Thursday, June 17, 2010

The President's Analyst (1967) — Spy vs. spy, repeat as necessary

A couple of years ago, the New York Film Forum pullquoted me to help promote a public screening of The President's Analyst, a mordant Cold War comic satire starring James Coburn. It was the first time (to my knowledge) that I've been positioned right next to Roger Ebert, and I was extra pleased that it happened with a movie I like this much.

Among the quotes pulled was this one:
"If Philip K. Dick had worked for Mad magazine, he might have come up with The President's Analyst." *
That still works as one of my better examples of cinematic pith, and so here it is again as I rewatch the movie once more. It's a visit to the Favorite Films stack I'm apt to do at least once a year when feeling the urge to see this cast working so well together. That despite the invariable yearning afterward to see them teamed up again, a recurrence that never transpired.

I hold a special affection for, and interest in, movies from the 1960s, and The President's Analyst is every inch a bottle of distilled, carbonated 1967. Its daisy-chain structure pushes Manhattan psychoanalyst Dr. Sidney Schaefer through the "doors of perception" you'd get if the title sequence of TV's Get Smart included a Jim Morrison soundtrack. Coburn plays Schaefer with a wry straight-man comedic prowess that both complements and counterpoints his super-spy spoofery in Our Man Flint ('66) and In Like Flint ('67).

1967 being the year of Sgt. Pepper and Monterey, The President's Analyst played straight to its youth audience. Its impudent counterculture cynicism lampoons the squares and their Cold War tribalism, obsolete values, police-state bureaucracies, and robotic conformity. Schaefer learns that drugs and sex are freeing, and that the running joke we call The Establishment is more neurotic than even Abby Hoffman could have imagined.

In The President's Analyst, the POTUS is "overworked, overtired, overburdened." So the FBI and CIA  join forces (grudgingly) to press Schaefer into service, on call 24/7.

At first the mod, urbane Schaefer is ecstatic at such an august promotion, and the job of unburdening the "great man" is an exhilarating rush.

But soon he discovers that he's been dropped down the rabbit hole into a spy-vs.-spy world of espionage, counter-espionage and counter-counter-espionage, where paranoia really is the most sensible response. After the strain of his top-secret sessions drives him to a nervous breakdown, he flees to the outside world.

Once there, his insights into the president's brain make him the priority target for international abductors and assassins (such as the Canadian Secret Service disguised as a Beatles-like rock group). Worse, the FBI (headed by a sour, morality-obsessed J. Edgar Hoover homunculus) wants the hapless shrink dead in the interests of homeland security.

Schaefer's disorientation and increasingly legitimate paranoia — even his lover Nan (Joan Delaney) isn't what she seems — thrust him from one set piece to another.

If The President's Analyst shows us political and nationalistic loyalties that are malleable, or at least dysfunctional, to the point of being expendable, it shows us something similar about commonplace labels here on the domestic "real America" level.

Schaefer takes refuge with the Quantrills, a self-described "typical American family" of militant "liberals" armed to the teeth against right-wing "fascists" who "ought to be gassed." The father (marvelous William Daniels) boasts that they're for "Negro" rights, yet Mom (Joan Darling) offhandedly calls going out for Chinese food "eating Chink"; Arte Johnson's Dragnet-clone FBI agent reprimands their wire-tapping boy for using such bigoted argot. One minute Mom is asking Schaefer if he reads Gourmet magazine, the next she's delightedly kick-boxing international killers while dead-eye Dad blasts away with his .357 Magnum. Earlier, he admonishes his son Bing to never confuse the family's "car gun" and the "house gun."

I do get a sense that the Quantrills' eager young son has a steady career ahead of him later on:
Bing: "Are you going to kill Dr. Schaefer?"
FBR Agent Sullivan: "Yes, son, we're going to kill him."
Bing (beaming):"Oh, boy!"
Elsewhere Schaefer foils an ocean abduction by turning his psychiatric training against his captor. Pretty soon he's finding his groovy LSD and free-love vibes while on the lam with a band of hippies.

Supporting it all are first-rate performances by Coburn (who gets to chuck his patented sangfroid out the window), Godfrey Cambridge as a CIA agent, and Severn Darden as Cambridge's garrulous, likable Soviet counterpart.

Along with Watermelon Man, this is the finest movie work we have from Cambridge, who had made his name as a stand-up comedian. While posing as one of Dr. Schaefer's patients in the opening scene, his moving soliloquy — recalling an incident of schoolyard racism that occurred when he was five years old — immediately wins us to the side of a character we've just seen impassively stabbing another man through the heart on Seventh Avenue.

Darden's Russian spy, Kropotkin, is likewise an affable and pleasant fellow who's also a cold professional killer. (His proficiency as a spy and assassin comes rooted in Oedipal issues.) Cambridge and Darden have such a pleasurable sporting rivalry that it's a shame they weren't spun off into their own movie.

Darden, in fact, is so appealing and surprising and watchable here that I wish I could point to a shelf-load of other films that gave him co-starring roles as strong as this one. Regrettably, his filmography didn't exactly take off after this, being mostly onesie-twosie TV appearances in the '70s and '80s. Reading about him on the Web, I get the sense that he and Hollywood were not an easy mix, and that he was never better than when on a Chicago comedy stage. (You can see him with Coburn a year earlier in Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round.)

Writer-director Theodore J. Flicker was, like Darden, a foundational alum of Chicago's Compass Players, which later evolved into The Second City improv troupe. Flicker's own award-winning Greenwich Village improv troupe, the Premise, included Cambridge, Darden, and Joan Darling. So if you get the feeling that he's making it up as he goes along, chalk that up to a period modular comedy style à la The Party or The Magic Christian. The scenes beaded together work, some brilliantly, though the whole falls just short of the sum of its parts. But, man, I do love the parts.

The President's Analyst benefits on DVD as multiple viewings reveal Flicker's witty and telling little details that come to light only after you've seen the whole movie. For instance, during the Greenwich Village chase scene (shot largely in front of the venerable Cafe Wha?) as Dr. Schaefer is besieged by an onslaught of attackers, notice in the background the interaction between an assassin and a phone booth. And what's the logo on that van parked outside the Quantrill family home where he hides out and makes a "top secret" call?

Someone defanged a bit of the screenplay's satire; notice that the acronyms "FBI" and "CIA" are ungracefully redubbed as "FBR" and "CEA." Perhaps that was because of how Flicker depicts the two competing intelligence agencies. The FBR mans its forces with deadpan, black-suited, by-the-book drones. While gathered in the drab, stark office of their drab, stark chief, Henry Lux (Walter Burke), they stand at attention in rank-and-file rows and apparently must be no taller than Lux, who bears all the stature of an ugly garden gnome. Meanwhile, the CEA's tall, avuncular director (Eduard Franz) is as calm as a cup of chamomile tea and his recruits lounge in his comfortably appointed office like college poetry students at the feet of their favorite old professor.
CEA Director Ethan Allen Cocket [defending Schaefer's right to keep his live-in girlfriend]: "My dear Mister Lux, no man is an island; most of us require the warmth of human companionship."
FBR Chief Lux [as if he's spitting out a snail]: "Poppycock!"
On his website, Flicker wryly synopsizes this part of his career thusly:

Wrote and Directed "The President's Analyst."
A huge hit!
I was elevated to Hollywood's "A List"

J. Edgar Hoover had "The President's Analyst" removed from the Theaters.

Off the "A List"

Nowadays The President's Analyst comes with a patina of yesteryear kitsch beyond the in-period send-ups Flicker built into it. Of course some of its components are dated, such as the sub-Ken Russell LSD trip and the idyllic hippies. Nonetheless, a scene with Schaefer making love in a field with a flower-power nymphet named Snow White (the fetching Jill Banner), while multinational agents bump off each other trying to nab him first, remains some sort of perfect poetic metaphor.

On the other hand, several prescient elements foreshadow more recent history: manipulative autonomous megacorporations, government surveillance of private citizens, an unsporting rivalry between the CIA and FBI — today all that still glints like newly polished silver. Exchanges such as this...
Soviet agent Kropotkin: "Are you trying to tell me every phone in the country is tapped?"
American agent Masters: "That's what's in my head."
Kropotkin: "Don, this is America, not Russia!"
... now come with a discomfiting Patriot Act freshness. Sure, we laugh, but through clenched teeth. (You know the adage about "The more things change...")

The movie's punch line is both retro and 2010 hip: the insidious supervillain, operating behind the scenes and more powerful than governments, became obsolete in 1984 — but you'll remember its charmingly illustrated master plan next time you upgrade your ever-shrinking cell phone.

(Alert: Big spoilers.)

You know that Schaefer's trained psychoanalytic bearings have been realigned the instant circumstances transform him from an unflappable leather-couch counselor to a machine-gun spraying action hero with his own Die Hard-worthy catchphrase: "Take that, you hostile son of a bitch!"

Setting up the fade-out's sardonic absurdist sight gag, Schaefer essentially "takes the red pill" and stumbles into a demented backstage reality that predates Wachowskian Matrix head games — or Philip K. Dick — by 30-odd years.

Paramount's 2004 DVD of The President's Analyst is a bare-bones disc, but long-time fans of the film still have plenty to be happy about here. The print looks super: vivid and clean, and now it's back in its original Cinemascope widescreen. The audio is excellent in DD 1.0 monaural, giving Lalo Schifrin's musical scoring a clean, crisp presence. During Schaefer's early Manhattan reverie, Schifrin's "Look Up" is the grooviest version of "Joy to the World" in the movies.

Because of problems over music rights, previous home video editions deleted two songs performed on screen, the edits masked by substituted music and trimmed footage. This DVD restores that original music and footage, most memorably "Inner Manipulations" from the hippie songster played by Barry McGuire (whose non-cinematic "Eve of Destruction" remains an Oldies radio fave).

However, this DVD regrettably does not restore (or include as a "deleted scene" extra) a scene that's been missing from every print of The President's Analyst I've seen. The scene, early in the movie, shows us Dr. Schaefer first meeting his soon-to-be lover Nan at an avant-garde underground movie. A few press images from the scene show up with a little Googling:

Cutting that scene may have helped the narrative flow more smoothly or briskly. Or maybe it just didn't work as a scene for some other reason. Including it would provide context to Sidney's exclamation to Nan about his happiness in the random chance of their apparently recent meeting, a meeting that (later scenes demonstrate) likely wasn't as accidental as he believes. Those images seem to have accompanied the initial press packets at the time of the film's release (the center one appeared with Roger Ebert's review, among others), so I wonder if the scene was cut after its initial public screenings.

The DVD's English subtitle option is so thorough that when Severn Darden's agent Kropotkin meets with his boss at the Kremlin, their exchange of authentic Russian dialogue is, only for home viewers with the subtitles turned on, fully translated in the captioning.

There are no "featurettes," retrospective interviews, or other extras, although there sure should be. A commentary track by Flicker would be welcome, yet I get the impression from his website that these days Flicker would rather we remember him as a (very accomplished) sculptor in Santa Fe. "Escape money" is how he describes the success of his TV creation, Barney Miller.

The good news is that a 2008 biopic, Ted Flicker: A Life in Three Acts, goes a long way toward filling that gap, if you can catch it:

* Addendum:
Screenwriter Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, Man on the Moon) adds a fine narration/appreciation to the The President's Analyst's trailer at the website Trailers from Hell. He opens his commentary by noting: "A critic once wrote, 'If Philip K. Dick worked for Mad magazine he might have come up with something like The President's Analyst'." I just friended Mr. Karaszewski on Facebook. His exegesis fills in some behind-the-scenes info I was not aware of when I wrote this post.

Music: Susannah McCorkle, Hearts and Minds
Near at hand: Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio's Stories.