Release Date(s)1968 (February 5, 2019)
Studio(s)ABC Motion Pictures/Cinerama Releasing Corporation (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: C+
Charly Gordon (Cliff Robertson) is a 30-something mentally handicapped man who can perform simple tasks and struggles to spell a few words. He lives in a stark room that contains a blackboard on which he lists the next day’s tasks. He works as a janitor in a bakery where his co-workers, whom he regards as friends, tease him mercilessly. He attends night classes and takes tours of the city, but most of the things he learns don’t seem to stick, so he’s always starting at the beginning.
Through his teacher, Charly learns of an operation on a mouse named Algernon that has enhanced its intelligence. The scientists are ready for a human guinea pig and Charly volunteers. With a little time and a lot of attention, Charly transforms into genius. His emotional development, however, is not as rapid, and matters get complicated when he falls for his teacher, Alice Kinnian (Claire Bloom), who is also one of the researchers. Just when Charly seems ready to assume the responsibilities of a normal life, he discovers that the outcome of the experimental surgery has a tragic downside.
Cliff Robertson had starred in TV versions of The Hustler and The Days of Wine and Roses, only to see the movie roles go to Paul Newman and Jack Lemmon, both of whom were nominated for Academy Awards. Having starred in The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon on the U.S. Steel Hour in 1961, Robertson was determined not to once again lose out on the chance to reprise his role on the big screen. He purchased the rights to the novel, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, on which the TV script was based. It took seven years, but finally Charly became a theatrical film and Robertson won the Oscar for Best Actor.
Charly uses a science fiction concept as the basis for a character study. Robertson is excellent, especially in the early scenes when we see him, childlike, innocent, and naive, going about his simple life and struggling to better himself. Charly’s sweet nature and earnest attempts to learn immediately put us on his side as he undergoes his transformation into a super-intelligent man and works through the difficulties of becoming an adult. Directed by Ralph Nelson – a veteran of numerous live TV productions – the film contains some split-screen scenes, freeze frames, and visualizations of what Charly is thinking. These cinematic flourishes draw attention to themselves more than enhancing the story. A brief scene of a class of actual mentally challenged children seems exploitative.
Ms. Bloom’s character looks after Charly’s education and is gentle with him, but doesn’t fully recognize what Charly is undergoing. His problems escalate when he passes normal IQ and moves into the genius category while his emotional development lags behind. A climactic scene occurs when Dr. Anna Strauss (Lilia Skala, Lillies of the Field) and her fellow researchers present Charly to doctors and scientists who coldly bombard him with questions, treating him more as experimental curiosity than as human being.
Director Nelson attempts to balance the scientific thrust of the story with Charly’s personal tale but it’s often an awkward blend. As the major theme – the ethical responsibilities of scientific research – gives way to the relationship between Charly and Alice, the movie becomes reduced to a strained romantic drama.
The Blu-ray release contains a brand new 2K master featuring 1080p resolution. Aspect ratio is 2.35:1. Optional English subtitles are available. The visual quality is very good with sharp details in close-ups, outdoor Boston scenes, and specifics of the labs. Director Nelson’s TV background is evident in subtle camera movements that usually wind up in close-ups. Audio is English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio. Dialogue, which is more prominent in Charly than in many contemporary films, is distinct. Even Robertson, who slurs his words as the Charly we first meet, can be understood easily. Scientific jargon is virtually nonexistent. We are told, simply, that a procedure has been successful in increasing the intelligence of a mouse – Algernon.
Bonus features on the Blu-ray release include audio commentary and 5 trailers.
Audio commentary – Film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson share the commentary, which is often rambling and repetitive. Ralph Nelson was a prolific live TV director who dealt with socially significant issues in several genres. Flowers for Algernon has been adapted twice since Charly was made. Robertson believed he owned exclusive rights to the property, but he owned only the film rights. He sued when the book was adapted into stage works, but lost. Claire Bloom was at the height of her career when she was cast in Charly. Robertson was also a “sensitive, attentive, and gifted director,” as shown in the feature film J.W. Coop. The message in Charly is that science is hopeful. The film “tries to put clinical examination under one’s self-examining microscope.”
Trailers – The 5 trailers included are The Devil’s Brigade, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Junior Bonner, The Killing of Sister George, and The Group.
– Dennis Seuling