It's impossible for me to review this film without comparing it with producer/writer's Paddy Chayefsky's "Network" (1976). Many of the same issues and characters in "The Hospital" are prototypes for his masterpiece of five years later. But "The Hospital" deserves being judged on its own considerable merits.
Begin with Chayefsky's script: it's brilliant. The protagonist, an esteemed medical chief of staff at a Manhattan hospital, is so deep into midlife crisis that he's teetering on the brink of suicide. That's no wonder: apart from his family's dissolution and the seeming emptiness of his accomplishments, the hospital over which he presides is falling apart at the seams: medical incompetence and greed inside, social unrest outside, and a mysterious murderer who is stalking both physicians and nurses within his precincts. From the unlikeliest of sources—both in real life and reel life—he rediscovers his purpose and responsibility to try bolstering the pillars before the institution to which he has dedicated his life falls apart. The movie begins as satire, unpredictably shifts into drama, reengages farce, then makes a swift left turn back into serious drama at the end. Chayefsky better sustained this complicated dissonance in "Network"—a social arena with which he was far more familiar—but it's a helluva balancing act. The story swirls like plates on the flexible poles in the old vaudeville act that Ed Sullivan used to present.
The acting: terrific, from stars to supporting players. George C. Scott was deservedly nominated for an Oscar in the lead, a year after he had won for "Patton." It's a very tricky role, but Scott pulls it off with unbelievable believability. Diana Rigg, costarring in her first Hollywood movie, is also handed an extraordinarily complex character and rises to the occasion. As the film's linchpins these two actors prevent the picture from collapsing like a house of cards. The rest of the superb cast—among others, Stephen Elliott, Richard Dysart, Nancy Marchand, Bernard Hughes—also keeps the plates spinning amidst the drama and dark comedy.
Chayefsky's gift was to pull away the curtain from society's sacred cows—the military ("The Americanization of Emily"), television ("Network"), and "The Hospital " (medicine)—to reveal their sublimity and absurdity. At age 58 he left us too soon. With astonishingly clarity he foresaw where things were headed. Now that we've arrived at those destinations, we need him more than ever to restore our confidence in frail human decency, to which he tenaciously clung.