Thursday, January 7, 2016

The President's Analyst

In Theodore Flicker's amiable The President's Analyst, James Coburn grins to beat the band and his pearly white choppers, at once menacing and comically equine, are a special effect on par with Raquel Welch's breasts or Jennifer Lopez' buttocks.  Coburn has the longest, whitest teeth of any Hollywood actor on record and, when he shows them to the camera, the audience registers a kind of jovial aggression -- although Coburn has a stallion's teeth, his face is vaguely simian and, when he grins, it is like an alpha-male gorilla or chimp protecting his territory and harem of females.  Coburn lopes through The President's Analyst with nonchalant ease and he is nothing less than charming as a leading man -- like many great natural film actors, he seems to be doing nothing most of the time, but you can't keep your eyes off him.  And in this 1967 film, Coburn plays a man gradually going mad:  the hero is in the grips of late sixties-style paranoia of the kind given most brilliantly exemplified by Thomas Pynchon's novels from that time period.  As a madman, Coburn hams it up, rolling his eyes, or darting them in all directions so as to better survey his surroundings for the assassins of all races and nationalities pursuing him.  Coburn mimes the kind of paranoia that animated various novels and TV shows of the period and his performance exemplifies the so-called "paranoid style" that seized American culture around the time of the debacle in Vietnam.  Accordingly, if nothing else, The President's Analyst is an interesting document of its era.

The film's premise is that the unnamed (and always off-screen) president of the United States is staggering under the weight of his international responsibilities.  A covert organization modeled on the CIA hires Coburn, a prominent Park Avenue analyst, to provide psychiatric counseling to the president.  Summoned to the White House at all hours of the night and day, Coburn's character rapidly becomes paranoid, correctly suspecting that he is being tailed by various sinister agencies of the Federal government, including the FBI under the malign leadership of the tiny, but charismatically vicious, Walter Burke (he plays Lux the head of an agency like the FBI -- Lux was once a brand-name of a vacuum cleaner like Hoover, get it?)  Exhausted and lonely -- Coburn's flower-child girlfriend is spying on him and they have been separated because the analyst talks in his sleep -- the hero flies the coop, escaping Washington D. C. with a posse of assassins of various nationalities and political affiliations pursuing him.  At first, he hides with a family of left-wing vigilantes (!?) and gun enthusiasts that he meets when he joins a public tour of the White House and slips out of town -- the Quantrill's, as the suburbanites from New Jersey are named, are heavily armed and dangerous:  when the Soviet and Cuban spies come to capture the Analyst, they blithely gun them down in the streets of Soho.  The analyst flees to the country with a rock-and-roll band (reportedly the Grateful Dead was tapped for this role but demurred).  The hero meets another sexually voracious flower child and, while making love to her in a meadow, remains blissfully unaware that four or five assassins, equipped with exotic, silent weapons, are killing one another a few feet from their love-nest in their competition to kidnap him.  Ultimately, the analyst falls prey to the most sinister organization of them all, the telephone company, and the movie's last fifteen minutes spiral into science fiction -- Ma Bell is planning to insert phones in everyone's brain via transmitters injected into the carotid artery.  The phone company scenes are the most memorable parts of the film.  Bell Telephone presents its nefarious schemes in a chatty, cheerful little documentary that is a pitch-perfect parody of the sort of high-gloss scientific documentaries that I recall watching in 8th grade -- movies with clever colorful animation and jazz soundtracks extolling the virtues of GE's research and development or Bell Telephone's laboratories.  After a James Bond style shoot-out at the end of the film, the Soviet Agent and his American counterpart, memorably played by the great comic, Godfrey Cambridge, meet at Coburn's house with his spacy girlfriend, all order restored since the phone company's sinister plot has been foiled -- as the friends open bottles of champagne to celebrate, the screen suddenly becomes a TV monitor and we see that a crowd of robot-executives, each plugged into a teleport, is watching the festivities from Ma Bell's headquarters.  I recall seeing the movie when I was in ninth or tenth grade and being immensely impressed, particularly by the pastiche of the educational films to which we had been subjected in junior high school.  Alas, the film is not as complex, witty, or imaginative as I remembered it.  However, it is a movie that I once greatly admired and that I am happy that I have now seen it again in my old age. 

Theodor Flicker was a TV director, primarily known for the pilots of shows like I Dream of Jeanie and Bewitched.  He is capable, slick, and the film is efficiently made.  Flicker is very good with character actors and, for those nostalgic for the TV shows of the late sixties, the movie is a kind of museum of people that you will recognize but whose names you can't recall.  The film is clearly influenced by the model of Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and imitates that movie's Mad Magazine esthetic.  The jazz soundtrack by Lalo Schifrin is also characteristic of the time.  The female characters are all kooky and have enormous eyes -- they are all fantastically pretty but insubstantial.  Flicker was a man who admired the Rat Pack and his portraits of rock and roll characters are clearly insulting parodies -- he obviously can't understand why people were making a fuss about the Beatles (in fact, he has derides longhaired moppets in the film that he calls the Liverpudlians).  Accordingly, the movie is an instructive mixture of the ultra-cool esthetic of bebop jazz (with a little admixture of Sinatra-style machismo -- Coburn looks fantastic in his tailored three-piece suits) and super-square failure to grasp the meaning of the youth revolution that was, then, in its nascent stages.  The film also has a little of the grotesque flair of Lindsay Anderson's If... and O Lucky Man -- I think it predates the latter film by four or five years.  Flicker shifts in a dizzying way between different moods -- an opening sequence in which Godfrey Chamberlain, a patient of the analyst, confesses how he first discovered that he is Black is exceptionally painful, powerful and moving.  But it has nothing to do with the rest of the film.  For most of the movie, the picture oscillates between Laugh-In style satire -- Arte Johnson is in the film -- and Bond (or Our Man Flint to cite the spy films starring Coburn)  mayhem.  Ultimately, The President's Analyst is not a very good movie, but it has some remarkable features and anything from this era featuring James Coburn is eminently watchable. 

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