Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Alcoholics (1953)

I'm not about to second-guess Jim Thompson on the look and feel of rehab facilities in the '50s, but the treatment center in this one, El Healtho by name, veers toward the unbelievable, not least in the jolly way it seems to be run by Dr. Peter S. Murphy on a belief that alcoholics will just go on drinking no matter what, straying at will over into upbeat "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" territory. Dr. Murphy looks the other way in some cases, even provides patients with drinks, apparently with an idea that giving them drinks of smaller volume now will somehow head off problems of drinking too much later. Meanwhile, the nurse on duty, Lucretia Baker, lisps and is a sadist. This is minor Jim Thompson for a reason, but it is Jim Thompson through and through. There's a plot about the facility and Dr. Murphy being dangerously in arrears financially, then some kind of redemption via the refusal to help cover up a lobotomy performed on a member of a rich family largely because he was a nuisance (or maybe to keep his mouth shut about something, that's not entirely clear). It veers quite wildly between hardboiled depravity Jim Thompson style and the strangely jovial antics of patients and staff alike, reminiscent of Frank Capra, as they pull together and get things done. Under the non-treatment treatment strategy practiced at El Healtho, the patients, one at a time and each for their own reasons, grin big, clap arms across shoulders, and give up drinking forever. The Alcoholics has a big happy ending and also numerous smaller happy endings dotted all over. Nurse Baker, for example (spoiler alert), changes her ways after once having sex with Dr. Murphy and actually becomes quite obedient—"Yeth, thir!" There are multiple convenient careers held down by the patients that prove remarkably adroit—a marketing man, publishers, etc. I said I'm not going to second-guess Jim Thompson on this, and certainly much of the raw behavior of drinking depicted here rings true enough. But boy, these miracles. Left and right. With the happy endings, I think you have to take it as a comedy pure and simple, because otherwise it's hard to believe a word of it, including "and" and "the." On the other hand, yes, everything I love about Jim Thompson is adequately covered in Lucretia Baker, R.N., the lisping sadist—inspired, freaky, and mordant.

In case it's not at the library.

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