Ken Kesey's 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is one of the bibles of the 1960s counterculture in the U.S., a link between the Beats of the late '50s and the hippies of the late '60s and their shared belief in the fundamental rottenness of the The System. That it would be made into a film of some wort was probably inevitable; that it would be made into a massive financial hit (the second-highest-grossing American film of 1975, after the behemoth Jaws) that won five Oscars at the Academy Awards (the Big Five, too: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay, a cluster only previously won by 1934's It Happened One Night and subsequently by 1991's The Silence of the Lambs) was not inevitable at all: it's easy to imagine a cinematic adaptation of the book coming out in the late '60s, part of the same wave of indie production that led to things like Medium Cool and Easy Rider in 1969, and presumably with the same amount of tangible nervousness that greeted those films.

Technically, the movie version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is an indie production, financed largely by first-time Saul Zaentz out of his own pocket (filtered through his Fantasy Records, a label that made its fortune primarily off of Creedence Clearwater Revival albums), but the landscape in 1975 was much more amenable to this kind of storytelling than 1969, in terms of mainstream respectability if nothing else - hence all those Oscars. "Fuck your society" movies were a lot more acceptable than they had had been just a handful of years earlier, particular so soon after the twin impacts of Richard Nixon's resignation from the presidency and the end of the Vietnam War (and it's worth noting, if not inherently significant, that Cuckoo's Nest was the first Best Picture awarded after the latter event).

We have in front of us, that's all to say, as good an example as you'll ever find of socially acceptable anti-social cinema. For the American industry is nothing if it's not The System, even when it's openly calling out systemic problems. Having never read the book, I cannot say what if any impact this had on it; I do know that Kesey hated the script adapted by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman, and claimed to have never seen the final movie. I also know how I feel about the movie itself, and I will confess to finding its message about rebellious individuals versus authority figures a bit dubious - and it is, in its way, a message movie, which makes it awfully hard not to dwell on that.

The film's story is pretty spare, more focused on its situation than the details of what happen, and that situation is: Randle P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson, in what is probably the peak of "Jack Nicholson" as a concept) has been in prison for assault multiple times, and during his latest stint on a work farm (this time for statutory rape), he's hit on the idea of pretending to be insane, so he can be send to a nice, relaxing mental institution. Upon arriving, he finds life in the institution to be rather unpleasant, run as it is like a soul-crushing machine by Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher), a humorless nurse, and he takes it upon himself to try to spark some life in the patients, encouraging them to demand their rights and dignity. Given the state of mental health hospitals in the early '60s (the film is set in '63, by which time reforms were already beginning that would radically change institutions like this one), it's little surprise that Ratched and the rest of the administration push back against McMurphy, and even though they all know damn well that he's sane, they're more than happy to use his alleged mental illness against him to keep him in line.

The big problem with the film's message is that it can only really function as a metaphor, but the movie seems ready and eager to make sure we read it as strict realism. It's obvious (so, so obvious), that we're meant to take this as a story about the cruel authoritarians who insist that anybody that doesn't fit into society's pre-assigned roles must be imprisoned, punished, and stripped of their humanity, and to view McMurphy as the inspirational rabble-rouser who encourages the patients to rise up against Ratched as a way of reclaiming their lives from The Man. This works as allegory, I suppose, though I'm not sure that it's an especially deep theme; it's basically just "the professional squares want to keep you down, man", and there's no lack of those stories. The bigger problem lies in the shift from broad allegory to specific details, especially the specific detail of McMurpy himself. To be frank, it's hard to take him as a sympathetic hero, as soon as we learn that he's faking mental illness to get out of hard work, and that's without factoring in the crimes he has committed, which are after all not victimless crimes by any stretch of the imagination. He's the kind of charismatic bad boy who could only be made into a likable hero (or found charismatic, for that matter) in a moment where rebellion and anti-authority preening are generally found admirable in and of themselves, regardless of what's being rebelled against, or who's doing the rebelling. He's a creation of a smug artistic attitude, and the smugness is only amplified by casting Nicholson, who can't keep the pleased self-regard out of his performance; he's also too inveigling, too good at bringing us in as co-conspirators with his performance, to create any genuinely dark shading in his performance. The end result of all this is that the film turns into a fairly blunt morality tale about who is good and who is not, rather than a nuanced look at the shortcomings of the mental health industry, or even a terribly sophisticated character study.

Counterbalancing all of that, though: the film is extremely well made, and well-made in ways that patch some of the gaps in the writing. It was the second American feature directed by Miloš Forman, a superstar of the Czech New Wave, who was chosen by producers Zaentz and Michael Douglas primarily on the grounds that he knew a thing or two about the conflict between individual expression and authoritarian regimes. I don't know if that necessarily manifests in the film the way it might with a different director, but Forman directs the hell out of the movie anyway. The big strategy that he brings to bear on the film is to use an uncommon number of close-ups and to frame most of the characters in singles, which has a powerful intensifying effect on the movie. Very nearly all of the film takes the form of dialogue scenes, several of them in the form of group therapy sessions, and there's something truly startling and aggressive in the way that the movie keeps staring intently at the actors' faces, forcing reactions out of them simply by choosing when to cut, or when not to cut, and letting the very interesting faces on display do all the work of leading us into their minds and moods. It's intimate to the point of being almost uncomfortable.

This works in no small part because it's a  hell of a cast. Notwithstanding my concern that Nicholson is a little too much "Jack" at this point in his career, he's still very good, underplaying responses and letting hints of uncool desperation and frustration into his performance in places that I don't think he would be able or willing to after just a few more years. Fletcher is better still, playing her role at an angle to the script's requirement that she be a completely unsympathetic monster: it's not that she subverts that, as such, but rather that she takes the character seriously as a medical professional who genuinely believes that she's doing the right thing, given a foundation of knowledge that was already heading to the trashpile of history in 1963 and looked downright barbaric in 1975. But she doesn't delight in her wickedness; she simply doesn't understand why someone from the outside would perceive her very dedicated, by-the-books strictness to be cruel. This is far more nuanced than the script quite knows what to do with - the message needs her to enjoy power for power's sake, and while Fletcher doesn't banish that, she refuses to make it the only read on Ratched's ill temper. At any rate, it adds complexities that the scenario needs.

And even still, she's not as strong as some of the actors who make up the patients of the ward, a jam-packed ensemble of character actors. It was an early showcase for Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito, Vincent Schiavelli, and Brad Dourif; among the less-known names, it was a major springboard for Sydney Lassick and the first major role Will Sampson, who became one Hollywood's go-to Native Americans before his premature death in 1987, while it was the last performance released during the life of William Redfield. And Michael Berryman also shows up in a small role that mostly just takes advantage of the fact that he looks like Michael Berryman. Even if you don't know all those names without looking them up, that translates to an extraordinary quantity of talent, much of it brand-new to cinemas. While it's fair to say that the script doesn't give most of these people much of anything to do - DeVito and Lloyd are mostly getting reaction shots, Lassick plays the same kind of freak-out scene over and over again, and Sampson is basically just used as a prop for the first two-thirds of the movie - just having people who've thought that much about how movie and inhabit space in front of the camera without  feeling like they're playing mental illness as a kind of cartoon does a great deal to ground the film in a kind of shaggy realism that works well with Forman's approach.

The other major source of realism is the cinematography, largely completed by the great Haskell Wexler until Forman replaced him with Bill Butler, fresh from the grueling Jaws shoot. Exactly how much of the film is Butler's isn't a matter of public record, to my knowledge, but Wexler certainly shot the lion's share of the movie (he claimed all but a few minutes of the onscreen footage), and its visual approach lies right within his sensibility. It's a scruffy-looking movie, that's absolutely swimming in grain, and it exemplifies the "everything's kind of brown" look of '70s American cinema as well as any other single title I could name. It's a documentary-like visual approach that meshes well with the directing and acting to knock the last little bit off rhetorical staginess from the screenplay, giving the film a raw and immediate look that still manages to be crafted in a way that guides our attention, rather than just spewing footage at us. It's maybe the film that best typifies Wexler's style, direct and present and physical, and while I would never call it my favorite one of his films (even discounting his half of the gorgeous Days of Heaven as basically extremely high-end hack work, there's still 1976's Bound for Glory), it is maybe the single best argument I have seen for what his characteristic style could bring to a movie, something with a live-wire presence that's still not quite "realism" in its most generic form.

Add in Jack Nietszche's at times wonderfully startling music, including a main theme played on a bowed saw, creating a mixture of the eerily discordant and the cozily down-home right at the start of the movie, and thus giving it an aura of otherworldly tension, and the thing is a pretty impressive piece of craftsmanship, with everything working tightly together to bring the script to life to greatest impact. That I am rather dubious of that script's intentions does not detract from that, nor make the film any less driven and watchable at a tight 133 minutes. I still can't quite explain why it was such a big financial success - it's still a downbeat film in an extremely dour setting - but there's no denying that it has a magnetic, galvanising quality.