Word has it that Pres. John F. Kennedy selected Cliff Robertson as the man to portray him in "PT-109" (1963), the Hollywood version of his WWII heroism in the South Pacific. But Robertson hand-picked himself to play "Charly," for which he won the Best Actor Oscar in 1968.
Robertson had played the same part on television, but after being passed over for two meaty roles he'd played on TV that went to Paul Newman ("The Hustler") and Jack Lemmon ("The Days of Wine and Roses") in big-screen versions, he was taking no chances. This time, Robertson bought the film rights to "Flowers for Algernon," a book by Daniel Keyes about a mentally challenged man whose intellect rises following experimental brain surgery.
The Keyes story should be familiar to many Americans, because it's frequently included in junior high and high school curricula—undoubtedly because the language is so accessible and the story so straightforward. In the Nebula Award-winning 1966 novel, Charlie Gordon is a likable man with an IQ of 68 who tells his story in "progris riports." Part of the interest comes from watching his language change as his world, his sense of himself, and his surroundings gradually expand. At the start of the novel, Gordon is as naïve as Alice Walker's narrator from "The Color Purple," though, like Celie, he's determined to learn how to read and write.
The film opens with Charly hanging out on college campuses listening to heady (and, we might add, pretentious) overlapping conversations that to him are white noise on the order of cars backfiring, police sirens wailing, children laughing, drivers honking, and passers-by jabbering. Director Ralph Nelson jumps right into what Charly wants: to elevate himself so that he can understand what his co-workers and "friends" at the bakery are saying. We learn that he's been catching free rides on a Boston tour bus each week in order to expose himself to the spiel and signage along the same route, and that he's been taking night classes in English for the past two years in an effort to master language. Robertson's performance is solid, but one might add "two-note" as he works slack-jawed and shuffling with vacuous eyes to portray Charly, and basically plays himself as Charlie. Then again, this isn't a "Rain Man" script with a range of highs and lows. The most demanding scene asked of Robertson is one where Charly's fixation with his teacher goes from love to lust, and from gentle to forceful actions.
Claire Bloom plays the ESL teacher who is also inexplicably the psychologist that conducts Charly's interview in a room where Drs. Straus (Lila Skala) and Nemur (Leon Janney) watch from behind a two-way mirror. She's stiff and proper but obviously has a soft spot for Charly, whom she hopes will be selected as the first human guinea pig for these seemingly benign Frankenstinian folks. Drs. Straus and Nemur have somehow managed to elevate the intelligence of a mouse they call Algernon through brain surgery. Now, this couple, which comes across more like Masters and Johnson, want to do the same for a human by "removing damaged or underdeveloped portions of the brain and permit implanted tissue which has been chemically restructured to produce brain protein at an accelerated and supernormal rate." That's how the Keyes novel qualified for a sci-fi Nebula Award, and before that, a 1959 Hugo Award when it was much shorter and less developed.
"Eight is Enough" fans will probably get a kick out of seeing a very young "Richard" Van Patten with a full head of hair playing the lab assistant whose primary task seems to be conducting maze experiments. While Charly is being screened to see if he is a likely candidate for the operation, he's pitted against Algernon. While the tiny white mouse races through a maze to find food, his frustrated human counterpart struggles with pencil and a paper copy of the same maze. "How'd you feel if you was dumber than a mouse?" Charly says to his teacher, Mrs Kinnnian.
Nothing happens in the film as gradually as it did in the novel, so that a simple story becomes even less complex. I remember feeling like a boozy gumshoe when I managed to pick up clues that signaled a change in Charly's intellect. But there are fewer personality indicators in the film version, with the result being that the compression can make the storyline feel like a summary at times.
Yet, director Nelson spends ample time capturing the atmosphere at the Kasnof's Rye Bread where Charly has found employment as a clean-up man. The bakery workers, led by Gimpy (Skipper McNally), lead Charly to believe that they're friends while all the time playing elaborate jokes on him: stuffing a pail of dough into his locker and leaving it there to rise, getting a bartender to unplug and plug in a juke box while they instruct Charly to talk to it, or telling him to stand on a corner where snow always begins and call the men to tell them when the blizzard has started. Mean. Plain mean—but that's also why this modest little novel connected with young readers. It appealed to anyone who was ever teased and tormented, or felt somehow dumber—or smarter—than the class average, either way qualifying for "freak" status in school. And it's appealing as well for its story of the impossible dream, or the inaccessible love.
As Charly becomes Charlie—aware of his former self and painfully aware, now, that his so-called friends at the bakery were really very cruel—he experiences an awareness that makes life come alive for him, finally. But when Charlie notices that there's something wrong with Algernon, he begins to suspect that he's looking at his own future.
Video: The DVD comes with 1.33:1 pan and scan on one side, and anamorphic widescreen on the other. Though the official aspect ratio on the widescreen is listed as 2.35:1, it fills out more of the screen than that, coming closer to 1.89:1. And it has that look that color films have from the late Sixties and early Seventies: slightly muted colors and a graininess throughout.
Audio: I'm not an audio expert, but I can describe the frustration I had with the mix on this soundtrack. The dialogue isn't at a high enough volume, compared to background noises and music, and sometimes the volume of dialogue seems to vary—and not at explainable moments, either. The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, with some of the sound matrixed into the main speakers, but mostly emanating from the front center speaker. Subtitles are in English, French, and Spanish.
Extras: There are no extras.
Bottom Line: This low-key, unassuming film stays fairly close to the novel as it tells the simple story of a simple man who wanted to be more. It would be easy to think of "Charly" as a bummer of a film, a "life's not fair" story about a severely disadvantaged man who falls in love—with a woman, and with life—only to have it appear to seem all too brief. But "Charly," like "Flowers for Algernon," is a perfect metaphor for the transitory nature of life—whatever your station or situation.