DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: The Terminal Man

Saturday 27 August 2011

The Terminal Man

The Terminal Man (1974) dir. Mike Hodges
Starring: George Segal, Joan Hackett, Richard A. Dysart, Jill Clayburgh, Donald Moffat, Matt Clark, Michael C. Gwynne, James B. Sikking and William Hansen


By Greg Klymkiw

Forces increasingly dominate us beyond our control. In this respect, Mike Hodges’s brilliant 1974 science fiction thriller The Terminal Man, adapted from Michael Crichton’s chilling novel of the same name, seems more scary and necessary than ever.

A few nitpicking details from when the film was made over 35-years-ago – outmoded robots and doctors puffing away on cigarettes in a hospital – are not enough to seriously date it.

The Terminal Man is a movie that displays a keen ahead-of-its-time sophistication in both execution and subject matter.

Harry Benson (George Segal) is a brilliant young computer scientist. He suffers from epileptic blackouts wherein aberrant behaviour, including vicious uncontrollable acts of violence lead to criminal incarceration. Adding to this mix is Harry’s paranoia-fuelled mistrust of computers themselves – an especially queer fear for someone considered above the curve in terms of his research.

In seeming desperation, Harry agrees to become a human guinea pig for a group of surgeons who believe behaviour can be controlled by implanting chips and electrodes in the brain, which, in turn, are connected to a mini-computer within the body.

Like any great Frankenstein tale, shit goes wrong - horribly wrong.

What makes The Terminal Man such a terrific picture is screenwriter-director Mike Hodges. Working at the peak of his powers (having just rendered Get Carter, the extraordinary and deliciously nasty British crime thriller with Michael Caine), Hodges infuses the movie with an ultra-creepy mise-en-scene that, for its first half, keeps you super-glued to your seat, eyeballs locked firmly on the screen.

What gets to you is how quiet the movie is – the hollow, late evening reverberations permeating the hospital wherein much of the movie is set, slithering so deeply into your guts that every sound you DO hear is fraught with urgency and where the hushed tones of doctors and nurses infuse everything with paranoia.

One of the stranger cutaways in the picture is when Hodges occasionally directs us to a group of proletarian orderlies guffawing as they disparage their charges. It’s an odd visual and aural juxtaposition between opposite ends of the hospital hierarchy – those on the “bottom” are upfront about their contempt while those on “top” hold their proverbial cards close to their chests. On one hand, this seems like an obvious directorial touch. It is obvious. Importantly it doesn’t take you out of the drama, but forces you at the proper juncture in the story to come to this juxtapositional conclusion and, in fact, adds to the overall feeling of manipulation that is directed at Harry. It also suggests that the world is increasingly fraught with a lack of caring and where self-preservation and contempt are perfectly comfortable bedfellows.

There is also no traditional musical score save for the occasional use of Glenn Gould tinkling his creepy ivories with one of the Goldberg Variations and a brief moment when hospital Muzak filters onto the soundtrack and into Harry’s brain as he is wheeled into the operating theatre. Lack of a full-bodied orchestral score for a thriller was – even in the 70s – a brave, unconventional move. These days – when every thriller is replete with herky-jerky cutting and bombast – such a touch is virtually unheard of (much, I think to the detriment of the genre, audiences and cinema on the whole). Val Lewton’s thrillers for RKO in the 40s were a perfect example of how true horror could be found in the dark and by what you didn’t see. With The Terminal Man, it’s what you don’t HEAR that adds to the terror.

One of the more grotesque elements of Hodges’s terrific picture is how so much of the film is set in a hospital, but even more intense is the inclusion of a brilliant sequence when the operation itself is performed upon Harry. He keeps his lens trained on virtually every pre-op, post-op and during-op moment – the sweat, the rubber gloves, the clamps, the needles, the scalpels, the blinding lights, the fluorescent glare and the ever-present view of white-coated officials viewing the proceedings from above behind glass.

The look of the film also adds to the creep factor. The movie is drained of primary colour – white rules, as does the darkness, the black shroud of evil. The only colours to ever punch out are (appropriately enough) red (during several shocking punctuations of blood-letting) and a typically sad 70s climax/conclusion set amidst the grey tombstones in a lush, green cemetery. Hodges's compositions are straight forward and many of the shots play long - allowing for maximum dramatic impact. One of the more chilling shots that recurs throughout the film is an eye through a peephole, surrounded only by pitch black and framed so that our eyes are drawn immediately to the exposed image and stay there - almost as if we were one the other side being examined.

The cast is first-rate. The gorgeous Joan Hackett provides a bit of offbeat warmth as a psychiatrist who doesn’t trust the operation being performed on Harry. She is surrounded by stalwart 70s character actors like Richard A. Dysart, Matt Clark, Michael C. Gwynne, James B. Sikking and Donald Moffat all delivering their cold, calculating best as the raft of bureaucrats, doctors and scientists. There’s a terrific cameo from the great William Hansen as a doctor from the “old school” who delivers a stirring condemnation of the use of surgery for mental illness and a very young and hot Jill Clayburgh briefly lights up the screen as Harry’s sex kitten girlfriend.

As the title character, George Segal is the true revelation. He was the go-to guy for 70s romantic comedies – in fact, a whole whack of great comedies, my favourite being the thoroughly insane black comedy Where’s Poppa where Ruth Gordon pulls down his pants to kiss his “tuschy”. Segal was, and still is, a great actor and certainly, as he proves in this picture, no mere lightweight. He always had an edge that many comic actors lacked. His performance as Nick in the Mike Nichols film version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf proved that in spades. Here, he blends his edgier qualities with his lighter leading man qualities to present a character we’re with from beginning to end.

The Terminal Man suffers slightly from inevitabilities inherent in both the genre and narrative itself – it’s a Frankenstein story, after all and only a matter of time before Harry runs amuck and must be hunted down. The journey to get there, however, is tremendously compelling.

Mike Hodges is a tremendous underrated director. Not only is it worth seeing The Terminal Man, but I highly recommend the aforementioned Get Carter, his strange crime comedy Pulp, the wonderful, Flash Gordon, a joyous 80s celebration of sci-fi cheese with a score (no-less) by Queen and one of the best British films of the past couple of decades, Croupier.

The Terminal Man is available via on-demand special order from Warner Home Entertainment via the Warner Archives collection. You’ll also find it for sale or rent in specialty video stores. In Toronto, Canada the only places that carry a wide selection of these titles are the flagship store of Sunrise Records at Yonge and Dundas and the newly resurrected Starstruck Video at Dundas and Tomken. As per usual, it’s a simple on-demand package. It features the movie and the trailer. The transfer is from best available materials. One can see the reel change markers every so often, so it has obviously been taken from a solid archival print. The colours – when Hodges allows them – are vivid and the whites are suitably stark. I was especially impressed, as I have been with many of the Warner Archives transfers, with the grain. It’s there!!! And it’s doing its magical dance as only grain can. I’m thankful no over-zealous control room hack has taken the time to mute it.

I’m disturbed, however, that Warner Bros. has chosen not to release this film properly. It’s a sci-fi picture that the core audience – especially of a certain age – absolutely love. Those who missed it the first time round (I was a 15-year-old genre geek when I saw it first-run in the 70s on a big screen), will love it. As well, a whole new generation of geeks deserves to experience it. Given that director Mike Hodges, stars George Segal, Richard A. Dysart, Michael C. Gwynne, Donald Moffat and Matt Clark are all still alive and also given the film’s many admirers (one of whom is Terrence Malick), I’m sure there would be a huge audience if the movie was properly transferred to Blu-Ray (where I think it would look magnificent) and featuring a solid Laurent Bouzereau-styled documentary and one or two commentary tracks. Warner Home Entertainment: ARE YOU LISTENING?

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