[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]
Sidney Lumet ventures once more into an ascetic community of men—here a Catholic prep school rather than the African-based British prison camp of The Hill—but this time comes up with only about half a winner. Child’s Play is a spellbinder for approximately that fraction of its duration. The boys are subjecting one another to increasingly gruesome and sometimes blasphemous mutilations while on the faculty level the senior and junior masters seem locked in a contest of wills and styles that, to the senior master at least, amounts to a battle with the very Devil. Each piece of information leaked to us strikes its note of grisly suggestibility. Are the boys possessed? Is the place itself—worthy of condemnation by secular if not clerical authorities, inadequately lighted, with red votive lamps punctuating the darkness with awful chromatic intensity—some kind of vestibule to Hell? Unhappily the whole edifice of satanic innuendo caves in like one of those lesser horror films that is grabby enough as a thriller until we finally meet the rubber monster at close quarters: when the explanation comes, it is tactically incredible, psychologically invalid, and dramatically invalidating (one of the first scenes in the film, for instance, is retroactively revealed as a cheat). The filmmakers scramble to recover their balance and our faith, but they have nothing to fall back on but the sort of ringing last-act declamations that are designed to reassure a Broadway audience that all this titillation has had a very serious point: something about schoolroom fascism, maybe, or the death of God, or like that.
The stage origin of the film is stilt very evident, especially in the screenplay. That in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Until the big breakdown that is surely inherent in the play, Lumet sustains interest and intensity. No one has ever accused him of having a delicate touch; we could have done without some of the pop-eyed wide-angle closeups and Michael Small’s jugular music effects. Still, he has a way with actors and they save his pictures for him time and again. He leaves Beau Bridges stranded during one scene wherein the former student, returned as the new gym teacher, has to plunge into hysteria describing a bewildering scene of adolescent mayhem he has just witnessed; that scene was too incoherently directed for us to register more than the fact, as opposed to the nature, of the mayhem, and now a pause at once too short and too long has interceded between the action and Bridges’s speech—an instance of faulty adaptation from medium to medium. On the other hand, he leaves himself stranded in having cast Robert Preston as the shucks-guys junior master whose benevolence toward the student body is not without its complications: Preston is ideal for projecting the combination of right-guy reliability and gradually emergent smarminess, but ultimately he lacks the conviction or power of invention to sustain the character through the unlikelier activities the script requires of him.
But Child’s Play will be one to watch for as a second feature in the nabes because within its wealth of flaws it contains a Koh-i-noor of a performance by James Mason. As the despised senior master and classics instructor who refuses to retire and permit Preston’s ascension, Mason encompasses the fragmented whole of a valuable human being: the petulance of a 60-year-old mother’s-boy, the crotchetiness of an anachronistic man in an anachronistic post, but also the helpless and hopeless vulnerability, the raddled decency, the obsessive integrity; a man conspicuously unequipped for heroism and unattractive as a self-appointed hero, his Mr. Malley unsentimentally becomes a painfully knowable creature of God.
Direction: Sidney Lumet. Screenplay: Leon Prochnik, after the play by Robert Marasco. Cinematography: Gerald Hirschfeld. Music: Michael Small. Production: David Merrick.
The Players: James Mason, Robert Preston, Beau Bridges, David Rounds.
Copyright © 1973 by Richard T. Jameson