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CHARLY (1968)
Article #1463 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 3-17-2005
Posting Date: 8-14-2005
Directed by Ralph Nelson
Featuring Cliff Robertson, Claire Bloom, Lilia Skala

 

A retarded man is given an operation to increase his intelligence, and he begins to see the world with new eyes.

When I was in junior high, I read the novel "Flowers for Algernon" as part of a literature class. A few years later, I took up reading science fiction, and consistently found and enjoyed the short story version in any one of several SF anthologies. I then appeared as Dr. Strauss in a production of the stage version of the story. Throughout the years, I grew to love this story, and I have strong feelings about it to this day.

However, this screen version of the story does not partake of this affection. In fact, had I reviewed the movie after my first viewing some years ago, I would have expressed a virulent hatred for it. I have seen the movie twice since then, and though my hatred has cooled quite a bit, I still consider this version of the story a misfire.

It's certainly not the fault of Cliff Robertson, who gives a truly worthy performance as Charly Gordon. My problem is that the direction is wildly inconsistent. In my opinion, the primary concern for anyone handling this story is to make sure that viewers connect with and relate to Charly Gordon on an emotional level; the focus should be on intimacy. Unfortunately, the movie was made during the height of the psychedelic era, and it engages in arty experimental techniques, including an embarassing montage sequence and some bad use of split-screen. It also woefully mishandles certain scenes. In particular, the scene where Charly attempts to seduce his teacher is a travesty; it plays like a horror movie (with Charly Gordon as the monster). Instead of getting us to try to understand him, the scene seems to want us to hate him. This is so diametrically opposed to the feeling of the book (which is told via entries in a journal written by Charly) that it almost destroys the movie for me. And the scene in which Charly confronts a group of scientists and barks out cynical sound bites to their questions also hits all the wrong chords with me.

Still, not every scene is like that, and when the movie focuses in on Charly and lets us know him and experience his feelings, it works best. And it does manage to move us at times. But the movie's batting average in this regard is very weak in comparison with the literary versions of the story. There are a couple of TV versions of the tale that I haven't seen, so maybe one of those is definitive. If not, this is one story that would merit a new cinematic version.

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