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  • Benjamin May

Child's Play (1972) Review

Trouble is brewing at St. Charles, a Catholic Boy’s School. Random acts of violence break out between the students nearly every week, seemingly escalating in intensity. Joe Dobbs, the popular, easy-going English teacher, and Paul Reis, the new gym teacher, aim to find out what’s causing the brutality. Meanwhile, Jerome Malley, the grievous Latin teacher who despises Dobbs, begins receiving strange, obscene messages and packages at his home. Will Dobbs, Reis and Malley be able to discover the reason behind the violence at St. Charles, or will the savagery continue?

Directed by Sidney Lumet, and based on Robert Marasco’s play of the same name, ‘Child’s Play’ is an intriguing thriller that starts well and has many commendable elements, though fumbles its landing. Leon Prochnik’s screenplay- like the source material- examines some interesting themes, such as the psychology of group dynamics, the nature of evil and the power structures within educational institutions. The film deftly navigates these complex ideas through its tight-knit narrative, though it occasionally loses momentum in its latter half, and the ambiguous ending- where nothing at all is concluded- is underwhelming.

However, the principal characters are believable and multifaceted; watching them wade through the seedy, intriguing plot is engaging. The idealistic Reis- an ex-student of St. Charles- serves as a conduit for the audience, taking us on a trip into the macabre. Dobbs seems to be the ideal teacher, warm and kind- though might have darkness beneath his light exterior. Malley, meanwhile, is fascinating, stern and severe with his students, yet he treasures it when ex-pupils send him letters, and always keeps clippings of them if they make the papers. He is, to quote Kris Kristofferson, “a walking contradiction,” and a compelling character.

The dichotomy between Malley and Dobbs is the driving force of the film’s tension. Malley’s severity and isolation are contrasted sharply with Dobbs’ affability and popularity, creating a dynamic that is as much a clash of ideologies as it is of personalities. The film uses these characters to explore the impact of authority figures on young minds, and how their differing approaches to education and discipline influence the students’ behaviour.

Reis is a relatable character, whose journey back to St. Charles is a poignant reflection on the loss of innocence and the realization that the institutions one once revered may have dark underbellies. The students themselves, though less prominently featured, are essential to the narrative. They are not merely victims or perpetrators of violence; they are shown as complex individuals, shaped by the environment they are in. Their actions, though extreme, are presented not as anomalies but as symptoms of a deeper malaise within the school’s culture.

The film’s portrayal of these characters is subtle yet powerful, leaving the audience to ponder the nature of evil: is it inherent, or is it fostered by circumstance? Easy answers are not provided- in fact, no answers are provided at all- instead, the film offers a mirror to society’s own struggles with these questions. Perhaps, considering the rumination it inspires and the interest it engenders, a more conclusive ending would have made it even better.

On the other hand, Gerald Hirschfeld’s atmospheric cinematography cannot be faulted. His expert use of close-ups brings an intimacy to the characters, allowing the audience to see the subtle nuances of their emotions. His utilisation of shadows, meanwhile, creates a sense of foreboding, visually representing the darkness that lurks within the school and its inhabitants. Moreover, Hirschfeld’s interplay between light and darkness not only sets the mood but also serves as a metaphor for the film’s central themes. The way shadows creep across the walls of St. Charles reflects the insidious nature of the violence pervading the school.

The film’s use of space is also noteworthy. The claustrophobic corridors of St. Charles mirror the oppressive nature of the institution and the entrapment felt by both teachers and students. The visuals are complemented by the sound design and Michael Small’s eerie score. The echoes in the hallways, the murmurs of the students and the silence that punctuates the violence all contribute to an unsettling auditory experience, heightening the tension and underscoring the film’s themes. Small’s work, meanwhile, full of demonic-sounding chants, is evocative, stirring and unsettling.

Beau Bridges stars as Reis, alongside Robert Preston as Dobbs and James Mason as Malley. Bridges does fine work, astutely displaying the emotions felt by one who sees the truth behind the curtain, as it were. Preston is brilliant as Dobbs, making him congenial and likable; though not without a certain seediness. Mason, however, steals the show as the pathetic, mentally disturbed Malley. Delivering a beautifully realized, complex performance; he has rarely been better. Furthermore, David Rounds excels in the smaller role as the disillusioned Father Penny, bringing a touch of levity to an otherwise tense situation.

Engaging and intriguing, though ultimately a little underwhelming, Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Robert Marasco’s ‘Child’s Play’ has a lot going for it. The narrative touches on some interesting themes, while Gerald Hirschfeld’s cinematography and the excellent sound design are atmospheric and evocative. The cast all give strong performances, especially James Mason, but the ending is anticlimactic. Turns out, unfortunately, it wasn’t child’s play adapting ‘Child’s Play’ for the cinema.


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