You may or may not be aware, but this week is National Nursing Week here in North America (concluding with International Nurses Day on May 12th), so be extra nice to the men and women who take care of you long after the doctor’s gone home. Should you be fortunate enough to not require medical care this week, plop down and take a gander at these eight fine movies featuring the profession, thus beginning a sedentary lifestyle sure to eventully land you in some nurse’s care.
8.) Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
Hitchcock’s famous, and often borrowed-from, film about voyeurism and social responsibility is known to be about a photographer (James Stewart), stuck in a wheelchair, who witnesses a murder. But such a state requires some level of care. Enter Thelma Ritter, the ultimate no-nonsense professional who could carry the world on her shoulders before tossing it off like a raincoat. She’s simply the nurse supplied by his insurance company, but soon becomes embroiled in the plot herself, unable to tear herself away from the sordid mystery.
7.) Catch Me if You Can (Steven Spielberg, 2002)
It’s kind of bizarre, looking back at this movie, that we, as a culture, were still three whole years away from realizing just how spectacular Amy Adams is. Such is the rather finicky nature of entertainment spectatorship. Nevertheless, her realization of Brenda is rather spectacular – a young nurse in way over her head when faced with even the smallest of tasks is really the worst possible romantic fit for con-man-on-the-run Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), but it just goes to show that even those in positions of authority and great responsibility are just people, too, prone to the same mistakes of habit and character as anyone else.
6.) The Verdict (Sidney Lumet, 1982)
A spoiler here for Lumet’s spectacular courtroom drama – a nurse saves the day. Frank Galvin (Paul Newman), an alcoholic and slightly incompetent lawyer, is given the simple matter of handling a malpractice suit for which both parties are willing to settle. He quickly decides, however, that the case has merit to go to court, which proves to be an uphill and nearly impossible task. That is, until, he locates a nurse who hid herself away after the lawsuit blew up, and whose honesty and integrity compels her to help out Frank and his clients when she has every conceivable reason to walk away. In the vast machine that is the health care industry, it pays, morally speaking, to have a handful of people not quite so invested in power and profit; nurses provide the bridge between doctor and patient in more ways than one.
5.) The Disorderly Orderly (Frank Tashlin, 1964)
If the idea of Jerry Lewis romping about a sanatorium doesn’t automatically get you in the door, try this one on for size – he suffers from a condition they call “neurotic identification empathy,” which causes him to literally suffer the symptoms of the people with whom he comes into contact. Dr. Howard (Glenda Farrell) is fond of him and his family, and refuses to fire him, but it’s Nurse Higgins (Lewis regular Kathleen Freeman) who has to contend with the maniac day-to-day. Freeman often played these sort of thankless roles alongside Lewis, but it’s as funny to watch her continually pushed past her breaking point as it is to watch Lewis push her.
4.) I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)
Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) gets what sounds like a pretty plum assignment for a young, single nurse – travel to a Caribbean island to care for a plantation owner’s ill wife. That the nature of her illness comes to seem supernatural in nature doesn’t inhibit Betsy’s desire, nor her capacity, to do her job. She only cares for what’s best for her patient. I Walked with a Zombie is not as widely-heralded as the previous Val Lewton-produced, Tourneur-directed horror film, Cat People, and I’m not one to challenge that particular hierarchy, but I will say that I Walked with a Zombie is a far more mystical experience, dealing in a certain emotive and spiritual state much less certain and clearly-defined as their more famous collaboration.
3.) Night Nurse (William A. Wellman, 1931)
When schoolmarm types bemoan the lack of morality at the movies, they better be talking about the end of Night Nurse. If not, well…it’s research time. What makes that rather sudden development all the more alarming is that the story, otherwise, could not be more righteous – a put-upon, and even assaulted young nurse (Barbara Stanwyck) discovers that the children for whom she’s caring are actually being slowly killed, and looks to do something about it. Many of the nurses on this list go above and beyond the call of duty (in various ways), but, this being a Pre-Code picture and all, few are tasked with such brutishness as Stanwyck’s Lora.
2.) Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002)
The dark side of nursing is beautifully rendered here, in far and away my favorite Almodóvar film. Leaving aside the film’s concurrent plot, Benigno (Javier Cámara) is, purely by chance, hired to care for a young dancer with whom he had become obsessed in the months prior. In addition to watching her practice at her dance studio, across from his apartment, every day, he had begun seeing a psychiatrist who works in her building, purely as a means of entering her apartment when she’s not there. And now he’s the one to tend to her, to dress her, to wash her, to be with her at all times, when no one is watching. At once quietly terrifying and completely heartbreaking, Talk to Her is the rare film unafraid of assuming the perspective of its most immoral characters.
1.) Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)
Speaking of nurses going above and beyond, and a filmmaker’s willingness to enter less-than-friendly minds, here we have what is, at this point, widely felt to be Bergman’s towering masterpiece. Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) is a renowned stage actress suddenly struck mute. Unable to explain her condition medically, her doctors send her to a summer house on a remote island, under the care of Nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson), whose sympathy for her patient gives way to empathy, which transforms into some combination of lust, jealousy, isolation, fear, reverence, subjugation, and domination. The women aren’t precisely in competition with one another, nor are they precisely friends, nor is one precisely caring for the other. Their actions are at once precisely motivated and utterly unpredictable. I’ll never fully be able to describe this movie, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.