Captain Newman, M.D. (1963) is much better than you might expect it be; I thought it was going to be a mawkish military melodrama laced with obvious, broad comedy relief. In a way that's exactly what it is, but the intelligent screenplay (by Richard L. Breen and Phoebe & Henry Ephron, from Leo Rosten's novel), even better acting, and impressively authentic depiction of mental illness among soldiers fresh from battle make this one a winner all the way.
Originally part of Universal's The Gregory Peck Collection from November 2008, Captain Newman and the other titles in that collection have finally been broken up and made available individually. There are no extra features but the 1.85:1 enhanced widescreen transfer is unusually good.
In 1944, Capt. Josiah Newman, M.D. (Gregory Peck) runs a psychiatric ward that's part of a larger Army Air Corps hospital in the Arizona desert. As mental illnesses like post-traumatic stress were only beginning to be understood, Newman faces much resistance from the Army brass, particularly autocratic Col. Pyser (James Gregory, in his familiar pompous persona). In clumsy yet effective exposition, Newman introduces the ward to Pentagon liaison Lt. Alderson (Dick Sargent) and, by extension, the audience. Not longer after, Newman compels Cpl. Jackson Leibowitz (Tony Curtis) and nurse Lt. Francie Corum (Angie Dickinson) into working at the understaffed ward.
Patients include Col. Norval Bliss (Eddie Albert), a highly intelligent man so resistant to Newman's treatment that he completely breaks with reality, adopting the identity of "Col. Future" and refusing any discussion of "Col. Past." Left alone in his room he incessantly rattles off orders at a machine-gun pace. Newman begins recording Bliss's rants hoping to decipher them.
Capt. Paul Winston (Robert Duvall, also in Peck's To Kill a Mockingbird the previous year) is a catatonic soldier who, after being shot down behind enemy lines, spent 13 months hiding in a basement until finally rescued.
Lastly, Cpl. Jim Tompkins (Bobby Darin) is combative and drinks heavily, (mild spoilers) the result of having survived a horrific plane crash. Under Sodium Pentothal Jim is able to purge some of this horrible guilt.
It's hard to know for sure, but I suspect Gregory Peck probably consulted with director John Huston (who directed Peck in 1956's Moby Dick) while Captain Newman, M.D. was being developed or perhaps in its early stages of production. Huston had made a controversial film called Let There Be Light (1946), a documentary similar to Captain Newman, M.D., about the treatment of severely mentally ill soldiers at a military hospital. It was so unnerving and starkly honest that the U.S. military banned its distribution for more than 30 years.
What's depicted in Captain Newman, M.D. strongly resembles Huston's film. Some of the most disturbing symptoms admittedly have been toned down for movie audiences, but otherwise they're very realistically portrayed and must have made 1963 audiences squirm in their seats with discomfort.
Singer Bobby Darin earned an Academy Award nomination for his performance (he lost to Melvyn Douglas) and despite his background as a singer he's actually fine. Indeed, he really bares his soul during the Sodium Pentothal sequence - so much so that during his throes of anguish Darin's toupee is visibly dislodged. The filming of that scene was later recreated for Beyond the Sea (2004), the Bobby Darin biopic starring Kevin Spacey.*
Even better though is Eddie Albert as Bliss. Before Green Acres Albert, a real-life war hero awarded the Bronze Star (for rescuing 47 Marines under heavy enemy machine gun fire), was probably best known for his military roles. He brings obvious verisimilitude to the part but was also such a fine actor that his character's personality shifts are genuinely disturbing.
Captain Newman is an almost perfect role for Peck. He projects intelligence and understated authority quite well, and both the part and film hinge on his reactions to his patients' often bizarre and inexplicable behavior. He's excellent.
At 38, Tony Curtis is really too old to be playing a brash young corporal that thinks he knows more about medicine than his commanding officer. But he's there for comedy relief, and Curtis is up to the task. Late in the film, animated character actor Vito Scotti turns up as the spokesman for a group of Italian POWs. He's quite funny and brings out the best in Curtis, too.
Video & Audio
Filmed for 1.85:1 projection, Captain Newman, M.D. looks great, an excellent transfer that's very sharp with surprisingly rich color. Only the title elements and other opticals like dissolves and fades show any wear. It's one of the best 1.85:1 transfers for an early-'60s film I've seen so far. The 2.0 Dolby Digital mono is above average; a Spanish track is also available, as are optional subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. There are no Extra Features.
A very pleasant surprise, Captain Newman, M.D. is like an excellent TV-movie (before TV-movies were commonplace). Directed by David Miller with an emphasis on the performances rather than visual flair, it's nevertheless a classy, intelligent A-picture and Highly Recommended.
* Coincidentally, Bethel Leslie, who plays Duvall's wife, was later nominated for a Tony for her 1986 performance as Mary in Long Day's Journey into Night, a revival that helped established the actor playing Jamie: Kevin Spacey.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.