Thursday, November 12, 2015

Coma (1978)

Director: Michael Crichton                              Writer: Michael Crichton
Film Score: Jerry Goldsmith                           Cinematography: Victor J. Kemper
Starring: Geneviève Bujold, Michael Douglas, Richard Widmark and Rip Torn

Medical thriller writer Robin Cook had his biggest success with Coma, which soon after was turned into a wonderful film written and directed by Michael Crichton who worked the same side of the street as Cook for much of his career. The two were also friends, which is how Crichton came to own the film rights to the New York Times best selling novel. Primarily a writer, it had been five years since Crichton’s previous film, Westworld, which was also written by him. Predictably, the studio wanted to recast the film version of Coma with a man in the lead, but Crichton was dead set against it. And his instincts were correct. It is the novelty of the female lead that makes both the book and the film work, and with Crichton’s commitment to the original story, he produced a film that was actually much better than it would have been otherwise. French-Canadian actress Geneviève Bujold was the perfect choice, having already earned an Academy Award nomination a decade earlier. This was Michael Douglas’s first project after his run on The Streets of San Francisco, and he was impressed with Crichton’s screenplay as well as his vision as a director. Hollywood veteran Richard Widmark as the chief of surgery is also an inspired addition to the cast.

The film begins with a Geneviève Bujold driving to work as a doctor at Boston Memorial Hospital. A brief shot of Michael Douglas shows that he works in the same hospital. As the two of them come home at the end of the day, Douglas is only interested in hospital politics while Bujold has her own agenda, which doesn’t include being “the little woman.” They argue and she goes home to her own apartment, resenting the fact that she has to suffer too in demanding respect as a doctor and a woman. The next day her friend, Lois Chiles, goes in for a routine operation and something goes wrong in the operating room, putting her into a coma. Bujold is devastated, but tries to put on a brave face, so much so that Douglas begins to worry about her. The only thing she notices out of the ordinary in the file is that Chiles was tissue typed by accident. The lab tells her that the requisition was computer ordered, but the computer guy can’t bring up that information. So she gets a record of all surgical patients diagnosed with coma and begins combing through the patient files. Chief of surgery Richard Widmark gets wind of the illegal computer access and calls her into his office, in the hopes that she will forget about it and get back to her job. But then another patient undergoing minor surgery, Tom Selleck, ends up in a coma as well, and now she can’t let it go.

Rip Torn, the chief of anesthesiology has all of the charts she needs, and when he won’t give them to her she suspects he’s hiding something. Meanwhile a maintenance man, Frank Downing, knows what’s going on and tries to tell her about it, but he’s murdered before she can get any information from him. One of the set pieces of the film is the chase in the medical school that ends up in the anatomy lab amid a pile of dead bodies. The other iconic image in the film is the hospital where the coma patients are transferred, The Jefferson Institute, where a science-fiction type ward houses all of the patients hanging from the ceiling on wires, so they don’t get bed sores, and which she breaks into because she thinks it’s also part of the conspiracy. Once she knows too much, however, she suddenly finds herself on the run from an unknown assailant, and looking for safety she runs right into the arms of the leader of the conspiracy. As a woman in peril film there is little to complain about. It’s a taut medical thriller that delivers so much suspense that it’s impressive. Crichton’s screenplay makes the conspiracy look a lot bigger than it really is, which allows the viewer to really share in her paranoia.

The acting is tremendous. Geneviève Bujold is absolutely beautiful, and yet gives no indication that she isn’t the equal of any male doctor. Awash in a world of sexism, she navigates her way admirably without becoming a stereotype of the angry women’s libber. Michael Douglas is one of her sexist challenges, attempting to maintain a relationship with him while not allowing herself to be subsumed within it. Because of when it was filmed, in the late seventies, there are a host of young actors in minor roles. In addition to Tom Selleck and Lois Chiles, Charles Siebert, who was best know for his television role on Trapper John, M.D. appears as an anesthesiologist. Ed Harris plays a pathologist whose partner, Richard Doyle, inadvertently guesses how the patients are being put into a coma. And Elizabeth Ashley does a great job as the creepy nurse from the Jefferson Institute. Though Crichton didn’t direct many films during his career, he does a solid job here, especially in his shot selection and pacing. The film score by Jerry Goldsmith is also first rate, with an emphasis on dissonant piano chords and a subtle but effective leitmotif in the suspenseful scenes. The film was a hit and gave Bujold and Crichton some of the best reviews of their careers. Unlike a lot of seventies films, Coma seems timeless when seen today, one of the first and still one of the best medical thrillers ever made.

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