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USA 1968
Directed by
Ralph Nelson
103 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
1 stars


The first half of Charly shows us the unenviable daily life of Charly Gordon (Cliff Robertson), a Boston resident of low IQ who works as a cleaner in a commercial bakery where he is mercilessly tormented by his oafish fellow employees and at night attends classes supervised by Mrs Kinnian (Claire Bloom) who tries to teach him the rudiments of English. She has also introduced him to a couple of research scientists who want to perform a brain operation that they predict will increase his IQ based on their study of mice..

This is all mapped out diligently and somewhat heavy-handedly with Robertson doing a reasonably effective job as the simpleton and Bloom improbably gorgeous as his caring tutor. But then Charly has the operation and everything goes pear-shaped, not with the plot but the film itself. Charly becomes a genius and of course falls in love with Mrs Kinnian, and when spurned by her, joins a bikie gang.  She revises her opinion that he is a “stupid moron” and gives herself to him, the film breaks out of its narrative humdrumness with split screens and montages and a gauzy flower-power interlude (the film’s score was by Ravi Shankar) before segueing into some Zeitgiestian social criticism and ending an era-typical freeze frame.

Essentially a B grade movie given A grade (or at least heading in that direction) treatment, the script with its leaden dialogue was by Stirling Silliphant (writer of In The Heat Of The Night.1967) based on a 1953 telemovie called The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon later adapted in a novel “Flowers For Algernon" by Daniel Keyes.

Robertson, who had played the part on the small screen and who owned the film rights evidently wanted to make a serious “issue” film and as the self-congratulatory slide show of himself and Bloom suggests apparently thought he had done so but the outcome is so ridiculous that one wonders at times if it was not intended as a bad joke (the end credits thanks the “President’s Committee for Mental Retardation”).

That Robertson won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance might suggest that the film is commendable on that ground, but Robertson’s performance although touching at times is not outstanding. Not only does he spend the second half of the film as a conventional leading man but his “retard”seems improbably self-aware (although as Robert De Niro showed us in Awakenings,1990, denying one’s normally-developed consciousness is not easy whilst in another related performance Dustin Hoffman had a much more amusing scenario to work with in Rain Man, 1988).

There are worse movies than Charly but the gap between good intention and bad result here is so vast, something which clearly was not so evident in the day, as to leave us drop-jawed at its hamfistedness.




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