Child’s Play (Sidney Lumet, 1972)
It is exactly thirty-eight minutes into Child’s Play where the movie stops being a fuzzy, slow-moving mess and becomes something that actually seems like a Sidney Lumet film. The scene takes place in the chapel of the boys’ school where the entire film is set. Robert Preston (The Music Man), who plays Joe Dobbs, the headmaster of the eleventh-grade class, an English teacher much-beloved of the school’s pupils, is standing at the front of the chapel, facing the altar. In a pew a few rows behind him is Jerome Malley (A Touch of Larceny‘s James Mason), the headmaster of the senior class, who teaches Greek and Latin and, as a holdover from the days when corporal punishment was accepted in schools, still has the nickname “Lash”. Dobbs delivers a monologue that sets up the entire rest of the film, at least the bits that haven’t already been set up. And I can almost imagine Lumet, at the end of that scene, smacking his fist into his other palm, pointing at Mason and Beau Bridges, the other main actor in this movie, then pointing to Preston and yelling, “THAT is the quality of acting I want to see from you idiots!”
He gets it for the rest of the film.
Plot: We open with Paul Reis (Bridges) as a senior at the school, on his way to see the headmaster, Father Mozian (They Might Be Giants‘ Ron Weyand), for the very, very serious infraction of drawing some obscene pictures on Malley’s chalkboard. He’s being escorted by freshman teacher Dobbs, who cautions young Reis that, while such actions may be amusing, they’re not likely to get him anywhere in life. The camaraderie of the moment is shattered by one of the school’s jocks lobbing a basketball at Reis’ head—it would seem that Reis is what Jean Shepherd calls “one of the nameless rabble of victims” in A Christmas Story. Dobbs defuses the situation and everyone gets on with their lives. Fast-forward nine years. Reis is now a phys.ed. teacher who’s sick of the public school system and has returned to his alma mater to take up a vacant position there. He and Dobbs pick up just where they left off, as great friends. Reis seems willing to bury the hatchet with Malley, but Malley is driven to distraction by his mother’s imminent death, which he believes is being hastened by a series of anonymous, harrassing phone calls, and assaults on his own character (which include, but are not limited to, pornographic magazines being ordered in his name and sent to his home, as well as notes being passed by the students—it is never explicitly stated, but made obvious nonetheless, that all of this is homosexual in nature). We find out soon enough that Malley was supposed to retire at the beginning of the year, but refuses to do so because he is adamant that Dobbs not take over his job as senior headmaster; he considers the affable Dobbs not only unfit for the job, but in fact an agent of Satan himself (he believes Dobbs to be behind all the magazines, notes, calls, etc.). Reis walks into the middle of this, and while he’s not explicitly tasked with choosing a side, his unexpected, and unlikely, ally Father Penny (King of the Gypsies‘ David Rounds in his first feature appearance), the oft-tipsy religion teacher, warns Reis that it’s going to happen eventually, no matter how neutral he tries to stay. While this is the main conflict, there’s also the ever-present bullying that, as we know, Reis is all too familiar with…but this class aren’t just bullies, they’re sadists; in the first act of bullying to which Reis is witness, by the time he manages to pull the children off, their target has damage severe enough that the hospital believes he may lose an eye. A second victim is mock-crucified, at which point Father Mozian is forced into considering whether to expel the culprits—which would, almost immediately, cause the school to shut down, as they comprise half the senior class (and thus, half the senior class’ tuition). Assuming, of course, the authorities don’t shutter it first.
There is a great deal going on here, and the late Lumet manages to herd these cats very nicely once the movie finds its rhythm (which, admittedly, takes thirty-eight minutes). Mason, Preston, and Bridges, of course, were all known commodities by this time, and was there ever any question they were up to the material? As a simple portrait of the nasty goings-on at a boys’ school, a generic slice-of-life drama, this would have been a damned good movie. But the final twenty minutes, which turn it into something very different indeed, take it from “good” to “blow the lid off.” In the hands of a lesser director, or performed by lesser actors (and to be fair, there’s a time or two where it seems like Bridges is about to slip over the line), this could have come off cheesy, if not unintentionally hilarious. But it is meant to be horrific, and it succeeds. This is tragedy of Greek proportions, with the school’s gang of bullies functioning as the chorus of harridans, and had the first thirty-eight minutes been as taut and compelling as the final hour, this would be Lumet’s second five-star film in my library (Dog Day Afternoon is the other). Even with that considered, this is another guaranteed slot in the top thousand for Mr. Lumet; the brilliance of the last sixty-two minutes downright overwhelms the unfocused, muzzy quality of the first thirty-eight. **** ½