Posted by Greg Ferrara on January 16, 2013
Sidney Lumet was one of the industry’s great storytellers, successful with an array of genres and always able to take a script-heavy piece (play adaptations like 12 Angry Men, Equus and Deathtrap) and make it work cinematically. He was so well-versed in so many different areas that seeing him do such a dark and ominous piece as Child’s Play, also adapted from a play, shouldn’t be surprising and yet it still was. It was also surprising to see Robert Preston and James Mason, two actors you might not immediately consider perfectly matched, play off of each other so well. Not only does this movie provide great dual lead performances that would fit into my recent post on just that subject, but it has several great showdowns as well. And though both leads are terrific, James Mason is simply commanding in his role, a performance so powerful and deeply personal, I cannot believe he was not nominated for Best Actor. But these things happen and what matters is the movie, a chilling tale of a Catholic boarding school gone wrong with two teachers battling it out and God nowhere to be found.
Child’s Play was brought to the screen in 1972 and had originally scheduled Marlon Brando to play the Robert Preston role of teacher Joe Dobbs. Brando purportedly dropped out when he realized Mason had the better role and Preston came in. Brando was sued for breach of contract and after everything settled down, Brando walked away with Best Actor for The Godfather and Mason had nothing at all. That’s a shame because Mason’s performance is one of the best of his entire career. It really is quite something but more than that, the producers needn’t have worried about Brando leaving because Robert Preston seems so absolutely perfect as the beloved-by-all-his-students Joe Dobbs that, honestly, I can’t imagine Brando playing it. It wouldn’t feel right with Brando.
The story begins with Joe Dobbs teaching English to students who clearly love him and his class. One of them has gotten in trouble with Jerome Malley, Latin and Greek teacher played by James Mason. He wrote some smutty things on a blackboard and Malley, as hard as they come, wants to put him on indefinite suspension. Dobbs thinks that’s ridiculous and pleads with Malley to lighten up. Malley informs Dobbs he’s not there to be beloved, he’s there to teach. The plea for lenience goes nowhere and the student ends up getting suspended.
Meanwhile, Paul Reis (Beau Bridges), a former student, has now returned as the new gym teacher and is already noticing things seem a little off. The boys are becoming increasingly violent towards each other, to the point the school is having to consider shutting down. It’s that bad. When Reis addresses this to Dobbs, whom he idolized as a student too, Dobbs tells him it’s just a phase and it will soon be worked out. But Malley is telling Reis something completely different. Malley is telling Reis that it’s Dobbs and that Dobbs is pure evil. According to him, Dobbs is calling Malley’s sick mother and harrassing her. Dobbs has turned the boys against Malley and against each other. Dobbs is even sending pornography to Malley to cause him anxiety. Unfortunately for Malley, Reis recognizes all the signs of a man under great stress, and pays him little mind.
Dobbs even tries to have a heart to heart talk with Malley in the school chapel, pleading with him to stop blaming him, Dobbs, for all his troubles. Malley, at the edge of a nervous breakdown, says he will back off if Dobbs stops calling his mother. Dobbs shakes his head and looks down in defeat. No matter what he does, Malley won’t stop suspecting him.
Things turn decidedly worse for all involved after this point and the accusations grow louder as the violence towards the students becomes more intense. The movie itself is an odd mixture of boarding school drama, competitive character study and meditation on evil. Is not the smoothest mixture there could be but it doesn’t fail.
When the movie was released, a lead review by Vincent Canby of the New York Times doomed it from the start. Back in those days, there were a handful of top critics that had the power to sway the critical masses for or against a movie. Canby was one of them. However, reading his complaints now, his criticisms seem of the nitpicking variety more than the in-depth analysis kind. He complains of musical cues that are too loud, sinister and telegraphing. They’re no louder than any other cues from the period I can recall and definitely a lot less intense and telegraphing than we get now in this golden age of cheap jump scares.
Then he complains that, “everything in ‘Child’s Play’ seems to be rather cheaply tricky—such as the low-range photography and floor lighting designed to throw faces into eerie relief. In a more thoughtful film, the screen play and the performances might have been expected to create the sense of true menace and mystery.”
But the thing is, the screenplay and performances do create the sense of menace and mystery. The lighting, as with any drama or horror movie, simply ornaments it. And besides that, those low-angle shots and floor lighting don’t occur at anything close to constant intervals. They are used sporadically, here and there, when appropriate.
I don’t often bring up an old review in my write up of a movie but when I watched Child’s Play for the first time this year and realized what a stunning performance James Mason gives, I got irritated that, perhaps, because of a lackluster reception, in no small part thanks to Vincent Canby, the movie and the performance had been shut out in 1972. And no, I don’t think it’s a great movie but I do think it’s good and I wish Mr. Canby could have seen more in it than he did. He calls out Mason’s performance as the best thing in the movie, and it is, but calling him “fine as the mad, exhausted Latin teacher” is really selling that performance short. He’s not “fine,” he’s incredible.
And Robert Preston is excellent as well but has a little less demanded of him than Mason’s character, which is probably what Brando was seeing early on when he decided to drop out. Still, to give the performance he gives, of a character that goes in many different directions and can come off as both charming and menacing, and not even be mentioned seems a bit lazy.
In fact, every actor in the movie is good, from Beau Bridges as the gym teacher to David Founders as the cynical Father Penny, an actor who died too young at the age of 53. But Preston and Mason stand out and of those two, Mason simply wows.
Child’s Play is one of Sidney Lumet’s least known films, not ranking as high in the public consciousness as 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon or Network, but a worthy film nonetheless. And it contains irrefutable proof that James Mason was a titan among actors and that Robert Preston was more than just beguiling charm. It’s one of the great acting match-ups of the seventies.
And a special thanks to former Morlock Jeff Stafford for introducing me to Child’s Play in the first place, when he sent me the DVD. Thanks again, Jeff.
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