Peter Carey), Jennifer O'Neill (Georgia Hightower), Pat Hingle (Capt. Pearson), Skye Aubrey (Angela Holder), Elizabeth Allen (Evelyn Randall), Dan O'Herlihy (Dr. J.D. Randall).
C-101m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Stephanie Thames