The Hospital (1971)

Written by Paddy Chayefsky (Network), starring George C. Scott and Diana Rigg, and directed by Arthur Hiller, The Hospital is a fun film. Things are going horribly wrong at a Manhattan hospital.  Does anyone remember this film?  I do. Chayefsky would be awarded the Academy Award for Best Screenplay, and many other awards for writing this film.

The Hospital is a black comedy, and it’s a terrific indictment of our healthcare system.  The film shows how broken the system was then, and 48 years later, it’s in much worse shape.

Less than a decade earlier, Scott had starred in Dr. Strangelove, about another hilarious subject, thermonuclear war.  This is the story of a hospital in crisis with a series of inadvertent deaths, through misdiagnosis, and misidentification.  “The nurses can’t tell the patients from the doctors,” Scott’s character (Dr. Bock) bellows after a doctor, using a patent bed for a romantic encounter, is loaded up with drugs meant for a patient who had died in that bed hours earlier. The nurses didn’t know it was a different patient.  And this is just the beginning of the film.

MV5BMTA1NTUzNzQ4MDBeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU3MDczMjgxNDQ@._V1_The hospital is busting at the seams with problems.  Just a few of the issues: unattended patients dying in the ER, nurses who follow directions despite being the wrong patient, patients not treated until they cough-up their Blue Cross number, along with overcrowding in the ER.  A perfectly healthy man arrives for a check-up and in a week’s time the staff at the hospital remove a kidney, damage another and put him into a coma.

All the while, the hospital is besieged by protesters, who are trying to stop development of a new hospital wing, which is evicting tenants out of their homes to clear space.  The hospital is unpopular with patients, doctors, nurses and especially the neighbors.

Scott plays the chief of medicine at this Manhattan hospital, who has left his wife, drinks too much, and is contemplating suicide.  He’s searching for his own meaningfulness on a day where the hospital drowns in a sea of screw-ups. He thinks pulling himself together and getting back into his work will put him on the right track. Unfortunately, he picks the worst day to look for solace in the hospital’s work, when two doctors and a nurse suddenly die.

Bock’s life becomes more complicated, particularly his personal life, when Diana Rigg (Barbara Drummond) shows up to fetch her father, a patient the hospital nearly killed with their kindly medicine.  Over a drink in his office (Bock has had many drinks by then), he confesses the failings of his life, his search for purpose, and the challenges of his work. He confesses to her what he can’t reveal to anyone else.  He’s drowning in his own sense of failure.  After she leaves, he attempts to kill himself with an injection of potassium, but he obviously fails. Barbara returns, and in a rage he attacks her, ripping her clothes, ravaging her.  Barbara is half his age and lives on a reservation in Mexico in her search for spirituality awakening.


In the morning he is refreshed, their night together has given him focus, removed the black cloud smothering him, and now he contemplates running away with her.  But that’s short-lived.  He soon learns of the wrong patient going into surgery that dies, who turns out to be a nurse who was mysteriously knocked on conscious the night before.

Drummond meets Dr. Bock

Bock soon has a suspect in these mysterious deaths: Barbara’s father, who is convinced he had been selected to avenge the death of God by killing those responsible for the first patient’s death, and the nurse responsible for the damage to his own kidneys.  Drummond arranged for the three medical staff to mis-identified and then let the hospital do the actual killings by neglect and injection of drugs.

A subplot involving Dr. Welbeck, a doctor more concerned with his wealth accumulation than medicine, and who has caused some of the botched medical work at the hospital, is mistaken for Drummond after he has a fatal heart attack.  His death provides an opportunity.  Welbeck is misidentified as Drummond, and his body is turned over to Barbara for shipment back to Mexico.

Bock helps Barbara slip the real Drummond out of the hospital as it is overrun by protesters, looking for a hostage to parade on television.  The protesters want the hospital administrator, but he’s fed up with all the problems and quits.

Bock changes his mind on running away with Barbara.  A sense of responsibility overcomes him, and both he and the hospital administrator walk through the protesters back into the hospital to face the problems.

The pacing of the film is fast, and while the action breaks for a dialogue, like Bock revealing to Barbara the morass of his life, the energy in scene does not lessen the forward thrust of the film.  Director Arthur Hiller (Love Story, Silver Streak, Outrageous Fortune) already had nearly two decades of of television and film under his belt, and would have a long career behind the camera, pushes the boundaries of the script and the result is a superb film.  Besides Scott and Rigg, the cast includes Barnard Hughes, Richard Dysart, Stephen Elliott, Nancy Marchand and Katherine Helmond.



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