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Revisiting Charly for the first time since I'd seen it as a boy during its 1968 release, I was fully prepared for it to either bowl me over or leave me cold - most likely, the latter. After all, it had one of those potentially dubious Oscar®-winning performances portraying a disabled person (Cliff Robertson as the title character) and most of my memories of it were because it was shot in my native Boston.

Instead, I had a more mixed reaction to the new DVD of Charly. It's the story of a mentally retarded man who undergoes a brain operation that makes him smarter, but the effects of which turn out to be unexpectedly temporary (a premise similar to more recent movies such as Awakenings and Phenomenon). Although the movie promises to go off the deep end several times, often due to its questionable use of the split-screens and super-impositions that were in vogue in the late 1960s, as well as a rather unconvincing romance, somehow it remains respectable, if not always as dramatic as it intends.

Robertson, most recognizable to younger moviegoers as Uncle Ben in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, had seen other live-TV dramas in which he'd starred, including The Hustler and The Days of Wine and Roses, go to the big screen without him. So he optioned the rights to Daniel Keyes' Flowers for Algernon after he starred in its 1961 TV production as Charly Gordon, the mentally-retarded man longing to be smarter, and shepherded the production himself. Robertson's Oscar® win was no doubt in part a nod of respect for his smarts and perseverance, but his performance is also underplayed in relation to most similar roles, like, say, Sean Penn in I Am Sam. Robertson doesn't overplay the affliction so much that you can't see the person behind it.

Charly first appears as a limited man who's not afraid to push himself to learn, whether it's in the ESL class taught by Alice Kinnian (Claire Bloom) or at the clinic where she brings Charly for therapy. There, scientists measure his smarts against those of a mouse named Algernon, who's had the same brain operation Charly eventually does. One of the stretches in the story finds Charly not only gaining normal intelligence after the operation, but becoming a genius. Another is his deepened relationship with Alice. Charly dimly links sexual urge with brain power, figuring that the boyish Charly of the opening has no urges, but post-op Charly is suddenly a torrent of hormones. What's worse, emotionally immature Charly jumps Alice's bones and she fights him off, only to soon dump her fiance for a guy who attacked her. In between, there's the movie's jaw-dropping "freak-out" montage in which Charly apparently becomes a biker; I thought this sequence had to be some sort of rage-fueled fantasy in Charly's head, but in the next scene, in which Alice returns to him, she does indeed make passing reference to his motorcycle, which he has decided to sell (so why include the biker "freak-out" at all?).

Charly has pretty much run off the tracks at that point. What keeps the drama somewhat tethered is the earthiness director Ralph Nelson, another live-TV vet, gives the story. Charly is not nearly so slick as it might be today (there was a 2000 cable-movie remake that I have not seen), and the shots of Charly's urban neighborhood, his scenes at the industrial bakery where he works and the way his eyes are opened to the world around him unexpectedly recall Brando's Terry Malloy and On the Waterfront. To some small degree, Charly shares an East Coast grit with Elia Kazan's movie, and that adds a little edge and heart to it.

If the atmosphere holds up, the message in Charly doesn't date so well. Charly discovers the effects of the operation might be temporary by seeing Algernon's regression just before the clinic's scientists are about to trot him out as their prized patient at a conference. Charly then unloads on the attending scientists for wanting to mess with him or anyone else. Charly was a 1960s cry for respecting nature's ways and not messing with them, but the message gets awfully muddled by the fact that, after his big speech, genius Charly spends the next scenes trying to come up with scientific ways to head off his own regression. Today, it feels as if Charly is madder at the scientists for botching the job than for using him as a guinea pig.

It's hard to imagine someone today grabbing Charly off a video store shelf, coming to it cold and getting much out of it. Even with its historical context, the movie seems at odds with itself ('50s method setting vs. '60s freak-outs, an anti-science movie with lots of scientific jargon, etc.). The new Charly DVD includes no extras that might impart any of that context. It's a shame Robertson wasn't brought in for a commentary track or at least an interview featurette. He's a fascinating raconteur who, in a 1996 interview, told me of his script for a Charly sequel for which he hoped to reunite the original's cast and shoot again in Boston. That, of course, never happened. But I'm sure Robertson has some interesting tales about why it didn't.

For more information about Charly, visit MGM Home Video. To order Charly, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman