Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment

Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment

Format: DVD

Release date: 17 January 2011

Distributor: Optimum

Director: Karel Reisz

Writer: David Mercer

Cast: David Warner, Vanessa Redgrave, Robert Stephens, Irene Handl

UK 1966

93 mins

Morgan Delt is a troubled artist. His muse has deserted him. His wife has deserted him. His politics have deserted him. Even his sanity is deserting him. Morgan is a suitable case for treatment. Karel Reisz gave Morgan treatment - cinematically speaking - in 1966.

Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, or to give it the shortened American release title, Morgan! is an adaptation of an original 1962 television play by Wakefield-born Marxist writer and painter David Mercer entitled A Suitable Case for Treatment (starring Ian Hendry as Morgan and Keith Barron). Morgan is a script steeped in Marx and more importantly, the theories of R.D. Laing, whose claims included that the roots of schizophrenia were to be found in the family, and by extension, in society. He developed ideas of anti-psychiatry and claimed, for example, that ‘madness’ could be seen as a sane response to an insane world and argued such positions as: ‘Who poses the greater threat to society: the fighter pilot who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima or the schizophrenic who believes the bomb is inside his own body?’

These ideas of Laing’s set in store a whole ideological wave among counter-culture ‘rebels’ in search of individualism, essentialism and anti-bourgeois life choices in the 60s. The generation who had just missed the ‘angry young men’ were now in thrall to the ‘it’s-ok-to-be-crazy in this insane world which our parents made’ attitude - a disposition that many misfit 60s characters displayed. The cultural battle cry was for authenticity of experience.

Concurrent with this anti-psychiatry of Laing’s was the interest in the disorientating effects of an LSD trip, which were likened to episodes of madness and were considered to be an entry point through the ‘doors of perception’. A cycle of visionary, anti-psychiatric, psychotropic oddball anti-hero films emerged in the mid-1960s to early 1970s, among them: Marat/Sade (1966), The King of Hearts (1966), The Trip (1967), I Love You Alice B. Toklas (1968), Catch 22 (1970), Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970), End of the Road (1970), Family Life (1971, script by Laing and Mercer), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying those Terrible Things about Me? (1971), The Ruling Class (1972), Harold and Maude (1972) and later, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).

Morgan comes at an interesting intersection of filmic cycles in British cinema; cycles in which Czech-born director Karel Reisz had immersed himself. Reisz was, along with Lindsey Anderson and Tony Richardson, a veteran of the short-lived Free Cinema movement, which sought to bring a more poetic realism and a nouvelle vague-ish tone to socially concerned British commercial cinema. The Free Cinema movement had emphasised the marginal, the communal and the youthful in its documentary mode of filmmaking in films such as We Are the Lambeth Boys, Mama Don’t Allow, O Dreamland and Every Day Except Christmas. Free Cinema was itself much influenced by the Griersonian mode of documentary filmmaking as well as the British ‘social problem’ films, which had developed in the 1930s with works such as The Citadel and There Ain’t No Justice and carried on after the war with Cosh Boy, The Lost People or Good Time Girl.

This conjunction of cinematic verisimilitude and fictional narrative caused several of the Free Cinema directors to accept the challenge thrown down by Richard Hoggart in Sight&Sound to ‘expand the legitimacy of the limits [they] had imposed themselves… and take the opportunity to bring the “public” life of a young person into the “personal life” - to extend the “film essay” type of Free cinema project into the imaginative breadth and deeper artistic intentions possible in a full-length feature film’. So taking this on board, along with the ethos of location shooting, Reisz went off to Nottingham to shoot Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which became part of the canon of British New Wave (Social Realist or Kitchen Sink School) films, a cycle that had begun with Jack Clayton’s 1959 film, Room at the Top, and ended with Lindsey Anderson’s 1963 This Sporting Life. By that time, a wholly different zeitgeist dominated: Tom Jones, James Bond, the pill, ‘youth’, Beatles, Pop Art, Mod style, Swinging London, Carnaby Street, working-class mobility and, most important of all, the return of American investment. Soon, all of these youthful subcultures were to be blended and then superseded by the utopian ideal of an opted-out counter-culture replete with its own gurus and heroes such as Theodor Rozsak, Timothy Leary, Norman O. Brown and the aforementioned R.D. Laing.

With all of these influences and cultural winds in the air - and at the tail end of a cycle of Swinging London films - Reisz entered into the world of Laing and counter-culture cinema with Morgan. The tagline for the film makes the proposition clear: ‘Can one charming madman save the only thing in the real world that’s lived up to his best fantasies?’ Having opted out of the relatively sane world of art-making and gallery commerce, the working-class Morgan (David Warner) is in the throes of an existential, post-divorce mental breakdown. Still obsessed with his wife Leonie (Vanessa Redgrave), he spends most of the film stalking her, erratically appearing in her house and interfering in her new relationship with a very bourgeois gallery owner, Charles Napier (Robert Stephens), Morgan’s art dealer.

Morgan’s fractured personality soon regresses and becomes fixated on a new alter ego - that of a gorilla. He dons an ape costume and enacts the creature’s sounds and movements, which helps him to function in what he has come to believe is a more authentic, less complicated, primitivist mode of existence. It is a coping mechanism by which he can navigate and manage the ‘mad’ world of bourgeois respectability and repressive behaviours. He feels that only his mother, an unreconstructed Stalinist, has any genuine values, but she feels that Morgan is a sell-out. She refuses to ‘de-Stalinise’ and reminds Morgan: ‘Your dad wanted to shoot the royal family, abolish marriage and put everybody who’d been to a public school in a chain gang. He was an idealist, was your dad.’

A failure as an activist son, a failure as a bourgeois husband, a failure as an artist and a failure as a respectable member of society, Morgan’s anguish - and protest - takes the form of living in a car covered with Soviet propaganda posters outside of Leonie’s house, creating hammer and sickle shapes in a dog’s coat, pulling a gun on Napier, hectoring a policeman with a rant about Trotsky’s death, kidnapping Leonie with the aid of his dad’s wrestler friend, blowing up - not fatally - Leonie’s mother with a bomb hidden under the bed and dressing up as a bellowing gorilla. He gate-crashes and wrecks Leonie’s wedding day to Napier by scaling the walls of the building in full ape regalia, í  la King Kong, hoping to scoop up Leonie, his Fay Wray.

Morgan’s disturbed character lurches from sweet and charming naí¯f to thundering, raging gorilla beating his chest and trumpeting his fury. The film uses intercuts from Tarzan and King Kong films to make montages that emphasise the extent of Morgan’s fantasy life. At one point he muses: ‘If I’d been planted in the womb of a chimpanzee, none of this would have happened.’ The real world is to Morgan a jungle, as it seemed for many in the counter-culture. In the 60s, action and individual expression were more highly prized than motivation or conformity.

The characterisation of Morgan Delt is handled superbly well by David Warner - although it was Vanessa Redgrave who was nominated for a best actress award. In one of his most memorable and iconic roles, he brings a great deal of sympathy and warmth to the character - a character who should be seen as preposterous, annoying, disturbing and downright dangerous, and entirely undeserving of our empathy and support. Yet support and empathy his audience gave him, and Morgan is one of the great characters in the annals of counter-culture anti-heroes. The fact of his being creative - a mad artist type - gives him further cultural cachet. More than a relic of the period, Morgan is an interesting insight into the zeitgeist of the counter-cultural 60s.

In the final chapters of the film, Morgan (the gorilla), after trashing the wedding party escapes and ends up hallucinating on a Thames barge, finally being unceremoniously dumped on a bank side pile of scrap metal where he has his major and final psychotic episode. In the next scene, we see him in a countryside insane asylum working in a flower bed where he is busy planting a hammer and sickle garden shape. He receives a visit from his beloved ex-wife, who informs him that she is pregnant with his baby. Like the man said, ‘The freak shall inherit the earth’.

James Evans