The Hospital is a darkly, darkly (to the point where you’re not always sure when to laugh) comedic film from 1971 about a suicidal doctor struggling to find meaning in his life while a murderer lurks in his hospital. This film demands a viewing for the powerful performance of George C. Scott, who plays Dr. Herbert Bock, and for the enmeshed camerawork, which shows not only how much a well-crafted shot can achieve, but how the environment can become an active element of a film.
Diana Rigg gives a satisfactory performance as the hippily idealistic and sexy Barbara Donnigan, and the story is a very witty and well-crafted black comedy, but both elements exist at the sides of the main energy of the film- the power of the presence of Dr. Herbert Bock (George C. Scott).
George C. Scott, who began as a stage actor before appearing in films (including portraying General Patton in Patton and General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove), has a formidable forehead and a brooding nose- his is a face that seems to have materialized to don a grave expression, and an uncanny control of the emotion in his voice (i.e. his voice). Considering this, it seems no coincidence that he played a general, a position of authority that often exercises power vocally, in both Patton and Stragelove. Another element of portraying a general, and one at the forefront of the character of Dr. Bock, is expressing extreme dissatisfaction while still showing an investment in the relationship.
In The Hospital , Scott’s voice, a fantastically, and perhaps singularly, gravelly instrument explodes in sudden flashes of (his) bullish energy. Heavy and tight with emotion, it comes out through the screen and tingles your skin as he screams.
The only hiccup with the film is when Dr. Bock complains to Barbara Drummond, who is in the hospital looking after her sick father, about his struggle to find meaning in his life. He, quite literally, tells her that he’s lost his desire to work, his reason for being, his purpose… This confession, which seems more for the audience than for Barbara, comes off as forced and unnatural. It stands out from the rest of the movie, which, from the outset, proceeds with naturalness.
The first shot of The Hospital, an abrupt opening of the film, shows the busy hospital’s front doors being opened for a wheelchair-bound patient being pushed by a doctor. Coming from within the lobby and amidst its heavy foot traffic, this shot sets the tone for the film. Throughout, the camera is positioned in ways to accentuate the form and feeling of the environment. A few examples of the curated distractions of The Hospital:
1. Dr. Bock is leading a group of medical students to a blackboard to diagram ideas regarding a medical case in question. During this movement, our vision of Dr. Bock is framed, and sometimes blocked, by the heads of the students who are following and listening to him. This viewing angle, from within the huddle of students, communicates the feeling of the crowded space in a way that a direct shot of the doctor, apart from the students, wouldn’t.
2. In the locker room, an older doctor is telling two younger doctors about incorporating in New York and how it can make you more money, when he takes a call on the phone. Although he is the most prominent character of the three, instead of putting the camera directly on him as he speaks on the phone, it shows him blocked by the younger doctors, who chatter idly as they change into their street clothes . As we work past the chattering doctors to hear what the older doctor is saying on the phone, we get a more involved, and satisfying, experience of this space with the three doctors.
3. As two nurses are walking side-by-side down the hall, one is telling the other about an incident regarding a mistaken patient. Although the nurse talking is one on the left side, the camera is placed immediately to the right of the nurse on the right. We must look past the nurse closer to us, the one receiving the information, to see what the speaking nurse is saying. It forces us to take in a larger amount of the situation, as if we were walking alongside the two nurses. A head-on shot of the speaking nurse would reveal her message to us more clearly, but as passive viewers rather than active recipients. With the camera placement as it is, we take in what the nurse is saying as we take in the spatial reality of the scene.
Sometimes, rather than people blocking the main subjects of a scene, it is objects, such as hospital instruments or furniture. With this visual distraction, the viewer of The Hospital becomes a subjective observer rather than an uninvolved all-seeing presence. Check out The Hospital to see how satisfying a skillfully limited perspective can be.