Even if one looks solely at the films he made in the ’70s, Sidney Lumet may well possess the most eclectic filmography of any major American filmmaker of his generation. Among other things, he made both the definitive NYPD movie, Serpico (1973), and the head-spinning musical turkey The Wiz (1978). Plus, scattered between his failures and triumphs are such oddities as Child’s Play, a psychological thriller that has some elements of occult horror. While Lumet delivers the strange flick with his customary intensity and sophistication, the picture’s bait-and-switch narrative is irritating, and the way three characters jockey for prominence makes the piece feel like a rough draft, as if screenwriter Leon Prochnik (adapting a play by Robert Marasco) couldn’t decide which viewpoint served the material best. Set in a private boys’ school, Child’s Play begins when a former student, Paul (Beau Bridges), arrives to begin his job as the new gym teacher. Paul notes the existence of a long and bitter rivalry between two veteran teachers, Joseph (Robert Preston) and Jerome (James Mason); Joseph is the upbeat student favorite, and Jerome is the hard-driving taskmaster. Compounding the intrigue, students keep acting like masochists by allowing other students to beat and torture them. Jerome, an old man fraying at the edges, thinks everything bad that’s happening is part of a campaign by Joseph to drive him away, but Paul begins to suspect there’s Satan worship afoot.
The first hour of Child’s Play is borderline interminable simply because it’s so unfocused, but the second half of the picture represents a considerable improvement, for the power struggle between emotionally fragile Jerome and supremely confident Joseph becomes weirdly fascinating. Much of the interest, of course, stems from the performances rather than the writing. Mason renders more emotion than in nearly any other of his ’70s films, sketching a man crumbling under the weight of age and stress, while Preston layers surprising menace beneath his usual extroverted affability. Bridges, predictably, gets lost in the shuffle, which is a problem since he’s ostensibly the protagonist; Bridges spends a good chunk of the movie watching Mason and Preston do interesting things while contributing precious little to the overall dynamic. Although the final scenes wrap up the various plot threads in an eerie fashion, getting to the ending of this picture is a slog, and some aspects of Child’s Play are surprisingly amateurish. Composer Michael Small, generally a top-notch purveyor of subtle atmosphere, goes big in a very bad way with an obnoxious score, and Lumet overdoes the shadowy-cinematography bit, as if he’s shooting a full-on horror movie instead of what really amounts to a dark two-hander about a feud.
Child’s Play: FUNKY