Thursday, 29 October 2015

No.86. Peter Sellers - WHERE DOES IT HURT? (1972)


Sharp satires of America’s accepted institutions were on the rise as the 1960s youthful optimism turned into a radical cynicism in the new decade. The ongoing war in Vietnam was a key ingredient in the citizens no longer permitting themselves to be blind to the madness and corruption perpetrated by their elders and betters in authority. This fed into the film industry where the energy of dissent found voice in such important movies as Robert Altman’s brilliant M*A*S*H and the fittingly crazy surrealism of the war satire CATCH 22. In that same period Rod Amateau directed the Peter Sellers vehicle WHERE DOES IT HURT?  - a savage satire of the healthcare system tapping a similar rich vein of biting humour.

From the start, the film nails its colours to the mast in no uncertain terms with a pointed disclaimer that it is actually dedicated to the hard-working M.D. members of the American Medical Association who still uphold the venerable Hippocratic Oath. It then caps the claim with; “Will these three doctors please stand up?”

Sellers plays Dr Hofnagel, the corrupt administrator of the American Vista View Hospital, a man of gleeful ruthlessness, creative in the sheer breadth of ways he can falsify illnesses and billing to boost the hospital’s profits and benefit from the proceeds. He clearly put detailed effort into the character, focusing on his all-important externals – an expensive tan and the tinted shades and smooth manner befitting a Hollywood producer. His voice, the vital key to any part he prepared, is close to the American accent of his President Muffley in DR STRANGELOVE; an even, slightly disembodied tone that works well to hide behind – not that cloaking is needed in this open den of thieves.
He is aided in his machinations by a network of colleagues in different departments who dovetail to serve their own interests through him. There is his senior employee Alice, a devious ambitous beauty (Jo Ann Pflug); Pat (THE KARATE KID’s Mr Miyagi) Morita as the equally avaricious lab expert Nishimoto parading a deck of accents and ideas of his own, and a board of the hospital’s doctors and surgeons led by the ever-wonderful Harold Gould channelling his inner fruitcake as Dr Zerny, whose dangerous incompetence is even stronger than his cunning.

A young man, Lester Hammond, comes in seemingly for a check-up and immediately the harpies of medicinal shysterdom feast on him, concocting and racking up a huge list of unnecessary treatments itemised on screen to the sound of a cash register. Later, we discover he is spying to gather evidence of malpractise for the Commissioner, (J. Edward McKinley, the droll producer host in THE PARTY). The scene is set for blackmail and venal infighting amongst the staff, keen to oust Hofnagel whilst unsuccessfully covering up their own corrupt nest-feathering willingly undertaken with him. Alison also attempts to squeal on her boss when he carries on with a nurse whilst feeding her phoney pipe-dreams about a future together.  Hofnagel tries to bribe Hammond with a job to no avail, and the hospital’s board of colleagues votes unanimously to fire him with the same effect as he knows where all the bodies are buried, so to speak.

WHERE DOES IT HURT? plays its gags well with the brisk pace of a sitcom, covering any that fail quickly. Its satire has real edge, not just about the corruption of the AMA but attacking the failings of all political systems too. When Hofnagel learns of Hammond’s infiltration, he draws a nuanced parallel between their need to pamper him and what he sees being done over in Vietnam: “If a little brown laundry-man points a bayonet at you, you stick a loaf of bread on the end of it”. As he fends off a poor extortion bid by one of the Afro-American orderlies, (appalled not at the man’s mirroring of his own unscrupulousness but at how cheaply in dollars he was bought-off), he gloats “So much for black power”. He even gets a historical pot-shot in when one of the doctors sacking him is brought to heel: “Surrender? How very Italian of you”.

Eventually, the staff are given a reprieve from closure and dismissal and appear to be rid of their boss – until he arrives on a stretcher, telling one of his senior team that he has one more scheme to cook up involving a malpractise-worthy appendectomy and splitting the resulting winnings fifty-fifty. However, as Hofnagel submits to the operating scalpel of the haphazard Dr Zerny, his face betrays the sudden concern that maybe this is one scam too many…

Whilst Sellers is given some great lines, he maintains a suavely under-played performance, allowing the excellent cast free reign to be madcap satellites around him. The film is also a guilty pleasure in seeing the mischievous glee with which the staff siphon the cash from their hapless patient prey.

WHERE DOES IT HURT? is a bitter pill but valuable medicine, whose warning has prompted no cure. In fact, Michael Moore’s superb recent documentary SICKO showed that the prognosis for ethical care has since become even more dire…

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