Gregory Peck, Angie Dickinson, Tony Curtis and Bobby Darin Enlist for a Most Unusual WWII Film.
DIRECTED BY DAVID MILLER/1963
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JANUARY 5, 2021/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
With the cast of a blockbuster but a title that sounds like a TV series, 1963’s Captain Newman, M.D. nevertheless reports for duty. Among the luminaries Universal Studios has enlisted are Gregory Peck, Tony Curtis, Angie Dickinson, Bobby Darin, Robert Duvall, Eddie Albert, and Dick Sargent. Not all shine as brightly as others, but the film, as directed by David Miller, bears a certain collective light all its own.
Set exclusively in an Arizona Naval Air Corps medical facility during World War II, the drab scenery isn’t always anything to write home about. Chalk it up to accuracy. The production design might not turn heads, but the fine eye of ubiquitous Universal cinematographer Russell Metty compensates nicely. Metty’s touch goes a long way in elevating this generally plotless military base profile to something (at times) quite atmospheric. Witness the subtle shift in lighting during what starts out as a typical two-hander scene between Gregory Peck as the title character and the drunkenly disturbed Cpl. “Little Jim” Tompkins, played by singer Bobby Darin. As the emotional stakes of the scene are slowly brought to the surface, the darkness of the room becomes increasingly imposing.
The very next scene finds Little Jim in the active medical care of Captain Newman, brought to the controlled point of breakdown over a traumatic combat situation which he’d suppressed. The scene is a prolonged stunner, garnering an Academy Award nomination for Darin. Frankly, few (then or now) probably knew that Darin had that level of performance in him. In that moment and that moment only, Captain Newman, M.D. is effectively snatched away from the otherwise consistent clutches of the ever-upright lead, Gregory Peck.
The whole movie is a kind of thematic dialogue about the seriousness of combat-induced mental issues in soldiers- something that, back then, was in no way given adequate consideration. Peck’s character- 3/4 levelheaded noble empath, 1/4 overt ladies’ man, openly lusting after spry nurse Lt. Francie Corum, played by Angie Dickinson- is the lone advocate among the base’s stern top brass of patients’ dignity and the vitality and complexity of various mental health issues.
Being a product of peacetime Hollywood in 1963, Captain Newman, M.D. has the luxury of not functioning as nationalistic propaganda, though it’s certainly not overtly critical of the system as depicted. Rather, Captain Newman himself (based on a real-life figure who inspired the 1961 source novel by Leo Rosten) is held up as something of a forebearer- the only man who both “gets it” and is unwilling to compromise. In such, Miller’s film succeeds with one foot rooted in the past (WWII, old Hollywood, the star system, the notion of inerrant American fortitude) and the emerging, very different future.
Captain Newman, M.D. also tonally straddles both the tragic (Eddie Albert and Robert Duvall’s individual stories) and the broadly comedic. On the latter front, Tony Curtis hams it up throughout the film, at one point playing a literal game of “hide the salami”. It’s not one of his best performances. Also, a kept flock of sheep always seem to be gumming up the works.
Perhaps, though, such a shifting tone negatively impacted the film’s own legacy, insofar as history doesn’t quite know how to label Captain Newman, or what to do with it. Is it a war film or a medical drama? Is it a central character study/star vehicle or an ensemble? Is it a deeply harrowing look at neurotic issues in servicemen or is it a lighthearted romp that culminates with affable POWs singing Christmas standards? It is, of course, all of the above. If you shelve your Blu-rays by genre, good luck deciding where this goes.
On her very informative audio commentary track, film historian Samm Deighan plainly calls out that Captain Newman, M.D. ought to be far more well known today. She’s correct; the film’s nuanced and untethered approach has aged far better than a lot of other far more rigid military-set movies. She points out that Altman’s manically episodic M*A*S*Hwas only seven years away, and perhaps Captain Newman laid some of its groundwork. A valid postulation. In any case, film buffs of today will appreciate the Blu-ray’s look and sound, as arid military hospitals have rarely felt so compelling.
An interesting final note: Captain Newman, M.D. did indeed attempt to make the jump to the small screen in 1972, getting no further than a failed pilot starring Danny Thomas. Unlike M*A*S*H– perhaps because of M*A*S*H- it failed to take off. Today, however, thanks to this Kino Lorber Blu-ray, we’ve got another chance to visit with Peck’s good doctor. If you’re a fan of uncommon Hollywood fare, make your appointment with Captain Newman, M.D. post haste.