Sunday, November 9, 2008

Morality is a Social Invention

A lot of people had a fear that there would be nonsense going on during the election, possibly resulting in it being stolen. As we all know, it’s happened before and though it didn’t happen this time that doesn’t mean there won’t be the same fears at some point in the future. This element of paranoia was fresh in my mind as I watched THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST, made in 1967 and still a little pertinent today in its portrayal of dueling governments, secrets and who might have the power behind who has the power. It’s very much of its time so it’s pretty dated, but so what? Enough of the themes and ideas come across that it’s still pretty relevant even if things seem to have worked out ok this time.

Dr. Sidney Schaefer (James Coburn) is chosen to be the President’s personal analyst. He and girlfriend Nan (Joan Delaney) are placed in a beautiful Georgetown house and Schaefer is required to be on call for the President (never seen by the audience) at all possible hours. While at first he loves the assignment, soon it begins to wear down on him and everything he learns in his sessions only increases his extreme feelings of paranoia. He attempts to make a break for it, but he soon learns that it’s nearly impossible to escape when virtually everyone around him is in on it.

A cinematic expression of the belief that, yes, you are paranoid and they really are out to get you, THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST has such a broad, comical tone that it can be easy to miss just how subversive it really is. The off kilter tone comes in right from the start with a disclaimer telling us that what we’re about to see is has not been made with the consent or cooperation of the “FBR” or the “CEA”, the two main government agencies represented here. It’s more surprising to learn that the film apparently used the names of the actual agencies, until they were forced to change it, but the names ultimately used to fit with the movie’s bizarre tone. Very soon after the credits we see a patient visiting Coburn played by Godfrey Cambridge. He launches into a heartbreaking monologue about something that happened during his childhood, extremely well-played by the actor, before throwing a wrench into the works by telling the doctor why he’s really there. If the story is true, and it probably is, it’s just about the only serious thing any character says to Coburn in the course of the film and even his reasons for telling him weren’t entirely honest. And does it matter anyway? After this opening, it becomes difficult to trust anything that anyone says to Coburn, something it seems to take him a little while longer to figure out. Everyone everywhere is in on it in one form or another in THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST, making it difficult to talk about the plot without going into spoiler territory. One of the more clever things about the film is that the paranoia that Coburn feels almost seems to kick in before you’d expect it to, so it’s already in full gear before you even realize it (Lalo Schifrin's score is a big help). When Coburn goes on the run in the second half it loses a little of the momentum for me—one section has him hiding out with a Grateful Dead-like band as various assassins close in on him and begins to veer into Blake Edwards territory which doesn’t really feel like it fits (we hear some good songs, though). It’s not the best stuff in the film, but things pick up again as we begin to learn who and what is really behind everything. It results in a good joke that, again, may be slightly dated but its examinations of privacy, technology, depersonalization and the people behind the fronts they work for are still relevant to the present day. It also displays that you should never trust a phone booth in the middle of nowhere. Written and directed by Theodore J. Flicker who mostly worked in television (I recognized that name from the credits of a million BARNEY MILLER episodes), the tone is more biting than other Coburn spoofs from around the same time, particularly the Flint movies which I always wish I liked more than I do. It’s the rare spy spoof from the period that actually seems to have something serious to say underneath all the weirdness. It would probably work well on a double bill with William Richert’s WINTER KILLS, an even more darkly comic descent into government paranoia which has some surprising similarities to ANALYST.

It’s too bad that the film isn’t better known but the unusual Scope compositions probably looked terrible on TV—nearly every scene has something to look at which adds to our paranoia. There’s also some terrific location work, particularly in New York and Washington. Coburn goes up to the torch of the Statue of Liberty in a striking helicopter shot and when he arrives in D.C. the production makes use of the unusual architecture of Dulles Airport (I’ve always liked that place) as well as its mobile lounges and, by making it totally devoid of extras, makes the location look absolutely science fiction. Coburn is terrific, playing someone who seems to be on his own wavelength right from the start and maybe the only person any of us can trust. I’ve rarely seen that toothy grin of his get this much of a workout. Cambridge, right from his first scene, seems to be doing more with the part than what seems to be there and character actor Severn Darden, whose screen presence is sometimes a little too eccentric, gives one of his most complete performances as a Russian who figures into the conspiracy Coburn is running from. Pat Harrington, familiar from ONE DAY AT A TIME of course, has a key role near the end.

THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST isn’t deep. It accepts its vast array of paranoia as a given and maybe even necessary for us to stay alert and stay aware of those pulling the strings. It’s even possible that is says more about the present day than may be clear. When James Coburn gets his assignment at the film’s beginning, thrilled, he goes for an impossibly lengthy jaunt around New York City as the most impossibly upbeat, cheesy song plays (possibly by composer Lalo Schifrin, but the credits are unclear). As Coburn goes up to Lady Liberty’s torch, allowing for that amazing helicopter shot, it reminds me that some of us may be feeling some of that cheerfulness this week. But after seeing what happens in THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST, it reminds me that we should stay alert. Because, as always, you never know who’s watching.


Beveridge D. Spenser said...

I've got nothing much to say about this movie except how right you are - I can't believe so few people know about it.

The coolness of James Coburn meditating on the gong. His descent from elation to twitchy paranoia. The ordinary suburban square housewife whose kung-fu classes save the day. The sweet hippies who he hides out with (and the groovy music they play). And the fiendishness of the arch-villains in TPC!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I love that gong! I love how paranoid he gets! I love that music! It's a very cool movie. Glad you like it as well.