Rex Harrison in Doctor Dolittle
  • Rex Harrison in Doctor Dolittle

A week and a half ago I got doored while riding my bike. Apart from my bike’s frame I didn’t break or fracture anything, though I was sufficiently bruised for the ER doctor to prescribe six days’ worth of hydrocodone. I spent most of those days asleep and was still woozy for several days after that. To my pleasant surprise, though, I found this made at least one movie I had to watch for work seem more tolerable than I would have thought otherwise. (I’m not saying which.) One effect of hydrocodone, I learned, is that it renders pretty much every story a bedtime story. When you’re on your back, there’s something oddly soothing about seeing other people play at fiction for your enjoyment—it’s a bit like having someone read to you.

When I was taking the maximum dosage allowed, I wasn’t able to appreciate the finer points of anything I watched (and since I wasn’t getting out of bed much and reading was giving me a headache, I was watching plenty). Conversely, I found myself more responsive to movies painted in broader strokes: Brian De Palma’s Greetings and Raising Cain, Alex de la Iglesia’s As Luck Would Have It, Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai’s Love on a Diet. It’s easy to pay attention to these films, with their flamboyant (but not grating or overloud, at least to this viewer) performances and camerawork, which feels encouraging when it’s hard to pay attention to much of anything for two hours at a time.

Sammi Cheng and Andy Lau in Love on a Diet
  • Sammi Cheng and Andy Lau in Love on a Diet

One of the few times I left the house while under the influence of hydrocodone was to see Doctor Dolittle on 70-millimeter at the Music Box. As a recent convert to the cult of director Richard Fleischer, I couldn’t pass up the chance to see on a big screen how he used 70-millimeter, even though I hadn’t met anyone since grade school who actually liked the film. If I conked out during the show, so be it. I wouldn’t be the first person to fall asleep during Doctor Dolittle, likely one of the most plodding children’s films after Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (which I made the mistake of attending during the Music Box’s last 70-millimeter series). I was also interested in Fleischer’s compositional sensibility, which I wouldn’t have to see the whole movie in order to appreciate.

In that regard, Doctor Dolittle didn’t disappoint. Fleischer demonstrates such intelligence in his use of wide-screen—not only in how he distributes people across the frame, but in how he establishes multiple planes of action to create a spectacle as deep as it is wide. I was most impressed by the sequences set around the pier of Dolittle’s hometown, in which one can see people walking towards the camera from hundreds of yards away, in addition to the hilly horizon beyond. These shots communicate a vivid sense of real space largely absent from the computer-modified Hollywood blockbusters of today. In some ways a proto-Steven Soderbergh, Fleischer was a chameleonic director whose most consistent talent was his precision in realizing his films’ settings. It might sound improbable or downright perverse that Fleischer would follow up Dolittle with The Boston Strangler—that is, until you compare the films’ densely packed wide-screen frames and the specificity of detail in scenes set in medical offices.

If it hadn’t been for the 70-millimeter presentation, I likely would have failed to recognize the specific details of Doctor Dolittle while woozy from pain pills. By the same token, if it weren’t for the pain pills, I likely wouldn’t have made it through any of Leslie Bricusse’s songs—or, for that matter, the film’s glaring and unpardonable racism.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.